DGA Awards 2021: Chloe Zhao and Nomadland Take Top Honor

Is Oscar Race Over? DGA Awards: Chloe Zhao and Nomadland Take Top Honor


Frances McDormand Nomadland


Lesli Linka Glatter and Susanna Fogel won in the dramatic and comedy series categories.

The 2021 Directors Guild Awards took place Saturday, with winners announced in numerous film and TV categories.

Like many other awards shows over the past year, the DGA Awards is occurred virtually, with members watching the proceedings unfold via streaming video.

DGA president Thomas Schlamme opened the event by acknowledging the unusual conditions of the pandemic awards season. “Storytelling prevailed,” Schlamme said, speaking from inside the guild’s theater on Sunset Boulevard. “Your work provided comfort and escape to audiences… and we overcame the daunting task of getting our industry back to work.”

Chloé Zhao became the first woman of color to win the DGA’s feature directing prize, cementing the Nomadland filmmaker as a frontrunner in the Oscar race and breaking open one of the industry’s most notoriously male-dominated guild awards.

In a brief and humble speech, the Chinese director talked entirely about her fellow nominees, thanking them “for teaching me so much.”

The other nominees were Minari‘s Lee Isaac Chung, Promising Young Woman‘s Emerald Fennell, Mank‘s David Fincher and Trial of the Chicago 7‘s Aaron Sorkin.

The DGA for the first time nominated two women, Zhao and Fennell, in its feature directing category. Zhao is also the first woman of color nominated in the feature director category. Additionally two women — Radha Blank and Regina King — were nominated in the first-time feature film director category.

In TV, the guild handed out a number of nominations to female directors, including one to the late Lynn Shelton for her work on Little Fires Everywhere.

Like most of this year’s awards shows, the DGA’s event had a more casual feel than typical years. “Oh come on, that’s crazy!” said Darius Marder, who won the first-time feature directing award for Amazon Studios’s Sound of Metal. Marder thanked the deaf community in Boston where he filmed the Riz Ahmed movie and singled out his fellow nominees in his speech. “I raise a plastic hotel cup to you guys,” he said, noting, of his telecast Zoom shot,  “I’ve got my iPhone propped on a boot sitting on a Kleenex box.”

Nominees in the first-time feature category included The Forty-Year-Old Version‘s Blank, I’m No Longer Here‘s Fernando Frías de la Parra, One Night in Miami‘s King and The Father‘s Florian Zeller.

Apart from the socially distanced format, other reminders of COVID-19 surfaced throughout the show, as when Lesli Linka Glatter, who won the dramatic series directing prize for Showtime’s Homeland, acknowledged standing behind her, “my whole, completely vaccinated director team” and when presenter Dee Rees shouted out people who had spent the pandemic baking sourdough.

Some winners took the opportunity to make a point about larger cultural issues in their acceptance speeches, with Schlamme talking about voting rights after his win in the variety specials category for HBO Max’s A West Wing Special to Benefit When We All Vote. After winning the commercial directing award for her Beats by Dr. Dre spot, “You Love Me,” Melina Matsoukas thanked the headphones brand for “standing by and for Black people. Thank you for recognizing the culture… when so many others will not.”

The DGA feature nominees often heavily overlap with the Film Academy’s choices in the directing category, with typically at least four of the five contenders repeating in the Oscar nominations.

Indeed, this year, all of the theatrical feature film nominees, except for Aaron Sorkin, earned best director Oscar Fifteen of the last 17 winners of the DGA’s top award have gone on to win the Oscar.

Last year, 1917‘s Sam Mendes won the DGA’s feature-film award before losing the best director Oscar to fellow DGA nominee, Parasite‘s Bong Joon Ho.

After winning the best documentary directing category for Sony Classics’s The Truffle Hunters, director Michael Dweck even remembered to thank the film’s many truffle hunting dogs by name.

Fellow nominees were My Octopus Teacher (Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed), Welcome to Chechnya (David France), Boys State (Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss) and The Painter and the Thief (Benjamin Ree).

In comedy, Ted Lasso and Curb Your Enthusiasm each scored two nominations. The fifth nominee in the comedy series category was Susanna Fogel, who won the award for The Flight Attendant.

Drama series nominees included Jason Bateman for Ozark, Jon Favreau for The Mandalorian, Vince Gilligan for Better Call Saul and Julie Anne Robinson for Bridgerton.

Scott Frank won in the limited series and TV movie category for The Queen’s Gambit, with the nominees including Susanne Bier for The Undoing, Thomas Kail for Hamilton and Matt Shakman for WandaVision and Shelton.

There were moments of seriousness as well. In accepting the DGA’s honorary life member award, renowned director and past DGA president Paris Barclay, who is African American, noted that the award was first given to D.W. Griffith, who directed the white supremacist 1915 silent film The Birth of a Nation: “That says a lot about how far this guild has come in just a few short generations.”

Elsewhere in the non-competitive awards, DGA secretary-treasurer Betty Thomas received the 2021 Robert B. Aldrich Service Award. Unit production manager Brian E. Frankish was given this year’s Frank Capra Achievement Award and associate director Joyce Thomas received the Franklin J. Schaffner Achievement Award.

At the end of the night, Schlamme expressed relief that the event had unfolded without any technical problems. “The best part,” he said, “You don’t have to drive home.”