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The 15 Greatest Hollywood Directors Who Never Won an Oscar

23 February 2016 | Features, People Lists | by Joshua Price

best-Alfred-Hitchcock-film

The Oscars are fast approaching and though there are plenty of people eager to find out which actor will pick up which award, and which director will be honoured for their work, there are even more people thinking about who should have been honoured.

Every year the common consensus is that even though an Academy Award is regarded as the highest honour a filmmaker can receive, more often than not they make a mistake. They award the wrong film, honour the wrong actor or snub the right director.

While it must be incredibly frustrating for certain actors to be overlooked time and time again, directors tend to only work on one project each year, meaning that the amount of opportunities they have to be honoured is significantly less.

Whether it’s due to personal bias, political reasons, a director being ahead of their time or the Academy being behind the times, some directors are simply not awarded with the famous golden statue, no matter how respected and talented they are. As Harvey Keitel said when Martin Scorsese lost the best director category to Kevin Costner in 1991 “Maybe Scorsese got what he deserved, exclusion from the mediocre”.

This list will include the directors of Hollywood who have never won an Academy Award for directing. A select few have won an Oscar in another category, but for some unknown reason they went home empty handed time and time again when it came to their central profession.

Just to quickly clarify this list will include the directors of Hollywood only, as even though there are numerous foreign directors who have never won an Oscar for directing, it is just too broad a subject to put them on the same list (maybe it’s a list for another day) so the likes of Kurosawa, Bergman, Fellini, Godard, Leone and Lang will not be here, even if they are just as worthy of an award.

Also, it must be acknowledged that for some directors there is still a slight possibility that they may yet take home an Oscar for their directing but by this late stage of their career, and given the Academy’s track record to overlook their work it seems highly unlikely.

So though a majority of these directors are no longer with us and therefore can never receive an award for Best Directing, some (we hope) might still receive one.

 

15. Ridley Scott

Ridley Scott

Known for his highly concentrated, stylistic and atmospheric style of directing, Ridley Scott’s career has been as varied as it is excellent. He may be a knight of the realm but he has yet to win any academy award, let alone one specifically for directing.

This does seem especially remarkable as one only needs to look at the films he wasn’t nominated for to understand how tragic it is that the academy have overlooked him for so long. These include Alien, Blade Runner and American Gangster.

It is a frustrating case when it comes to the films he has been nominated for, as no matter how good Scott’s film is there always seems to be someone else that is more deserving.

With his first nomination for Thelma and Louise losing out to Jonathon Demme for Silence of the Lambs, his nomination for Gladiator was won by Steven Soderbergh for Traffic and even though the actual winner was not deserving of the award in 2001, David Lynch would have been my second choice as the recipient of that award.

While some were hoping that the academy might honour Scott’s career in 2015 with a nomination and subsequent win for The Martian, it was not to be.

It is a shame as Scott’s ability to build entire worlds through his talents as a director is unparalleled and the idea that he may never receive recognition for that is not worth thinking about. However ultimately, his influence and legacy is far greater than any mere award, with his body of work speaking for itself.

Nominated For: Thelma and Louise (1991), Gladiator (2000), Black Hawk Down (2001)

Should Have Won For: Blade Runner (1982)

 

14. David Lynch

david lynch

True, it is hard to imagine the academy ever honouring any of Lynch’s surreal, violent and disturbing movies but frankly, it shouldn’t be because if craftsmanship was the only thing they took into account Lynch would have earned that award multiple times by now. Every time Lynch gets behind the camera you know that what awaits is an utterly unique cinematic experience that many filmmakers have attempted to replicate, but none have achieved the same level of success of recognition as Lynch.

Lynch has been nominated three times over the course of his career, the first was for The Elephant Man in 1981 but he lost to Robert Redford for Ordinary People. Then another opportunity presented itself in 1986 when Lynch received a nomination for his neo-noir mystery masterpiece, Blue Velvet.

Despite generating significant academic attention with regard to its thematic symbolism and being widely regarded as Lynch’s magnum opus it also failed to bag a best director award for Lynch, losing to Oliver Stone’s Platoon (which admittedly is another case of the academy choosing between what is a very difficult matchup).

