Oscar 2010: Best Directors–Age, Achievement, Recognition

Much has been made of the fact that the directors of the most high-profile films this season are relatively young, or middle-age.

Tom Hopper (“The King’s Speech”) is in his late 30s, Darren Aronofsky (“Black Swan”) is 40, David Fincher (“The Social Network”) is 48, David O. Russell (“The Fighter”) is 52, and Danny Boyle (“127 Hours”) is 54.
With vet filmmakers like Clint Eastwood (“Hereafter”), Scorsese (“ShutterIsland”) and Roman Polanski (“The Ghost Writer”) out of the race, we reach the point in film history where Joel and Ethan Cohen (“True Grit”) are on the older side.
The relationship between age and achievement, peer recognition and social reputation are some of the more significant issues in the sociology of art, including the sociology of film.
How old are filmmakers when they get their first Oscar nomination? At what phase of their careers they tend to win the industry’s most coveted award? Does the nomination (and/or Oscar) represent their best work? 
The Oscar Award is by no means the best or most accurate barometer for gauging directorial careers. Yet it can serve as a rough measure of artistic accomplishment–or at least of a filmmaker’s degree of acceptance within the industry.     
Do the Oscar directors, winners and nominees, represent the most distinguished filmmakers in the American cinema? Possibly so, if you’re willing to accept a wide margin of error. 
Year after year, the L.A. Film Critics Association has been singling out for its career achievement award gifted directors who, for one reason or another, have never been nominated for an Oscar, like Don Siegel, Budd Boetticher, Arthur Penn.     
The Oscar contest is, of course, both artistic and political, and many “irrelevant” or “extra-artistic considerations play a role in the nomination process and especially in final balloting. Even so, it may be “safer” and more accurate to examine the nominated directors rather than the ultimate winners. 
The following conclusions are based on a career survey of all Oscar-nominated directors, from 1929 to the present.
Young prodigies: John Singleton and Orson Welles
It’s unusual for filmmakers to receive Academy recognition before they reach the age of 30. 
In 1991, John Singleton (Boyz ‘N the Hood), 23, became the youngest director–and the first African-American–in Oscar’s history to garner a nomination. 
Prior to that, the record was held by Orson Welles, who was 26 when nominated for “Citizen Kane” as director (as well as co-screenwriter and actor).
Directors in their 20s
Only four directors were nominated while in their twenties: Frank Perry (David and Lisa), Claude Lelouche (A Man and a Woman), George Lucas (American Graffiti), and Kenneth Branagh (Henry V). 
Among Oscar winners, the youngest directors to have received a nomination are Steven Spielberg (“Close Encounters of the Third Kind”), who was 31; Norman Taurog (“Skippy”), Lewis Milestone (“Two Arabian Knights”) and Francis Ford Coppola (“The Godfather,” 1972), 33. 
Francis Coppola
After losing the directorial contest to Bob Fosse (“Cabaret”) in 1972, Coppola won the Oscar two years later, for “The Godfather, Part II.”
Sofia Coppola
Coppola’s daughter, Sofia, was even luckier than her father, when she earned her first Director nomination at the young age of 32 for “Lost in Translation” (2003). She thus joined the select group of women who have been nominated for an Oscar in this category. 
By the way, the first female winner ever was Kathryn Bigelow, in 2009, who was honored for the Iraq War film, “The Hurt Locker,” at the age of 58.
Milestone, Taurog and William Friedkin (“The French Connection”) all won Oscars at their first nominations, but Coppola and Spielberg had to bide their time. 
As for Spielberg, he was not so lucky. Consistently snubbed by his peers, he had to wait 16 years until he finally won the coveted prize, at his fourth nomination, for Schindler’s List, age 46. 
His colleague and friend, Martin Scorsese, had to take an even longer breath before finally winning the Director Oscar in 2006, for “The Departed.” He had just turned 64, which makes him the second oldest winning helmer; George Cukor (“My Fair Lady”), the previous record holder, was 65.
More significantly, it was Scorsese’s sixth nomination, in a lengthy process that began in 1980, when he was first nominated for “Raging Bull,” arguably his best film to date. “Taxi Driver” was nominated for the 1976 Best Picture Oscar, but Scorsese was denied a director nomination from his peers at the Directors Branch.
George Cukor
That the first nomination is a more precise measure than the actual award in evaluating artistic attainment and peer recognition is clear in the case of George Cukor. Cukor was first acknowledged by the Academy in 1933, at 34, for The Little Women, but he had to wait three decades–and 4 additional nominations–until he won for “My Fair Lady, “at 65, thus becoming the oldest winner in his category. Boasting one of Hollywood‘s longest and most viable careers, Cukor made his swan song, Rich and Famous at 82. But there’s no doubt that he did his best work in the l930s and l940s, and the Academy honored his work with Best Picture nominations for David Copperfield, The Philadelphia Story and Gaslight.
The same could be said about the master of suspense, Hitchcock, working in a genre that was always popular with the public, but seldom enjoyed prestige–or Oscar cachet. One of the great losers in Oscar’s history, Hitchcock had never won a merit award, despite an auspicious American debut, “Rebecca” (l940), for which he received his first nomination, and 4 other Academy citations: Lifeboat, Spellbound, Rear Window, and Psycho.
Read tomorrow Part Two