All 9 Best Director Oscar Winners From The 1980s Ranked From Worst To Best

Widely held to be one of the worst decades in Western Cinema. Studio driven blockbusters took over from the Director driven New Hollywood films of the 70s. This is seen by the top ten grossing film of the decade; only one (E.T. The Extra Terrestrial) is not part of a multi-million dollar franchise.

It was a decade of differences in that there are only nine entries due one of our chaps winning twice and America doesn’t quite have a stranglehold on producing great directors with only six of the nine being born in the USA. Also this decade has three of the six men best known as actors who went on to win the Best Director Oscar.

This is also the decade that brought us Indiana Jones, Ghostbusters, Back To The Future, Beverly Hills Cop, and re-launched Batman. However, apart from a couple of nominations for Steven Spielberg, none of those film’s directors had a look in at the best director slot.

So… are these all art school efforts that everybody claims to have seen but either never did or secretly hated or can they share a bill with the latest multiplex stuffer.


9. James L Brooks – Terms Of Endearment

James L Brooks is probably best known for being a writer rather than a director; he has 41 writing credits compared to 6 for directing. After dropping out of NYU, he went to work for CBS. Initially as an usher but eventually going on to write links for the news broadcasts. Later he moved to Los Angeles and wound up creating and writing ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’ as well as the spin offs ‘Rhoda’ and ‘Lou Grant’. Other TV work included ‘Taxi’, and ‘The Tracey Ullman Show’ which led to the one the whole world has seen his name on… ‘The Simpsons’.

Anyway… ‘Terms Of Endearment’… hmmm. To be honest I have no idea how this schmalz won Best Director AND Best Film. Possibly because there was no real competition that year? ‘Fraid not! Bruce Beresford’s ‘Tender Mercies’, Mike Nichols’ ‘Silkwood’, Peter Yates’ ‘The Dresser’, and Ingmar Bergman on fine form with ‘Fanny And Alexander’. Any of those would have made a much better winner.


8. Warren Beatty – Reds – 1981

Another Best Director winner who isn’t best known as a director. This time though we have an actor but some might say he’s best known as a serial womaniser; he has, allegedly, had affairs with over a hundred women including Cher, Twiggy, Princess Margaret, Jackie Kennedy, Jane Fonda, Madonna, Linda McCartney, Brigette Bardot, Raquel Welch, and Carly Simon (‘You’re So Vain’ is partly about him, just the second verse). But then age started to catch up with him. After being dumped by Stephanie Seymour for All Rose, he settled down and married Annette Bening in 1992, they’re still together.

He got interested in cinema as a child by accompanying his elder sister, Shirley MacLaine. He started acting and singing as most of us do, mimicking the TV and radio but, in his case, to help cope with the stress caused by an alcoholic father. He had the chance to play American Football but rejected the offers made to him. He enlisted in the California Air National Guard but was discharged within the year on physical grounds. He started making appearances in TV shows and made his one and only Broadway appearance. Then he got his film debut opposite Natalie Wood in ‘Splendour In The Grass’.

His winning film, ‘Reds’, is the story of American journalist John Reed who was covering the October 1917 Russian Revolution. It was well received on release and nominated for Best Picture, losing out to ‘Chariots Of Fire’. It was also nominated for four acting and the original screenplay oscars. The only winner out of that lot was Maureen Stapleton for Best Supporting Actor – Female.


7. Robert Redford – Ordinary People – 1980

Another poacher turned gamekeeper or actor turned director.

After a less than stellar voyage through the education system, Redford was thrown out of college and toured Europe. On his return to New York, he took some classes in art and drama and made his Broadway debut in 1959 with a small role in ‘Tall Story’. 1960 saw him starting to get TV bit parts as well as theatre work; he guest starred in ‘The Untouchables’, ‘Perry Mason’, ‘Doctor Kildare’, and ‘The Twilight Zone’ amongst others.

This was a busy time for Redford as 1960 also saw his film debut with a minor role in, once again, ‘Tall Story’. Similarly the 1962 Broadway production of Neil Simon’s ‘Barefoot In The Park’ was his biggest stage success and the film version, made five years later, was what launched him as a major star.

This is not the place to go into too much detail about Redford’s acting career, not that there are many secrets about it, this is supposed to be about him as a director and ‘Ordinary People’ is a good start. As well as the Oscar success, it picked up a raft of nominations and awards. So was that just a flash in the pan? Not really. After the so-so ‘The Milagro Beanfield War’, he made the better received ‘A River Runs Through It’ and then came his best effort to date… ‘Quiz Show’.


6. Sydney Pollack – Out Of Africa – 1985

Sydney Pollack was a cinematic polymath. While some of our subjects’ actors who directed, writers who acted, etc. Pollack did it all.

Originally intending to become a doctor he left Indiana for NYC and acting school where he studied under Sanford Meisner. 1956-58 saw Pollack serving with the army following which Meisner invited him to come and work as his assistant. Although he started his career as a stage actor, it wasn’t long before he got into TV directing; he was encouraged by Burt Lancaster. He made his film acting debut in 1962’s ‘War Hunt’ where he met Robert Redford and they became life long friends.

Over the years Pollack has been a real Oscar botherer. His films have gathered 48 nominations and won 11 of them. He was nominated as Best Director three times; 1969 – ‘They Shoot Horses Don’t They?’, 1982 – ‘Tootsie’, and, of course, 1985 – ‘Out Of Africa’ . Throw in ‘The Yakuza’, ‘The Way We Were’, ‘Three Days Of The Condor’ and I think it’s fair to say that Sydney Pollack was no flash in the pan.