Oscar Directors: Young? Old? Middle-Age?

In 2006, when Martin Scorsese finally won the Best Director Oscar, at his sixth nomination (for “The Departed”), he became one of the five oldest filmmakers to be recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Three years later, in 2009, when Kathryn Bigelow received the Best Director for “The Hurt Locker,” she became the only fourth female nominee to ever be nominated by the Academy.  But in terms of age, Bigelow, 58, is one of the veteran recipients, even if she won at her first nomination.

Right now, the oldest winners are Roman Polanski, 69, who won the Oscar at his third nomination for “The Pianist,” in 2002, and George Cukor, who was 65, when he won the Oscar for “My Fair Lady,” at his fifth nomination.

Young Directors

The youngest winners in the Academy annals are Norman Taurog, 32, for Skippy,” and Lewis Milestone, 33, who won the Best Comedy Director in the first year of the Oscars, for “Two Arabian Nights.”  Joining him that year was Frank Borzage, who was 35, for “Seventh Heaven.”  Other young achievers include Sam Mendes, 34, for “American Beauty,” in 1999.

Oldest Winners
The oldest winners are atypical in many ways: Roman Polanski began his career in Poland and foreign-born director tend to get recognition from their peers at a later age than their American counterparts.
British-born director Carol Reed, who was nominated twice, back-to-back, in 1949 for “The Fallen Idol,” and in 1950 for “The Third Man.” Reed won for an uncharacteristic movie genre, a musical, Oliver! At his third nomination.
George Cukor was one of most nominated directors in the Academy’s history, having been nominated five times, the first in 1933, at age 34, for “Little Women,” starring Katharine Hepburn. His other nominations are for “The Philadelphia Story” (1940), also starring Hepburn, “A Double Life (1947), and “Born Yesterday,” in 1950.
For Clint Eastwood, who’s 83, directing is a second career, having begun his work in the industry as a screen (Sergio Leone’s Westerns) and TV (“Rawhide”) actor.  Eastwood made his directing debut in 1973, at the age of 43 with “Play Misty for Me.”  Eastwood won his first Directing Oscar for “Unforgiven” in 1992, at age 62.  He was 74 when he received his second Director Oscar for “Million Dollars Baby,” in 2004. 
Oscar-winning Directors by Age Group
Early Thirtysomething: 30 to 34: Four (4)
Lewis Milestone
Norman Taurog
William Friedkin
Sam Mendes
Late Thirtysomething: 35 to 39: Fourteen (14) 
Frank Borzage
Frank Capra
Leo McCarey
Billy Wilder
Elia Kazan
Delbert Mann
Tony Richardson
Mike Nichols
Francis Ford Coppola
Michael Cimino
Kevin Costner
Mel Gibson
Steven Soderbergh
Tom Hooper
Early Fortysomething: 40 to 44: Eighteen (18)
Frank Lloyd
John Ford
William Wyler
John Huston
Joseph Mankiewicz
Jerome Robbins (co-winner with Robert Wise)
John Schlesinger
John Avildsen
Woody Allen
Robert Redford
Warren Beatty
James Brooks
Oliver Stone
Robert Zemeckis
Anthony Minghella
James Cameron
Peter Jackson
Michel Hazanavicius
Late Fortysomething: 45 to 49: Twelve (12)
George Stevens
Fred Zinnemann
David Lean
Robert Wise
Bob Fosse
Milos Forman
Robert Benton
Bernardo Bertolucci
Barry Levinson
Jonathan Demme
Steven Spielberg
Ron Howard
Fiftysomething 50 to 59: Twelve (12)
Victor Fleming
Michael Curtiz
Vincente Minnelli
Franklin Schaffner
George Roy Hill
Richard Attenborough
Sydney Pollack
Ang Lee
Joel Coen
Ethan Coen
Danny Boyle
Kathryn Bigelow 
Sixtysomething: Older than 60: 5
George Cukor (won at fifth nomination)
Carol Reed (British director won at third nomination)
Clint Eastwood (began as actor, won at first nomination)
Roman Polanski (Polish director, won at third nomination)
Martin Scorsese (won at sixth nomination)
Trend:
If you want to predict the most prevalent age at winning the Best Director Oscar, stick close to the category of 45-49:  Half of the Oscar-winning directors were in their 40s.

 

Notes
Many directors, such as John Ford or Kazan or Clint Eastwood, have won multiple Oscars; our study measures the age at which they were when first winning.
There have been only two Oscar-winning movies, “West Side Story,” which were co-directed (Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins) and “No Country for Old Men,” by the brothers Joel and Ethan Coen.