A number of recent movies — including some of this year's top awards contenders — revive a decades-old debate about the type of director who shapes the most memorable films.
In his famed 1962 essay, "Notes on the Auteur Theory," Andrew Sarris gave the highest praise to strong-willed directors like Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford, who stamped their movies with an unmistakable personal vision.
In a celebrated counterattack, Pauline Kael cried hogwash and championed more flexible, versatile directors like Carol Reed and Fred Zinnemann, who worked in a variety of genres and often submerged their own personality into the material they were interpreting. Thanks to her witty, trenchant analysis, Kael won that battle in the pages of Film Quarterly, but Sarris ultimately won the war.
For one thing, Kael later became the most fanatical auteurist of all, championing favorite directors like Sam Peckinpah and Brian De Palma who brandished a highly personal approach. Younger critics drew from both Sarris and Kael but now give their top accolades to directors with the most distinctive, assertive, self-conscious styles.
This year some of the critics' favorites — Wes Anderson's "The Grand Budapest Hotel," David Fincher's "Gone Girl," Alejandro Iñárritu's "Birdman" and Paul Thomas Anderson's "Inherent Vice"— have been the ones with the most insistent, sometimes most overbearing directorial stamp. But I'd like to take issue with my colleagues and stand up for the less showy, more versatile directors who have sometimes been underrated in the rush to anoint auteurs.
Billy Wilder, for example, was originally dismissed by Sarris as a director without a personal style, and, indeed, Wilder tackled an astonishing range of material, from romantic comedies to film noir ("Double Indemnity"), Hollywood tragedy ("Sunset Boulevard"), journalistic expose ("Ace in the Hole") and classic farce ("Some Like It Hot").
I also appreciated the versatility of Sidney Lumet, who was best known for his gritty urban police movies like "Serpico," "Dog Day Afternoon" and "Prince of the City" but who also made the raucous satire of television, "Network," the all-star Agatha Christie mystery, "Murder on the Orient Express," and film versions of Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey Into Night" and Mary McCarthy's "The Group."
Of course, these directors had strong interests that showed in their movies, but they relished challenges, and they didn't flaunt a visual style that made their movies instantly identifiable. As Wilder once said, "I like to believe that movement can be achieved eloquently, elegantly, economically and logically, without shooting from a hole in the ground, without hanging the camera from the chandelier, and without the camera dolly dancing a polka." (Are you listening, Mr. Iñárritu?)
On the contemporary scene, Ang Lee is another director who has shown admirable range. He went from the Chinese ensemble comedy, "Eat Drink Man Woman," to the world of Jane Austen in "Sense and Sensibility" and the '70s sexual revolution in "The Ice Storm." He directed the smashing martial arts fantasy "Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon," the landmark gay love story "Brokeback Mountain" and the 3-D metaphysical adventure "Life of Pi."
These chameleon-like directors can certainly have misfires. Lee was unsuited to direct "Hulk," just as Lumet didn't mesh well with "The Wiz." But these unassuming craftsmen are never predictable in the way that Wes Anderson, Fincher or even Martin Scorsese can be.
To take some examples from 2014 releases, I've been drawn to the diversity in the oeuvre of Jean-Marc Vallée, the director of "Wild." You can see that he's interested in strong-willed characters in all of his movies, but the universes they inhabit are wildly different. Vallée told a fanciful, turbulent story about a young man coming of age in Montreal in "C.R.A.Z.Y," then immersed himself in English gardens and palaces for "The Young Victoria."
He turned to the underground world of experimental AIDS drugs in the '80s in the Oscar-winning "Dallas Buyers Club," and now he examines a woman testing herself against the rigors of nature in "Wild." Vallée has completed another movie, "Demolition," about the emotional crisis of an investment banker, and he is scheduled to make a biography of Janis Joplin. In the breadth of his interests, he recalls directors like Lumet and Wilder.
Although it's a little earlier in their careers, we might be witnessing the arrival of similarly eclectic filmmakers Morten Tyldum, the director of "The Imitation Game," and James Marsh, director of "The Theory of Everything." Tyldum attracted attention with the black comic thriller "Headhunters," and now he brings off a lush, Masterpiece Theatre-style biopic with "The Imitation Game." Marsh won an Oscar for his documentary, "Man on Wire," and one might not have predicted that he would turn to a romantic drama about Stephen Hawking and his first wife.
Some critics have described Richard Linklater, the director of "Boyhood," as a defiant auteur because of the personal nature of this coming-of-age story (which even features the director's daughter in a key supporting role). But I would place him in the anti-auteurist tradition. The trilogy that began with "Before Sunrise" were collaborations with the two stars, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. And Linklater has actually tried many different kinds of movies, including the wicked black comedy "Bernie," the musical romp "School of Rock," the nostalgic period piece "Me and Orson Welles" and even a couple of animated films.
Will this year's Oscar for director go to Linklater, the favorite at the moment, or to a showoff like Iñárritu or to a chameleon like Tyldum? Historically, academy voters have often preferred the non-auteur directors, perhaps because these filmmakers seem to be more collaborative, working closely with writers, actors and other crew members rather than running a one-man show. (In most cases, strong auteur directors happen to be men.)
Of course iron-willed directors with a fierce personal vision have sometimes won Oscars, but they've more often been defeated by self-effacing craftsmen. Alfred Hitchcock, Federico Fellini and Robert Altman were nominated several times but never won. Scorsese was defeated time after time until guilt finally kicked in, and the academy almost grudgingly honored him for "The Departed."
More often, we've seen a very different pattern in the final voting. George Roy Hill, the director of "The Sting," defeated Ingmar Bergman, who was nominated that year for "Cries and Whispers." Team player Ron Howard ("A Beautiful Mind") beat David Lynch ("Mulholland Drive") and Altman ("Gosford Park"). Although Fincher won every critics' award for "The Social Network," the Oscar went to respectable BBC director Tom Hooper for "The King's Speech." Wilder, William Wyler, Zinnemann, George Stevens, Clint Eastwood and Lee all won multiple Oscars while uppity auteurs waited for their names to be called.
In critical circles it's fashionable to mock the discipline and caution of these less-obtrusive directors, but I would like to cheer the artisans and chameleons who quietly pursue their craft in the shadow of more sacred monsters.