It would be another fifteen years before Lynch was given another nomination for Mulholland Drive in 2001. It was yet another psychologically complex neo-noir mystery but instead the academy gave the award to Ron Howard for A Beautiful Mind. Now with the greatest of respects to Mr Howard, what were they thinking? The fact that he wasn’t even nominated for the nightmarish Eraserhead isn’t even worth thinking about.

Nominated For: The Elephant Man (1981), Blue Velvet (1986), Mullholland Drive (2001)

Should Have Won For: Mullholland Drive (2001)

 

13. Arthur Penn

Arthur Penn

Penn is yet another filmmaker who happened to be ahead of his time, a director whose massive contribution and influence was only fully realised until long after the academy had handed out the award he should have won.

With 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde, Penn broke cinematic ground unlike few directors ever have. Bonnie and Clyde is considered a landmark film, and is regarded as one of the first films of the New Hollywood era, since it broke many cinematic taboos and was popular with the younger generation.

The film was strongly influenced by the French New Wave directors, both in its rapid shifts of tone, and in its choppy editing, which is particularly noticeable in the film’s closing sequence.

He gave the depression era tale an edge that no other American films had at the time, but they would incorporate it for the next decade as the New Hollywood ear owed itself entirely to Bonnie and Clyde. It did earn Penn a nomination for best director but he would loose to Mike Nichol’s The Graduate, which is a tough choice to say the least.

But even then there are a number of other projects for which Penn could have received the award. His other nominations include The Miracle Worker and Alice’s Restaurant as well as all the films that didn’t earn him a nomination such as Night Moves.

Ultimately though it comes down to the legendary Bonnie and Clyde, few films can claim to have so utterly changed the landscape of American movies as much as that tale of young love and crime.

Nominated For: Bonnie and Clyde (1967), The Miracle Worker (1962) and Alice’s Restaurant (1969)

Should Have Won For: Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

 

12. Fritz Lang

Fritz Lang

Now, before you point out that Lang is a German director, just hear me out. While Lang spent the first half of his career making artistic masterpieces in Europe such as the ground-breaking Metropolis and the masterful M, he fled to America during the rise of Nazism and worked within Hollywood as a director.

This part of Lang’s career is sometimes overlooked and that is a severe misconception as he continued to craft excellent films during his time in Hollywood. While at the time they were unfavourably compared to his earlier work, their subtle use of expressionism is seen as integral to the evolution of American movies and the emergence of film-noir.

His first American film was the crime drama Fury, which starred Spencer Tracey as a man wrongly accused of a crime nearly killed by a lynch mob during his time awaiting trial in prison. It received a nomination for best writing and was praised as a suspenseful thriller of intricate detail.Another classic is Lang’s uncompromising police drama The Big Heat, noted for its stark brutality and raw, unrelenting tension. As well as this Lang also deserved recognition for classics such as You Only Live Once and While the City Sleeps.

Once again, despite his obvious genius it can hardly come as a surprise that this director was overlooked. Even at the height of the genre, the academy had little time for hardboiled noir movies and regularly excluded them from their criteria.

But frankly that is their loss as Lang’s contribution to cinema, just from his Hollywood career alone and not taking into account his European masterpieces, is an immense one that few other filmmakers can match.

Nominated For: Nothing

Should Have Won For: The Big Heat (1953)

 

11. Charlie Chaplin

Charlie Chaplin

Once described as “Cinema’s most universal icon”, Charlie Chaplin has gone down in history as not only the most prolific auteur of the silent era, but also one of the most significant figures of cinema history.

But shockingly, despite directing nearly every film he starred in and virtually all of them were instant, or came to be regarded as huge successes both critically and commercially, he never won an academy award for best director.

In all fairness, Chaplin was making movies long before the award actually existed, but by the time the first ceremony was underway, Chaplin still had such classics as City Lights, Modern Times and The Great Dictator to look forward to but all came and went without earning an Oscar for best director. He did win three Oscars but none of them were for directing, one was for composing the score of Limelight, and the other two were honorary awards.

But here a technicality must be addressed, as for the first ever ceremony Chaplin had been nominated for four categories. All four of these nominations were subsequently repressed in favour of awarding him an honorary Oscar “for versatility and genius in acting, writing, directing and producing ‘The Circus’.”

While this may technically count as an award for directing it is officially listed as an honorary award and that seems remarkably underwhelming for a genius like Chaplin.

