The Top Directors Behind Oscar-Winning Performances

It's no coincidence that these directors keep getting their cast awards nods.

Whiplash

Congratulations to writer-director Barry Jenkins for recently winning his second Oscar for acting. Not literally, of course; the award for Best Supporting Actress officially went to Regina King for her role as Sharon Rivers in Jenkins’ film If Beale Street Could Talk.

King’s performance was excellent, walking the line between caring for her loved ones and standing by her principles when life gets tough. But doesn’t Barry deserve some credit? He wrote the screenplay, adapting James Baldwin’s classic work into a film with indelible characters. He directed the actors, molding their headspace to fit the material. Alongside James Laxton, his cinematography determined how the audience actually saw these people. He designed moments of tension and emotion with the editing. From start to finish and everywhere in between, If Beale Street Could Talk is his movie.

It’s odd, then, that we as a filmgoing audience don’t seem to give directors their due for contributing to such memorable performances. Acting on screen doesn’t take place in a vacuum, like it might on stage. Each line is manipulated through the eye of the director, who employs everything from lighting to sound design to music to arrive at their desired effect. An actor can give the performance of a lifetime in some movie, but if the direction isn’t any good, nobody will care. This is how Nicolas Cage can be so heartbreakingly brilliant in films like Adaptation while still inspiring compilation clips of his inappropriate freakouts in movies. Context, for a character, is everything.

And this is not the first time that a part in a Jenkins film has received this level of recognition. Only two years ago, Mahershala Ali won an Oscar for playing Juan in the Best Picture-winning Moonlight. Ali’s and King’s roles, it’s worth noting, have many structural similarities. Both actors play parental figures for the main characters, only appear in small sections of the story, and favor subtle introspection over big and brash character work. Jenkins clearly knows how to give us information about his characters while withholding their dialogue. He understands that a person’s silence often says as much as their words, and he extends his actors’ reaction shots accordingly. In Moonlight, when Little asks Juan about drugs, Ali grunts just two words over the course of a minute of screen time. That minute probably won him the Academy Award.

Over the past ten years, a few directors have managed to garner a large proportion of Oscar nominations and wins for acting – one of them being Barry Jenkins. It’s not a coincidence; it’s a skill. Each of the directors below offer a specific sensibility, whether it be their personal style, choice of genre, etc. that consistently propels their characters into the awards conversation. For the purposes of this exercise, only working directors will be listed; William Wyler’s movies won a ridiculous 14 acting wins, but he was working under an entirely different Hollywood. By studying more recent wins, perhaps we can understand the types of performances that win these prizes and more accurately predict Oscar winners down the line.

 

Steven Spielberg

Wins
Daniel Day-Lewis – Best Actor: Lincoln (2012)
Mark Rylance – Best Supporting Actor: Bridge of Spies (2015)

Nominations
Tommy Lee Jones – Best Supporting Actor: Lincoln (2012)
Sally Field – Best Supporting Actress: Lincoln (2012)
Meryl Streep – Best Actress: The Post (2017)

As with all things, this list begins with the governor of modern moviemaking, Steven Spielberg. His two wins are pretty interesting, as one victory (Day-Lewis) was a completely foregone conclusion, while the other (Rylance) was a total surprise. That said, both roles conform to the arc of the classic Spielberg hero. From Jurassic Park to Jaws, his protagonists tend to be experts in their fields, hyper-competent, but forced to rely on unexpected qualities in order to save the day. This aligns with DDL’s narrative in Lincoln: for all of his incredible oratory power, the President of the United States is tasked with menial politicking in order to secure votes for the abolition of slavery.

Rylance’s part is quirkier, but it still depends on some Spielberg mainstays. He plays Rudolf Abel, a convicted Russian spy who bizarrely maintains his composure as Tom Hanks, the standard lead role, uses him as a pawn in Cold War hostage negotiations. Abel is coldly aware of his own dire fate, reacting to news of a possible death sentence with an inhuman level of detachment. However, he still gets the chance to explain his ideology with a speech as the camera dollies in and the music swells. He might never get a chance to be heroic, but he stands by his convictions through everything, and that’s admirable itself. Nobody understands the hero’s journey quite as well as Spielberg. When he’s equipped with the right actor, famous or unknown, you can feel pretty confident that he can provide them a narrative worth rewarding.

