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Roger Deakins’ Record Shot at Oscar Glory

With his Oscar nomination for Denis Villeneuve’s “Blade Runner 2049,” cinematographer Roger Deakins moved past legendary lenser George J. Folsey (“Executive Suite,” “Meet Me in St. Louis”) as the most-nominated director of photography in history to never win the gold (14 nominations and counting). Of course, the “Blade Runner” bid is still pending, so that status could finally change on March 4. But Deakins’ consistent presence on the circuit brings with it a persistent question: What will it take for one of the most celebrated artists in the industry to finally get his due on Hollywood’s biggest night?

For his part, Deakins isn’t the least bit fazed by his ongoing bad luck with the Academy. “Oh, you know, I’m too old for all of that,” he told Variety in a recent interview. “What you do doesn’t change. The fun is doing it.”

Fair enough, but for such an influential craftsman to have gone unrecognized for so long remains one of the big awards-season curiosities.

Part of the problem is that so many of Deakins’ nominations have come for films that weren’t widely embraced by the Academy. It’s rare for the cinematography prize to go to a film not nominated for best picture — not that Deakins hasn’t had more shots on goal than many of his contemporaries; five of his 14 notices have come for best picture nominees, and one of them, “No Country for Old Men,” won the big prize. (Incidentally, Deakins was a dual nominee that year, recognized for “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” as well.)

Another note is that the Oscar ballot does not list the names of the craftspeople nominated for categories like best cinematography. It only lists the film. Some would argue that, had his name ever graced a ballot, Deakins would surely be an Oscar winner by now.

The DP’s first nomination came for Frank Darabont’s 1994 Stephen King adaptation “The Shawshank Redemption.” Making that movie was a struggle, Deakins recalled when digging into his career highlights in an interview a few years ago. “The main interior of the cell block was actually a set we built in a warehouse, and it was difficult to light,” he said at the time. “I got a lot of pushback about how many lights I needed to make it work.”

Later he received what he considers one of the greatest compliments of his career when he overheard some chatter about the movie at the American Society of Cinematographers Clubhouse in Hollywood. “There was a conversation going on with a couple of very well-known cinematographers, and one said, ‘Yeah, ‘Shawshank,’ it’s wonderful photography, but I wouldn’t vote for it because it’s all natural light.’ I just laughed.”

“For such an influential craftsman to have gone unrecognized for so long remains one of the big awards-season curiosities.”

Five of Deakins’ nominations have come for Coen brothers collaborations (“Fargo,” “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” “The Man Who Wasn’t There” and “True Grit” in addition to “No Country.”) But his ongoing partnership with Villeneuve is becoming almost as prolific on the circuit; Deakins picked up Oscar notices for “Prisoners” and “Sicario” prior to “Blade Runner 2049.”

Will the sci-fi sequel finally be his ticket to the Dolby Theatre stage? We’ve been here before, asking this same question. And there are formidable contenders standing in his way this time, namely three best picture players (“Darkest Hour,” “Dunkirk” and “The Shape of Water”) along with Rachel Morrison, the first female nominee, having a shot at also becoming the first female winner, for “Mudbound.”

First things first, though: The 32nd annual ASC Awards will be held Feb. 17. That ceremony is old-hat for Deakins by now; he already has three wins there to his credit. But could a fourth finally be an Oscar harbinger? Again, we’ve been here before, but droughts like this have to end eventually.

Right?

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