Big names, big pictures

THIS year’s Oscar race for best director could use some serious direction. It’s all over the place!

There’s a legendary helmer overdue for recognition (Martin Scorsese, “The Departed”) squaring off against major emerging artists (Bill Condon, “Dreamgirls"; Todd Field, “Little Children”). Also jockeying for the prize are foreign art-house darlings (Pedro Almodovar, “Volver"; Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, “Babel”) and the contenders voters love to embrace: those ex-heartthrob actors turned directors. This year there are three of them, one packing a double bill: Robert De Niro (“The Good Shepherd”), Mel Gibson (“Apocalypto”) and Clint Eastwood (“Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters From Iwo Jima”).

When nominated, actors usually win the directors’ race, but Eastwood has triumphed twice already (“Unforgiven,” “Million Dollar Baby”) and De Niro’s “Shepherd” is an espionage drama, a genre that rarely gets academy respect.


Gibson faces a few biases too. His film is cheered by critics, yes, but it’s decried by queasy filmgoers as being too bloody. What will academy members think about his film and about him? The fact that he’s now notorious for his drunken antics along the Pacific Coast Highway may not matter to voters, as another director, Roman Polanski, discovered with “The Pianist.”

Scorsese’s “Departed” may be too much -- period -- but that may be its salvation. As Kenneth Turan said in his Los Angeles Times review: “Too operatic at times, too in love with violence and macho posturing at others, it’s a potboiler dressed up in upscale designer clothes, but oh how that pot does boil!”

Scorsese vs. the actors

DEFEATING actor-directors has been a big problem for Scorsese. He’s lost to three: Eastwood, Robert Redford and Kevin Costner.


He must also compete against another director overdue for huzzahs: Stephen Frears was nominated for 1990’s “The Grifters” and has since helmed the praiseworthy films “Dirty Pretty Things” and “Mrs. Henderson Presents.” Now he seems to be riding high with “The Queen.”

But lording over all is the chap who helmed best picture front-runner “Dreamgirls.” Condon’s movie has special appeal to academy members -- it’s about showbiz -- and required huge organizational skills plus sensitivity to minute drama. Condon’s a proven Oscar winner. He won for writing “Gods & Monsters” and was nominated for penning the successful stage-to-screen adaptation of the last musical to win best picture: “Chicago.”

“Little Miss Sunshine” shone brightly as the year’s breakout indie hit, so it’s a serious rival in the top races. If it breaks into the directors’ race, it’ll be one of those rare bids listing two nominees -- Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris.

Steven Soderbergh won for “Traffic,” which lost best picture to “Gladiator.” Now he competes with “The Good German,” which required him to show careful directorial attention to the storytelling style of Hollywood’s old film noirs.

Edward Zwick has been looking to return to the top races for years and now aims to do so with “Blood Diamond” starring Leonardo DiCaprio as a gem mercenary in Africa. Two other dramas set in Africa have thriller elements while illuminating struggles set against politics: Phillip Noyce’s drama about an anti-apartheid rebel in “Catch a Fire,” and Kevin Macdonald’s ferociously honest look at Uganda’s charming devil, Idi Amin, in “The Last King of Scotland.”

Oscar voters have a special fondness for foreign film locations and filmmakers. “Volver’s” Almodovar was nominated for directing the Spanish-language “Talk to Her,” which earned him the screenplay win. Now he competes against two Mexican-born directors: Guillermo del Toro (“Pan’s Labyrinth” -- Mexico’s entry in the Oscar foreign-film race) and Alfonso Cuaron, who has directed the English-language futurist thriller “Children of Men.”

Considering how much Oscar voters love well-crafted heart-tuggers, “The Pursuit of Happyness” could end up in top Oscar races and take its Italian director with it. Gabriele Muccino is a relative unknown in the U.S., but proved himself as a successful filmmaker in 2001 with the Italian romantic comedy “The Last Kiss,” on which a remake was based this year -- starring Zach Braff.

Tom O’Neil writes the Gold Derby blog at