 

David O. Russell

Wins
Christian Bale – Best Supporting Actor: The Fighter (2010)
Melissa Leo – Best Supporting Actress: The Fighter (2010)
Jennifer Lawrence – Best Actress: Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

Nominations
Amy Adams – Best Supporting Actress: The Fighter (2010)
Bradley Cooper – Best Actor: Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
Robert De Niro – Best Supporting Actor: Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
Jacki Weaver – Best Supporting Actress: Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
Christian Bale – Best Actor: American Hustle (2013)
Amy Adams – Best Actress: American Hustle (2013)
Bradley Cooper – Best Supporting Actor: American Hustle (2013)
Jennifer Lawrence – Best Supporting Actress: American Hustle (2013)
Jennifer Lawrence – Best Actress: Joy (2015)

Damn, I guess he just recycles his actors? This is a staggering achievement for David O. Russell, who’s responsible for three wins and nine other nominations within a span of six years. O. Russell’s parts are meaty – they’re misfits, they speak their mind, and they’re going through some topical hardship. On paper, the movies might appear to be standard Oscars fare. He’s made the boxing movie, the crime movie, and the movie about mental illness. But in practice, he manages to create ensemble dramedies that aren’t as much about the genre at hand as they are about the people who partake in it. The Fighter might center around Micky Ward’s boxing ambitions, but the movie is most concerned with the community of Lowell, Massachusetts. Crack addiction and working-class life figure into Micky’s story more than training for the “big fight,” helping to elevate the film above that of another Rocky ripoff.

At the same time, O. Russell’s narratives don’t harp on the heaviness of the issues they deal with. Take this scene from Silver Linings Playbook, a movie about a love story between two individuals suffering from depression, mood disorders, and heartbreak. Cooper and Lawrence aren’t total nutcases during their introduction, and they don’t play the damsels in distress. Instead, they’re just two people who struggle to fit in with societal expectations, often to humorous effect. They banter about depression pills the way others might talk about restaurants, which is only funny because it makes their friends so uncomfortable. O. Russell’s success at the Oscars stems from his ability to frame his characters’ issues within a proper, realistic context. “Ride the Lightning” by Metallica is a great song, but you don’t request it at a dinner party.

 

Tom Hooper

Wins
Colin Firth – Best Actor: The King’s Speech (2010)
Anne Hathaway – Best Supporting Actress: Les Misérables (2012)
Alicia Vikander – Best Supporting Actress: The Danish Girl (2015)

Nominations
Geoffrey Rush – Best Supporting Actor: The King’s Speech (2010)
Hugh Jackman – Best Actor: Les Misérables (2012)
Eddie Redmayne – Best Actor: The Danish Girl (2015)

Looking at Tom Hooper’s three movies this decade, several things remain constant. Most notably, The King’s Speech, Les Misérables, and The Danish Girl all take place in European countries during various important times in history, featuring characters engaging in “important ventures.” Someone more cynical might call these roles standard awards-bait, reminiscent of the Academy voters who just recently gave Best Picture to Green Book.

When taken seriously, however, these are movies that belong to their actors. Hooper doesn’t engage in much formal trickery, preferring to point his camera at the characters and let them do their thing. In filming Les Mis, he even insisted that all actors’ singing be recorded on set, as opposed to in post-production. He doesn’t let anything except lavish production design get between the performers and us.

Hooper’s roles also tend to require A-List actors to undergo serious transformation. Colin Firth spent the entirety of The King’s Speech unable to speak clearly, while Anne Hathaway shaved her head to sing “I Dreamed a Dream” in one unbroken take. The actual performances, to their credit, are always pitch-perfect, and Hooper clearly has a knack for crafting melodrama. But ultimately, this Oscar success might have more to do with the Academy’s voting preferences than anything else. Costumes, accents, and period pieces tend to win awards even when Hooper isn’t directing. His success with actors is absolutely laudable, but not exactly surprising.

