Rob Marshall, the onetime Broadway hoofer whose "Chicago" has received 13 Oscar nominations, pulled off a surprise win Saturday night when the Directors Guild of America named him best director -- making him a front-runner for this year's Academy Awards.
Going into the DGA's 55th annual awards ceremony at the Century Plaza Hotel, Marshall had to fend off two Hollywood heavyweights: Martin Scorsese and his gritty period drama, "Gangs of New York," and Roman Polanski, director of the Holocaust film "The Pianist."
He also faced competition from Stephen Daldry ("The Hours") and Peter Jackson ("The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers").
Only five times since the DGA awards' inception in 1949 has the winner not gone on to win the prize for best director at the Academy Awards. The last time that happened was two years ago when Ang Lee won the top DGA honor for "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and the Academy Award went to Steven Soderbergh for "Traffic."
"Chicago," with its 13 Academy Award nominations, has propelled Marshall, a former song-and-dance man on Broadway, into the limelight with his first feature film. The jazzy musical has been nominated for best picture, best director and four acting awards, including a best actress nod for Renee Zellweger. The DGA nominated Marshall three years ago for the TV movie musical "Annie." "Chicago" won the Golden Globe for best picture in the musical/comedy category.
Although Scorsese lost out for best director, he received the guild's highest honor -- its lifetime achievement award for his body of work.
Over three decades of filmmaking, Scorsese has crafted signature films that resonate with gritty violence, include familiar New York settings and feature loners beset by inner demons. "Gangs of New York," a sprawling, violent epic set on the streets of Civil War-era New York, brought Scorsese's fifth DGA nomination. The 60-year-old filmmaker previously was nominated for "Taxi Driver" (1976), "Raging Bull" (1980), "GoodFellas" (1990) and "The Age of Innocence" (1993). He has never won an Academy Award.
The DGA's choice of Marshall dims but does not eliminate Scorsese's prospects for an Oscar this year.
"Gangs of New York" has received 10 Oscar nominations, for best picture, director, and best actor in a leading role (Daniel Day-Lewis). Las Vegas oddsmakers have pegged Scorsese's chances of winning the Academy Award as even.
The other old guard director in the hunt for Oscar gold this year is Polanski, whose Holocaust drama, "The Pianist," is up for seven Academy Awards, including best picture, best director and best actor in a leading role, Adrien Brody.
Polanski, 69, did not attend Saturday evening's event but participated in a DGA symposium via satellite from France. The director of "Rosemary's Baby" and "Chinatown" pleaded guilty to a charge of unlawful sex with a minor in 1977 and fled the country while on bail. He remains a fugitive.
The now-grown victim of the assault, Samantha Geimer, recently wrote an editorial in The Times in which she said she has no hard feelings toward Polanski. She was 13 at the time of the incident.
Commenting on "The Pianist," Geimer wrote, "I believe that Mr. Polanski and his film should be honored according to the quality of the work. What he does for a living and how good he is at it have nothing to do with me or what he did to me."
Polanski also occupies another macabre stage in Los Angeles history. He suffered a personal tragedy in 1969 when Charles Manson's disciples murdered his pregnant wife, actress Sharon Tate, and others in their Hollywood Hills mansion.
The 42-year-old Daldry also received his training on the stage, serving as director of the Royal Court Theatre at age 32. The British-born director won an Oscar nomination two years ago for the film "Billy Elliot," the story of a British boy who yearns to be a ballet dancer.
Daldry followed that film with "The Hours," which interweaves the stories of three women, including author Virginia Woolf, who struggle with depression. "The Hours" has been nominated for nine Academy Awards, including best picture, best director and three acting honors, including Nicole Kidman for leading actress.
This was Jackson's second consecutive DGA nomination. The 41-year-old New Zealander was nominated last year for his blockbuster hit "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring." "Two Towers," the second installment in the fantasy trilogy based on the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, received six Oscar nominations this year, including best picture.