"It's a surprise," said Clint Eastwood, joking with the crowd as he opened the envelope and read "Schindler's List."
It was exactly the title that almost everyone at the Directors Guild of America's dinner Saturday night expected would be announced, as the Steven Spielberg epic drama about the Holocaust continues to sweep this season's film prizes on an uninterrupted march to the Oscars, two weeks from tonight.
In a voice filled with emotion, Spielberg said the film "was my duty to make, as a filmmaker and a Jew. It was a story that needed to be told simply because the generations forget and every new generation needs to face their past all over again."
The film is the true story of Oskar Schindler, a member of the Nazi Party and a World War II industrialist, who saved more than 1,100 Polish Jews by convincing the Nazis it would be more cost-effective to employ them than to kill them.
"I didn't ever think that film could be powerful enough to reach beyond the popcorn barrel and get people to change the way they think about the world," said Spielberg, the director of the two all-time top grossing movies, "Jurassic Park" and "E.T.--The Extraterrestrial." "I always sort of left that to the novelists, the essay writers, the professors. I had no idea that a film could be made that would allow people into a subject which is profoundly horrific and they come away saying, 'I just didn't know it was that bad.' "
Spielberg's guild award was his second. The first was for 1985's "The Color Purple." He has been nominated five other times.
"This is the seventh one," Spielberg said. "This is the best one."
"I keep hugging this (gold plaque). I'm going to take it to bed with me tonight." And he quickly added: "and my wife, Katie."
Although Spielberg is the world's most commercially successful filmmaker, his directing has never been recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with its Oscar award. He was nominated for "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "E.T."
But this year seems different. "Schindler's List" has won Golden Globes and critics' honors. It is nominated for 12 Academy Awards. And now that Spielberg has won the Directors Guild honor, history favors him to take home Oscars. Only three times since the guild began giving awards in 1949 has the winner of the guild's prize failed to also win the Oscar for direction. More often than not, the Academy gives the Oscar for best picture to their best director winner.
One of the exceptions, however, is sure to give "Schindler's List" backers pause. In 1985, Spielberg won the guild award for directing "The Color Purple." He and the movie were nominated in 11 Oscar categories. But he and the movie went home with no Oscars.
The Directors Guild prizes were presented in a dinner ceremony at the Beverly Hilton Hotel and at the Russian Tea Room in New York.
Winners for direction in the other categories:
Dramatic TV special: Michael Ritchie for HBO's "The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom."
Dramatic TV series: Charles Haid, "NYPD BLUE" episode "True Confessions."
Comedy TV series: James Burrows, "Frasier," "The Good Son" pilot.
Daytime serials: Jill Mitwell, "One Life to Live," episode 6356.
Musical variety show: Jeff Margolis, "The 65th Annual Academy Awards."
Documentary: Barbara Kopple, "Fallen Champ: The Untold Story of Mike Tyson."
Commercials: James Gartner, "Applause" and "Golden Package" for Federal Express, and "Baseball and Piroshki" for AT&T.;
Life Achievement in sports direction: 16-time Emmy winner Doug Wilson.
D.W. Griffith Award for distinguished achievement: Robert Altman.
Robert B. Aldrich Service Award: Burt Bluestein.
Franklin J. Schaffner Achievement Award: James E. (Jimmy) Wall.