 

Jean-Marc Vallée

Wins
Matthew McConaughey – Best Actor: Dallas Buyers Club (2013)
Jared Leto – Best Supporting Actor: Dallas Buyers Club (2013)

Nominations
Reese Witherspoon – Best Actress: Wild (2014)
Laura Dern – Best Supporting Actress: Wild (2014)

Jean-Marc Vallée’s resume might look a little light by comparison, with “only” two wins and two nominations, but his directing work on HBO’s Big Little Lies and Sharp Objects has earned his actors an additional three Emmys and a Golden Globe. So it’s safe to say that the roles he directs end up contending for awards.

If there’s a common theme between Dallas Buyers Club and Wild, it’s survival. McConaughey’s Ron and Witherspoon’s Cheryl both lose everything, and after finding themselves in a perilous state of tabula rasa, their characters look to change. Vallée’s fluid approach, employing a handheld camera and jumpy editing, helps to demonstrate this internal struggle. It doesn’t waste time with needless exposition, cutting from one important moment to another to create a distinctly human point of view. In this scene, we never see how Jared Leto’s character moves from one point in the room to another. But we don’t need to, because it allows the scene to flow.

By relying so heavily on his specific style, Vallée allows his actors to give understated performances while relying on himself to craft a narrative. Reese spends many scenes in Wild hiking through terrain, looking some degree of exhausted. Realistically, there are only so many ways she can do that. So it’s up to Vallée to make each scene count, either by intercutting flashbacks or making interesting technical choices. Look at how he shoots her throughout this scene – what the camera focuses on, what it doesn’t, when he cuts. Each decision elevates the performance even when we don’t see her face.

 

Damien Chazelle

Wins
J.K. Simmons – Best Supporting Actor: Whiplash (2014)
Emma Stone – Best Actress: La La Land (2016)

Nominations
Ryan Gosling – Best Actor: La La Land (2016)

Like Barry Jenkins, Chazelle’s first two high-profile movies did quite well with the Academy, earning one acting prize each among a flurry of other wins. His common thread – unsurprising to anyone who’s seen his work – is the pursuit of artistic greatness.

It’s no secret that awards voters enjoy movies about their industry, and every year at least one film in the Oscar conversation concerns talented artists and their troubled personal lives (see: A Star is Born). Chazelle’s winners are not much different. J.K. Simmons plays a music teacher so obsessed with discovering a protege that he takes the joy out of music, whereas Emma Stone plays a starving artist looking for her big break. Described so plainly, the roles sound awfully cookie-cutter.

His great skill, though, is infusing classic Hollywood tropes with a modern sensibility. In Simmons’ most famous scene from Whiplash, he berates his drummer with a healthy dose of irony: “Are you one of those single-tear people? Do I look like a double-fucking rainbow to you?” This character is not some genius madman warped in his own delusions. He’s fully aware that he’s being malicious, and he goes on anyway.

Chazelle does not pretend to romanticize artistry; he presents it as a beautiful goal worth attaining, but goes to great lengths to convey the human struggles that come with those life choices. A worse movie than La La Land may have ended with a kissing Gosling and Stone, leaving the audience with the notion that you can have both love and career. But Damien knows better. He shows us how that ending would play out in painstaking detail, and then pulls the rug out from under the fantasy. In the real world, you sometimes have to choose.

Naturally, this list is not comprehensive. Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, and others have been quite successful over the years at getting their actors tickets to awards shows. But when we look to the 2020 Oscar nominations, it’s likely that we see performances that fall into each of the five categories mentioned above: The All-Star Filmmaker, The Ensemble Drama, The Period Piece, The Stylized Indie, and The Aspiring Creative. That’s not to diminish the aforementioned directors’ accomplishments; if it were so easy to replicate their success, everybody would be doing it. These filmmakers take ideas that have drawn audiences for years and shaped them toward their own personal sensibilities. In her acceptance speech, Regina King remarked, “James Baldwin birthed this [story]. And Barry, you nurtured her and surrounded her with so much love and support.” So again, congrats to Barry Jenkins. See you back at the Dolby Theatre next year.

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