Director Steven Spielberg, clad in his signature black leather jacket and baseball cap, couldn't help raising an eyebrow as he opened the envelope containing the names of the nominees for the prestigious Directors Guild of America award for best film direction Tuesday morning.
"There are surprises," he said, breaking into a smile, "a couple of happy ones too."
That was an understatement. In one of the most unexpected moves in its recent history, the 9,000-member Directors Guild included among its five nominees the 78-year-old British director Charles Crichton for his work on "A Fish Called Wanda."
Crichton, one of the seminal figures of Britain's Ealing Studios, won the guild's best film director award in 1952 for "The Lavender Hill Mob," but for the past 30 years he has worked mostly in British television.
Despite "Wanda's" surprise box-office success, the film had been virtually ignored by the various groups that bestow awards in advance of the Oscar nominations. And most of the attention in reviews of the film was given to its star, John Cleese, the Monty Python veteran who wrote the script for "Wanda."
The other nominees for the guild's feature direction award, which will be announced at a dinner March 11, were more predictable: Alan Parker for "Mississippi Burning," Barry Levinson for "Rain Main," Robert Zemeckis for "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" and Mike Nichols for "Working Girl." Parker was nominated in 1978 for "Midnight Express," and Nichols has been tapped twice by the guild: He was nominated in 1966 for "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and he received the guild's award the following year for "The Graduate."
"Rain Man" and "Working Girl" received best picture awards at the Golden Globes Saturday night. "Mississippi Burning" received the National Board of Review awards for best picture and best director.
A surprising omission from the nomination list was Clint Eastwood, who received widespread critical acclaim for "Bird," a film based on the life of jazzman Charlie Parker. Just two days before, Eastwood had won a Golden Globe award for "Bird" from the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn.
"I was pleasantly surprised with Wanda," Spielberg said during the short press conference. "But I also had my fingers crossed behind my back that Eastwood would be nominated. I thought 'Bird' was an outstanding directorial accomplishment, an outstanding movie."
Other notable omissions include Lawrence Kasdan, who directed "Accidental Tourist," which won the New York film critics' top film award; Stephen Frears for "Dangerous Liaisons"; Sidney Lumet for "Running on Empty"; and Philip Kaufman, who won a best director award from the National Society of Film Critics for "The Unbearable Lightness of Being."
After announcing the awards, Spielberg also confessed that he was a little surprised--and very pleased--by the inclusion of his protege, Zemeckis, in the list. Zemeckis directed "Back to the Future" for Spielberg, and Spielberg was an executive producer on "Roger Rabbit." "I'm very happy for Bob," he said.
The Directors Guild award for outstanding directorial achievement is a bellwether for the Academy Awards. Only three times during the guild's 40-year history of bestowing its award have winners not gone on to win the Academy Award as well.
One of those exceptions involved Spielberg, a six-time guild nominee. Spielberg became the only director to win the guild's award and not receive an Oscar nomination when his work on "The Color Purple" was overlooked by the director's branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1985.
"It blunts the blow when you've been recognized by one voting group," Spielberg said in a brief interview after the announcement. "Every (Directors Guild) nomination has been the biggest thrill."
The other exceptions were Francis Coppola, who won the directors' award for "The Godfather" in 1972 and lost out to Bob Fosse ("Cabaret") for the Oscar, and Anthony Harvey, the 1968 guild winner for "The Lion in Winter," who lost to Carol Reed ("Oliver") in the Academy voting.
Last year, Bernardo Bertolucci won the guild's award for "The Last Emperor" before going on to win an Oscar. Oliver Stone won both awards the previous year for "Platoon."
Crichton's 1946 "Hue and Cry" was the first of a series of comedies that helped Ealing Studios define British humor for more than a decade.
Before teaming up with Cleese on "Wanda," Crichton made documentaries for Cleese's industrial training film company, Video Art. In "Wanda," Crichton and Cleese developed a madcap crime comedy not unlike Crichton's "The Lavender Hill Mob." This time, though, they used the plot as a vehicle to highlight the cultural differences between Americans and Britons.
"Wanda" received rave reviews when it was first released here last summer. But even its distributor, MGM/UA, didn't expect the film to be a box-office hit. So far, the film has grossed more than $60 million in the United States.
More than half of the members of the Directors Guild are directors of feature films or of TV shows, movies and commercials. The other members work in the industry in such capacities as production and technical coordinators. Members of all branches of the guild vote to nominate for best feature film direction.
Next week, the guild will announce nominations for its TV director awards.