The morning of the Oscar nominations, the Academy’s final selections in the directing category caught the pundits and public alike by surprise. Preoccupied with the oversights, the conversation focused on the snubs: No Ben Affleck, no Kathryn Bigelow. “Les Mis” fans wondered where Tom Hooper was, while auteurists questioned the absence of Paul Thomas Anderson and Quentin Tarantino.
But such talk seems to be looking at the glass from the wrong direction, obsessed with what was left out, instead of celebrating what a diverse mix of backgrounds the nominees include (in nearly all respects except gender). In short, everybody who comes from one of the constituencies represented by the ballot got great news this month:
1. The Ultimate Studio Director
It doesn’t get any more establishment than Steven Spielberg, the great populist who invented the blockbuster, started a studio and tied John Ford for having directed nine best picture nominees (so far). If Tinseltown printed its own currency, it would put his face, not Lincoln’s, on the $5 bill. To include his name on the ballot is not only to recognize the pinnacle of what anyone working within the system can achieve, but to encourage those who find ways to balance personal vision with commercial concerns — as the maestro did with “Lincoln.”
2. The International Man of Mystery
Lauded for his work on “Life of Pi,” Ang Lee represents the outsider who became an industry fixture. Born in Taiwan, educated at NYU and responsible for bringing both a Western sensibility to exotic material (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) and an outsider’s eye to American stories (“Brokeback Mountain”), he symbolizes the foreigner Hollywood is proud to consider its own. From Milos Forman to Roman Polanski, such helmers are by no means uncommon in Oscar history and remind that many of the industry’s greats immigrated from abroad.
3. The Strict European Auteur
A year after honoring a French helmer with its top honor (“The Artist’s” Michel Hazanavicius), the Academy chose to recognize another international talent. Except Michael Haneke may as well be the anti-Hazanavicius. Rather than aspiring to work in Hollywood, Haneke does things his way, carrying on the rigorous intellectual tradition of Bergman and Antonioni (both past Oscar nominees). His nom for “Amour” announces that if you make a good enough movie, regardless of language, the Academy will notice.
4. The Independent Maverick
David O. Russell has worked both inside and out of the studio system, though few directors have preserved their independence so successfully. He reps the way Hollywood looks to the indie domain for fresh voices, wooing freethinkers into the system. That mix of sensibilities is what makes “Silver Linings Playbook” special: It blends classic screwball comedy with Russell’s honest view of human nature. Those slighted that Christopher Nolan wasn’t nommed should find solace in this fellow Sundance alum’s success.
5. The Cinderella Story
It doesn’t get any more independent than “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” a ragged yet resilient fable made virtually off the grid by first-time feature director Benh Zeitlin and a bunch of non-union, mostly unknown collaborators. Such debuts don’t come along very often (only six first-timers have won), yet they prove that exceptional work excites the Academy, regardless of where it comes from. It suggests to all those visionaries toiling in obscurity, testing the boundaries and reinventing the language, Oscar holds a place for you, too.