Oscar Directors: Daldry, Stephen—Luck or Talent?


Tim Burton, one of the most gifted and visionary directors working in Hollywood, has never been nominated for the Best Director Oscar.

In contrast, Stephen Daldry, a proficient, neophyte filmmaker, has been nominated multiple times, making Oscar and film history records, by going three for three. With this year’s “The Reader,” he has scored a directing bid for the each of the three films he has helmed: “Billy Elliott” in 2000 and “The Hours” in 2002.

For the first time in a long time, there’s harmony between the Best Picture and Best Director nominations.  In other words, each of the five best-pictures nominees saw its director nominated.   Amazingly, this is only the fifth time in 80 years that’s ever happened; the last time was in 1944.

Four of the five director contenders were also among the Directors Guild of America nominations: Danny Boyle (“Slumdog Millionaire”), David Fincher (“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”), Ron Howard (“Frost/Nixon”), and Gus Van Sant (“Milk”).  The feeling in town is that Daldry has taken the spot that belongs to the talented DGA nominee Christopher Nolan, who helmed one of the best pictures of the year, “The Dark Knight.”

Burton and Daldry share only one thing in common, biological age. They are roughly the same age: Burton is 48 (born in 1960), Daldry is one year younger, 47.  By nominating Daldry, the Academy voters have shown again that they judge films according to thematic rather than artistic or stylistic yardsticks.  Subject matter, or what the movie is about, is deemed more relevant than how the movie is made. 

Of the five nominated films, “The Reader” has received the poorest reviews from film critics.  According to RT (Rotten Tomatoes), the degree of approval for the picture, which opened in December, is

60 percent (of the 150 notices polled, 90 were positive and no less than 60 were negative).

But The Reader” is deemed an important and significant film because it deals with the legacy (and burden) of the Holocaust, stands for humanistic values, with a young protagonist who instructs an illiterate middle-aged woman (a former Nazi guard) with the best education and literature around.  The film also goes around the issue of whether or not it’s possible to forget and forgive Nazi criminals for their sins by emphasizing the more neutral, safe and universal values of redemption.

Subject matter aside, Daldry is at best a proficient adaptor of previously published material.  He’s a more interpretative than genuinely creative filmmaker, perhaps due to his theatrical background.  He goes for literary movies such as “The Hours,” based on Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, which was also nominated for Best Picture.

At the risk of upsetting some readers, may I suggest that there is more artistry and use of the distinctive properties of film as a unique medium in Burton’s “Batman” movies than in Daldry’s “Billy Elliott” or “The Hours.”  But as was clear this year, with the glaring omission from the nominations of “The Dark Knight” and its director Christopher Nolan, movies based on comic books are not taken seriously by the Academy–depsite their level of artistry.  Screen adaptations of such material are sill perceived as debased or devalued form of art, lacking presige and status.

To be honest, Daldry’s saving grace is the ability to coax forceful performances from his repsective casts: Jamie Bell and Julie Walters in “Billy Elliott,” Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore and Nicole Kidman (in that order) in “The Hours,” and now Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes in “The Reader.”