Even if you have just won the Academy Award for Best Director, you're only as good as your next movie.
Knowing they can return to the day job while they bask in the glory of their Oscar victory, actor-directors can usually afford to wait before selecting their next project. Robert Redford (Ordinary People/The Milagro Beanfield War), Warren Beatty (Reds/Dick Tracy), Kevin Costner (Dances With Wolves/The Postman) and Mel Gibson (Braveheart/The Passion of the Christ) all dallied for the best part of a decade before resuming the director's chair.
But career directors have to strike while their reputation is hot and the moneymen still consider them bankable. For versatile types like Steven Soderbergh and Ron Howard, it was almost second nature to follow Traffic with Ocean's 11 and A Beautiful Mind with The Missing. Similarly, Ang Lee could bookend Brokeback Mountain's Oscar glory with Hulk and Lust, Caution. Yet not every Best Director winner copes so easily with the pressure of topping an Oscar hit and some have made some highly eclectic choices.
1927/28, Best Director, Comedy, Two Arabian Nights
1929/30, Best Director, All Quiet on the Western Front
Russian-born Lewis Milestone is the only director in Oscar history pick up both an Oscar for Best Director and Best Director of a Comedy Picture. He is also unique in having won for two films about the Great War. The knockabout silent Two Arabian Knights (1927) starred William Boyd and Louis Wolheim as doughboys who rescue Arabian princess Mary Astor. But Milestone's follow-up to that comedy, The Garden of Eden (1928), was an odd choice. The sophisticated drama starred Corinne Griffith as the niece of a Viennese pretzel baker who finds love via a correspondence course in opera singing, a stint in a burlesque club and a liaison with an over-protective baroness. What made this such an odd choice was that the play had not been a particular success, closing on Broadway after only 23 performances. The film has acquired a reputation with time, but when it came to following up his second Oscar film, All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), Milestone took fewer chances. Next on his resume was Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur Broadway smash The Front Page (1933), which he followed up with his socially conscious Al Jolson musical, Hallelujah, I'm a Bum (1933).
John Ford & William Wyler
John Ford, Best Picture, Best Director, How Green Was My Valley, 1941
William Wyler, Best Director, Best Picture, Mrs Miniver, 1942
William Wyler, Best Director, Ben Hur, 1959
Both John Ford and William Wyler followed up Oscar victories by joining up to do their part during World War II. Having taken a second consecutive Best Director statuette for How Green Was My Valley (1941), the 47-year-old Ford volunteered for the US Navy and was appointed Chief of the Field Photographic Branch of the Office of Strategic Services. His first effort, co-directed with Otto Brower, was Sex Hygiene (1942), a graphic discussion of venereal diseases and their treatment, which centered on a serviceman who had visited a prostitute. More uplifting, however, were The Battle of Midway (1942) and December 7th (1943), which respectively won the Oscars for Best Documentary Feature and Short. The latter was co-directed by Gregg Toland, who had photographed Wyler's Oscar winning Mrs Miniver (1942). Like Ford, Wyler was wounded in action while serving with the US Army Air Corps. But whereas the John Ford, the future Rear Admiral of the Navy Reserve, took shrapnel in his left arm, Wyler lost the hearing in his right ear and was left partially deaf in the other by the sound of flak exploding around his aircraft while filming the Oscar-winning profile of a B-17 bomber, The Memphis Belle (1944). Wyler's selection following his Best Director for Ben-Hur (1959) was much more intimate, and much less Christian, as he brought Lillian Hellman's infamous stage study of lesbianism, The Children's Hour (1961), with Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine, to the screen.
Best Picture, Best Director, The Lost Weekend, 1945
Not recognizing the Oscar potential of The Lost Weekend (1945), Paramount Pictures shelved Billy Wilder's graphic depiction of alcoholism for fear it would alienate audiences. Dispirited, Wilder spent five months in Europe as part of the US Army's Psychological Warfare Division, charged with de-Nazifying German cinema. Having learned that his family had perished in the Holocaust, Wilder visited his father's grave in Berlin to discover that the cemetery had been obliterated during a tank battle. Conversations with survivors and a period editing the concentration camp documentary, Death Mills, for the Office of War Information only deepened Wilder's despondency. Even when The Lost Weekend was finally released to critical acclaim and Academy approbation, winning both the film and the director awards, Wilder remained forlorn. No wonder, therefore, that he returned to features with The Emperor Waltz (1948), which saw Bing Crosby's phonograph salesman fall for countess Joan Fontaine at the court of the Emperor Franz Josef. Desperate to restore some his faith in his homeland, Wilder can be forgiven for lapsing into whimsy and sentimentality. He can even be excused such excesses as spending $20,000 on having Californian pine trees planted in Canada's Jasper National Park because he was dissatisfied with the local specimens and for ordering 4,000 white daisies to be painted blue so they photographed better in Technicolor.
Best Picture, Best Director, Marty, 1955
Marty (1955) was produced as a tax write-off by Burt Lancaster and Ben Hecht. Paddy Chayevsky's story about a lonely Bronx butcher and a bashful teacher had originally been directed by Delbert Mann for Goodyear Television Playhouse two years earlier and no one expected the $343,000 downbeat indie to make a dime. Even after it earned four Oscars from eight nominations, nobody thought that lightning would strike twice and so Mann returned to television as the first feature debutant ever to be named Best Director and the first American to helm a Palme d'or winner at Cannes. He made around a dozen pieces for TV before reuniting with Chayevsky for his second picture, The Bachelor Party in 1957. But the saga of five New York office workers on a stag night paled beside such small-screen gems as Humphrey Bogart reprising the role of Duke Mantee opposite Lauren Bacall in The Petrified Forest and a musical version of Our Town, arranged by Nelson Riddle and starring Frank Sinatra, Paul Newman and Eva Marie Saint (both 1955).
