1970s Best Director Oscar Winners Ranked From Worst To Best

Ahh, the 70s! This decade means a lot to me as it was when I first started going to the cinema on my own to see the films I wanted to see rather than accompanying my father or aunt. My way of spending the holidays was to go along to the cinema for the first showing of the day. Back then if you liked the film, you could sit in and watch it over and over and very often I did. Looking at the list of Oscar winners and the 70s was the first decade that I had seen all of the best pictures, best directors, and most of the best actor (male and female) winners.

So it seems an obvious place for me to start. Is it best decade for directors? I think that is a discussion for another day. I just feel that this is a decade that is comfortable for me and hope it stirs memories for plenty of you fellow film fans.

As always, this ranking is down to my tastes and preferences, so you may or may not agree but I look forward to your comments… remember there are no right or wrong answers here!


10. John G. Avildsen – 1976 – Rocky

It’s December 1935 and Illinois, USA heralds the birth of John Guilbert Avildsen. Early work included jobs as a advertising copy writer and a military chaplain’s assistant. Following his move to Hollywood, he started out as assistant director for Arthur Penn and Otto Preminger before making his directorial debut with ‘Turn On To Love’ in 1969. He went on to make 25 feature films along with some shorts, segments, and TV work. His trade marks are underdog films, realistic character development, and montage sequences.

His biggest success is his Oscar winner ‘Rocky’, but he has also made a few other well known titles, most notably the first three ‘Karate Kid’ outings and the woeful ‘Rocky V’. To me, it is only first couple of ‘Karate Kid’ films that stop him being thrust firmly into the “one hit wonder” category. How different that could have been if he hadn’t been fired from directing ‘Serpico’ and ‘Saturday Night Fever’.

His final feature was ‘Inferno’ in 1999; not the Dan Brown adaptation, this one is a bit of a clunker for Jean-Claude Van Damme. He did a bit of producing in the current millennium and died in June 2017.


9. Robert Benton – 1979 – Kramer vs Kramer

This time we’re in Texas, USA for the birth of baby Bobby Benton in September 1932. He’s best known for his writing rather than directing and has another two Oscars; Best Adapted Screenplay for ‘Kramer vs Kramer’ and Best Original Screenplay for ‘Places In The Heart’(1984).

In all honesty, a look at the titles he’s been involved with show that his directorial success is, pretty much, a one off. The only other ones that registered on my radar are ‘Billy Bathgate’ and ‘The Human Stain’ and they didn’t register that strongly. Much better known are his writing efforts… ‘Bonnie And Clyde’, ‘What’s Up, Doc?’, ‘Superman’(1978), and ‘The Ice Harvest’ for instance.

He’s happily married I assume as he tied the knot in 1964 and is still going strong into his 80s.


8. Bob Fosse – 1972 – Cabaret

Another ‘Best Director’ who was better known for other things. In this case Bob Fosse has a much longer CV as a dancer and choreographer than as a director. Born during June 1927 in Chicago, USA. Idolising Fred Astaire, he started out as a dancer despite having the wrong build; pigeon toes and a slouching posture are not the ideal. To overcome this, he developed his rhythm and style to make up for what he lacked physically. Fosse’s signature style, the “Fosse Amoeba”, was distinctive for its shoulder-rolling, turned in knees and toes, finger-snapping, bowler-hat-wearing, hip-thrusting, gloved-“jazz-hands” and brash sexuality.

Fosse’s films fall mainly into two camps, musicals and biopics, while his quasi-autobiography ‘All That Jazz’ has a tap shoe in both camps. His biopics were controversial both in treatment and subject; ‘Lenny’ tells the story of acerbic 1960s comic Lenny Bruce, while ‘Star 80’ is based on the true story of 1980 Playmate of the Year Dorothy Stratten. His musicals (‘Sweet Charity’, ‘All That Jazz’, and, of course, ‘Cabaret’) all benefit from the simple fact that they were directed by someone who lived and breathed as a dancer for years.

His death in September 1987 could have been a scene from a film… having a massive heart attack in the arms of his wife (who he had separated from fifteen years earlier but never divorced) while across the road from the Willard Hotel as the revival of ‘Sweet Charity’ was beginning.


7. William Friedkin – 1971 – The French Connection

Another director from Chicago! I wonder if there is something in the water? Born in August 1935, Friedkin began going to movies as a teenager, and has cited ‘Citizen Kane’ as one of his key influences even though he did not see the film until 1960, when he was 25 years old. Despite (or because of?) this, his directorial debut was ‘Good Times’ in 1967. A musical comedy starring Sonny and Cher who spoof various genres, this was basically a ninety minute version of their TV shows.

Next up was a passion project of which he was very proud but didn’t do much at the box office; ‘The Birthday Party’ only made $400,000 off a budget of $640.000. Then he hits his stride… ‘The Night They Raided Minsky’s’ was buoyed along on a wave of 20’s nostalgia, ‘The Boys in the Band’ has 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and then ‘The French Connection’ wins him the Best Director Oscar.

Next year he gets another nomination for ‘The Exorcist’; he doesn’t get the Oscar but he does get a Golden Globe. After that, things go downhill and the best he can do in the next decade is a nomination for a Golden Raspberry; he’s saved from winning that by the truly woeful ‘Xanadu’.

Still working into his 80’s, he hasn’t hit the same heights as he did forty years ago but there’s still time yet!


6. Michael Cimino – 1978 – The Deer Hunter

Another rollercoaster of a director… one year an Oscar, the next a Razzie!

Born in NYC USA around 1939? Cimino himself gave various birth dates up to February 1952. This wasn’t the only area that he demonstrated an economy with the truth… he padded his academic life and embroidered his military career. To be fair though he did acknowledge his exaggerations, he once said ‘When I’m kidding, I’m serious, and when I’m serious, I’m kidding, I am not who I am, and I am who I am not’. What we do know is that he was found dead in July 2016.

Given he is best known as a director, he doesn’t have a vast number of films under his belt… seven in total. His zenith is, undoubtedly, ‘The Deer Hunter’ while the nadir is undoubtedly ‘Heaven’s Gate’, anyone for the five and a half hour work print?

He has been described by as vain, self-indulgent, egotistical, megalomaniacal, and an enfant terrible but, secretly, isn’t that what we want in our directors?