Nominated For: Nothing

Should Have Won For: Modern Times (1936)

 

10. Ernst Lubitsch

Ernst Lubitsch

Despite earning a reputation as Hollywood’s most prestigious, elegant and sophisticated director through his comedic sensibilities to such an extent that the term of “the Lubitsch touch” came to describe this sense of prestige and esteem, Lubitsch never won an academy award for best director, despite being nominated three times. He won an honorary award in 1947, just a few months before his death.

Lubitsch had a remarkable career, spanning over 40 years that would leave a lasting legacy on the comedy genre. One of the films he is nominated for is a unique one as The Patriot is lost with no complete copy in existence and just fragments to go on, so it is admittedly rather difficult to make a judgement as to whether or not it was deserving of the award. But his other two films that were nominated The Love Parade and Heaven Can Wait were both fine examples of early Hollywood comedy.

But some of Lubitsch’s finest films were not even given a nomination for the best director award. To Be Or Not to Be is often regarded as his best film but was overlooked at the time as many critics took issue with the notion of making fun of the Nazis, his screwball masterpiece Trouble in Paradise and The Shop Around the Corner were wrongfully deprived of even a nomination.

Nominated For: The Patriot (1928), The Love Parade (1929), Heaven Can Wait (1943)

Should Have Won For: Trouble in Paradise (1932)

 

9. Howard Hawks

best howard hawks movies

Hawks was another of Hollywood’s founding fathers, a favourite among audiences and critics alike, so that only makes it more surprising that he was never the recipient of an academy award for best director. Like many other great directors he was able to apply his talents to multiple genres, starting out with classic screwball comedies, most notably Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday, and Hawks never looked back from there.

He also dabbled in the crime genre with Scarface, film-noir with The Big Sleep and the classic John Wayne western in the form of Rio Bravo and Red River. He even undertook a brief foray into science fiction with The Thing from Another World, which served as the inspiration for John Carpenter’s horror masterpiece The Thing.

But despite this he was only nominated once for Sergeant York, but lost out to John Ford for How Green was My Valley, and with no disrespect to Hawks, his film certainly wasn’t second in line for that award, if you can recall another film that was nominated that year…

Despite Hawks’s work in a variety of Hollywood genres he still retained an independent sensibility and his films were able to transcend multiple genres, they were never defined as just one type of movie, whether they were westerns or noir they would include comedy or romance and other elements of human interaction.

The directorial style and the use of natural, conversational dialogue in Hawks’ films are cited as major influences on many noted filmmakers such as Altman and Tarantino and Hawks’ work has gone on to inspire countless more.

Nominated For: Sergeant York (1941)

Should Have Won For: The Big Sleep (1946)

 

 

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  • Brandon Thompson

    Sidney Lumet is probably my favorite New Hollywood director who never won an Oscar, while most people would say Network is his best I think Dog Day Afternoon is but if he won for either film I would be happy.

  • Klaus Dannick

    Excellent list! I agree with all of these choices.

  • Arshad Khan

    So one can say oscar sucks now officially ..

    • Llort Bew

      I wouldn’t say it sucks, but its importance is definitely overrated.

  • How about Terrence Malick?

  • siraj shaik

    yaar..you missed christopher nolan..

    • Chrisychipz

      But every year Chris Nolan had a movie, there was a better one (albeit none were Hollywood movies so they weren’t even nominated)

  • Chrisychipz

    Anyone else think Psycho is overrated? I mean it’s good, but Eyes Without A Face came out the same year and took way more risks and was superior

  • Andreas P.

    The list is solid, but I think it should have been bigger, because some of the omissions are heavy… for example Terrence Malick, Paul Thomas Anderson, Alan J. Pakula, Hal Ashby, John Cassavetes, Peter Weir, Alexander Mackendrick, Richard Linklater, Alexander Payne, Michael Mann, Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch, Gus Van Sant, Terry Gilliam, Peter Bogdanovich, David O’Russell, Christopher Nolan, Wes Anderson, Brian De Palma.

  • Gregory Spera

    Chaplin, Kubrick, Hitchcock, Kurosawa, Bergman, Fellini, Godard… The surest test for true cinematic genius is to NEVER have won a Best Director Oscar.