News Column

Why Do Oscar Voters Hate Steven Spielberg?

Feb 20, 2013

Rick Press, Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Steven Spielberg

The clock ticks past 1 a.m. on a Wednesday, and I am still wide awake.

Saving Private Ryan is on HBO, and, despite the fact that I have an early meeting the next day, I can't turn off the TV. Each scene is more riveting than the last.

When Tom Hanks' Capt. Miller finally reveals that he's a high school English teacher, only to keep two of his frayed-nerve soldiers from killing each other, I exhale audibly. "What a great freakin' movie." I am stunned by the emotional shrapnel it still unleashes.

And then, I wonder: "How in the world did Shakespeare in Love beat Saving Private Ryan for the Best Picture Oscar in 1999?!?"

Surely director Steven Spielberg has had the same haunting notion running through his brain for the past 14 years. It's one of those Oscar injustices that's impossible to forget.

At the time, I remember being tickled by the colossal upset: A confectionary romantic comedy stuns the camo-and-blood-soaked World War II masterpiece? How about that: The Academy can still surprise us.

Shakespeare in Love was not exactly an Adam Sandler movie. It won seven Oscars, but for Spielberg, who took home the Best Director award as a consolation prize, the loss had to be a stark reminder that Hollywood secretly hates him for being so talented. For having it both ways -- being a box office big shot and a critics' darling. How else do you explain that the most influential filmmaker of the past 30 years only has three Academy Awards (Best Director and Picture for Schindler's List and Best Director for Ryan)?

Perhaps it's punishment for his populist beginning. Jaws and Jurassic Park shattered box office records but didn't add up to Oscar gold. In 1982, E.T. warmed America's hearts, but Oscar voters gave it the cold shoulder, anointing Ghandi, a movie that I'm fairly sure nobody has watched since then.

Spielberg's close-but-no-cigar Oscar narrative continued for years with classics like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Raiders of the Lost Ark earning Best Director nods but no wins.

He immersed himself in pure drama with 1985's The Color Purple, but the film, based on Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, was snubbed on an epic scale, losing all 11 Academy Awards it was nominated for. Spielberg himself didn't even get a director nomination. Oy.

When he finally did win for Schindler's List (Best Director and Best Picture) in 1994, it took a Holocaust story so stark, gut-wrenching and beautifully realized that even the haters couldn't vote no.

Since then, Spielberg has racked up respect and regular nominations but very little hardware. And now Lincoln, another of his passion projects, could be heading for a familiar crushing defeat at this year's ceremony Sunday night.

Lincoln is a compelling, fully realized historical drama featuring an amazing performance by Daniel Day-Lewis, and became the early Oscar favorite, earning 12 nominations . But lately, its creator has had to stand by, stone-faced, as Argo has stolen much of its momentum. David O. Russell ( Silver Linings Playbook) and Ang Lee ( Life of Pi) are drawing the most chatter in the director's category, and Argo or Zero Dark Thirty seem poised to battle it out for Best Picture.

A Lincoln loss might not rival the Shakespeare in Love shocker of 1999, but it would show that the academy's Spielberg bias is alive and well.

Argo is a taut political thriller, but it lacks the ambition and pure filmmaking genius of Lincoln. Like Saving Private Ryan, Lincoln will stand the test of time, while I doubt that Argo will.

Another injustice for Steven Spielberg, who has been so good for so long -- he found success in his early 30s and hasn't hit a creative crater since -- that it has become too easy to overlook him. In the end, he'll have to settle for billions in the bank, a slew of nominations, standing ovations and the eternal gratitude of this insomniac.



Source: (c)2013 the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Distributed by MCT Information Services.


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