Best Picture, Best Director, West Side Story, 1961
Best Picture, Best Director, The Sound of Music, 1965
Robert Wise was working on the off-kilter romantic comedy Two for the Seesaw (1962) when he shared the Academy Award for adapting West Side Story (1961) with Jerome Robbins. It had been a fractious project. But, during pre-production, Wise had read Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House and was keen to film a novel that had made him jump three feet out of his chair. As he owed MGM a picture, he contracted to direct The Haunting (1963) in London for $1.1 million and made innovative use of infrared monochrome stock and 30mm lenses to create one of the tautest and most visceral of screen ghost stories. He similarly went off at a tangent after completing The Sound of Music (1965), although he had planned to make The Sand Pebbles (1966) before the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. Wise exploited his new clout to secure a $12 million budget, Steve McQueen as his star and location sojourns in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Unfortunately, inclement weather extended the shoot to eight months and the film was accused of the gargantuanism that so blighted Wise's later career.
Best Director, Best Picture, My Fair Lady, 1964
Besides winning the Oscar for My Fair Lady (1964), George Cukor had a disastrous 1960s. Before taking on the Lerner-Loewe musical, he had officiated over Marilyn Monroe's swan song, Something's Gotta Give (1962), before being fired as part of her resumption package and several other projects had since stalled in development. Industry insiders claimed that Cukor had gone into semi-retirement, so it was a surprise when he agreed to take over 20th Century-Fox's Justine (1969) after Joseph Strick had been sacked following location shooting in Algeria. Adapted from Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet, the film was much racier than even The Chapman Report (1962), which had its roots in the notorious Kinsey Report, and the critics were unanimous that the 70 year-old veteran was out of his comfort zone. In 1972, Cukor explained, "I took the picture on because I hadn't worked in some time, various projects had fallen through, and it was a professional challenge. I thought, "Yes, I can do this" - but had I known the full horror of some things..."
Best Director, Best Picture, Oliver!, 1968
Few directors have made so downright an eccentric choice of a post-Oscar project as Carol Reed. Fresh from his triumph with Lionel Bart's Dickensian musical, Oliver! (1968), Sir Carol (who had been the first British director to be knighted in 1953) persuaded Warners to part with $6 million to adapt Claire Huffaker's novel Nobody Loves a Drunken Indian, even though it had provoked gales of protest from Native Americans in the Southwest on account of its perceived racist overtones. Reed did little to soothe feathers by casting Anthony Quinn as Flapping Eagle, a drunkard who vows to lead his people to the promised land after uncovering treaties guaranteeing their rights. Uncomfortably mixing broad comedy with sentimental melodrama and clumsy politicking, Flap (1970) was a monumental flop and Reed only directed one more film before his death in 1976.
John G. Avildsen
Best Director, Best Picture, Rocky, 1976
John G. Avildsen had mixed feelings about receiving his Oscar nomination for Rocky (1976), as around the time it was announced in spring 1977, he was fired from Saturday Night Fever because John Travolta didn't want the film to become a disco-dancing variation on the underdog theme. The Everyman scenario continued to appeal to Avildsen, however, and he rebounded to Slow Dancing in the Big City, in which unprepossessing but cheery New York columnist Paul Sorvino finds an unexpected soul mate in kooky dancer, Anne Ditchburn. Harking back to more innocent screwball times, this shamelessly sentimental romantic mismatch had a self-conscious charm that prompted Variety to opine that "somewhere on the cutting room floor probably is a fine movie." However, the same review lamented that Slow Dancing "has so much heart John Avildsen's aorta is showing." Unsurprisingly, it took only $1,576,500 at the US box office, while its boxing predecessor scooped $225 million worldwide.
Best Director, Best Picture, The Silence of the Lambs, 1991
How else do you follow a chiller about a cannibalistic serial killer than with a documentary about a preacher in your family? Yet Cousin Bobby (1992) wasn't Jonathan Demme's initial choice of a project after The Silence of the Lambs (1991) became the first film since One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) to win the Big Five Oscars. He originally wanted to profile a double-dutch skipping team to boost the image of African-American kids on screen. However, the picture stalled because of resistance to a white man following a troupe of young black girls. So, Demme took up the Reverend Robert Castle's invitation to visit his mission to the mainly black and Hispanic congregation of St. Mary's Episcopal Church on Harlem's 126th Street. Demme hadn't seen his cousin in over 30 years and he spent 18 months chronicling one man's determined bid to make a difference. Few home movies have ever been so compelling.
Best Director, Best Picture, Titanic, 1997
James Cameron is probably the biggest casualty of Oscar night, as "the King of the World" hasn't released a commercial feature in the 11 years since Titanic (1997) took 11 statuettes (tying Ben Hur's record at the time). It will be 2009 before the long-gestating Avatar finally unspools. Cameron hasn't been idle, however, as he has devoted himself to documentaries about the deep. The Discovery Channel-funded Expedition: Bismarck (2002) took the Canadian director and his crew three miles down into the Atlantic to examine the wreck of the legendary German battleship that was sunk on 27 May 1941. Ghosts of the Abyss (2003) saw Cameron revisit Titanic's last resting place for a 3-D IMAX featurette that some have accused of being no more than a cinematic grave-robbing. Seemingly chastened, Cameron returned to the subject of the ethereality of the ocean floor that he had first broached in The Abyss (1989) for another IMAX stereoscopic, Aliens of the Deep (2005), in which a team of marine biologists and NASA scientists behave like characters in a Jules Verne adventure.