5. Bernardo Bertolucci – The Last Emperor – 1987
Born into a artistic household (teacher for a mother, poet, art historian, anthologist and film critic for a father), Bertolucci began writing at the age of fifteen winning many prizes including the Viareggio Prize for his first book.
He started his film career as an assistant director to Pier Paolo Pasolini after his father helped to publish Pasolini’s first novel. It wasn’t long before he was directing by himself; his debut was ‘La commare secca’ in 1962.
The next ten years saw him making films, shorts, and segments and mainly in Italian when… wham! He landed on the international scene with a big money maker and an even bigger controversy… ‘Last Tango In Paris’. It made $96.3 million off a budget of $1.25 million; if they had managed to get a tie in to butter sales they would have made even more.
The next fifteen years saw him build up an international following until he hit the big one with ‘The Last Emperor’. A biography of the last emperor of China. Despite the fact that it took three months to get into weekend box office top 10, ‘The Last Emperor’ was nominated for nine oscars (including Best Picture) and won them all.
4. Barry Levinson – Rain Man 1988
First thing… this is not the Barry Levinson who is a producer born in 1932 and died the year before ‘Rain Man’ came out.
Our Barry Levinson graduated from high school in 1960 and went to the American University in Washington DC. After a while he decided that he’d be better off in Los Angeles learning how to act, produce, write and improvise. He started writing sketches for the likes of Marty Feldman and Carol Burnett. He moved on to film screenwriting and had some success writing for Mel Brooks on ‘Silent Movie’ and ‘High Anxiety’.
His directing debut (‘Diner’, 1982) was also his first solo writing endeavour and also his first solo Oscar nomination; he was jointly nominated for ‘…And Justice For All’ with his then wife Valerie Curtin.
I think it is fair to say that Levinson has had a good run with his projects (‘Good Morning Vietnam’, ‘Wag The Dog’, ‘Sphere’ are just the first three I could think of) so there’s no surprise he picked up the Oscar for ‘Rain Man’. To be honest I’m more surprised he hasn’t won more.
3. Richard Attenborough – Gandhi – 1982
I don’t think it is going too far to say that the Attenborough brothers are UK national treasures. David is a magnificent naturalist who has been on our screens for over half a century; fun fact – he is the only person to have won BAFTAs for his programmes in each of black and white, colour, HD, and 3D. But our topic here is his older brother Richard.
RADA trained, he served in the RAF during WWII as part of the RAF film unit recording several missions over Europe from the rear gunner’s seat. He sustained permanent hearing damage and started acting in propaganda films. His first role was an uncredited one in ‘In Which We Serve’ but his big breakthrough was as Pinkie in ‘Brighton Rock’(1947), a part he had played in the theatre.
Breakthrough might be a bit of an understatement as the next fifteen years saw him averaging two films a year culminating in his, probably, highest profile film until the 90s… ‘The Great Escape’. That film has been a staple of UK television for decades. It was chosen as the family film that male UK television viewers would most want to see on Christmas Day.
1969 saw his directorial debut with the musical ‘Oh What A Lovely War’ which also led to his acting appearances becoming more sporadic. Fortunately this didn’t stop him starring as the serial killer John Christie in 10 Rillington Place (1971) which, in my opinion, was simply brilliant.
So… ‘Gandhi’. A sprawling three hour epic biography of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. As well as his directing Oscar, it was nominated for ten others and won eight in total. I do like this film and I remember when I saw it in the cinema back in the early 80s it was the only film I’ve seen where the audience stood up and applauded at the end.
2. Miloš Forman – Amadeus – 1984
At no.2 for the second decade running is Miloš Forman. Born Jan Tomáš Forman in February 1932 in Čáslav, Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic) but an American citizen from 1975. His parents were arrested by the Nazis as participants in the underground resistance and his father died in Buchenwald and his mother died in Auschwitz.
In the mid-1950s Forman studied at the Film Faculty of the Academy of Arts in Prague. Upon graduating he wrote two screenplays, the first of which, ‘Nechte to na Mně’ (Leave It to Me), was filmed by Martin Frič. Forman was an assistant director on the second of those, a situation comedy called ‘Štěňata’ (Cubs) directed by Ivo Novák.
He continued working in Czechoslovakia, particularly as part of the Czech New Wave, until coming to the USA in 1968 and starting his English language film work with ‘Taking Off’ in 1971. A couple of sport films later, technically a short and a section in a feature film, and he started on a film based on a play based on a Ken Kesey novel… ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’.
Almost a decade later and he’s back with ‘Amadeus’. This one garnered 53 awards nominations and received 40 wins, including eight Academy Awards (including Best Picture), four BAFTA Awards, four Golden Globes, and a Directors Guild of America (DGA) award. As of 2016, it is the most recent film to have more than one nomination in the Academy Award for Best Actor category (for Tom Hulce as Mozart who lost out to F. Murray Abraham as Salieri).
1. Oliver Stone – Platoon – 1986 & Born On The Fourth Of July – 1989
Born and brought up between Manhattan and Connecticut, he was sent off to a Pennsylvania boarding school while his parents divorced affecting him deeply. After the divorce he spent a lot of time with his grandparents in France. So much time that he became fluent in French and at 17 worked in the Paris mercantile exchange trading in sugar and cocoa… inspiration for ‘Wall Street’.
In 1967 he enlisted in the U.S, Army and requested a combat posting to Vietnam; first with the infantry, where he was wounded twice, and then with the motorised infantry. He was awarded 9 medals including various bravery awards.
On demobilisation he went to New York University graduating with a Fine Art B.A. in Film. He had a few small acting parts, made some shorts, had a few odd jobs, and did a bit of screenwriting. One of those bits earned him his first Oscar for ‘Midnight Express’. He wrote a couple more screenplays (one of which was ‘Scarface’ based on his own cocaine use but it must have been cathartic as he kicked the habit while writing it) before moving into writing and directing.
He wrote and directed two films back to back… ‘Salvador’ which was a critical hit but a box office disaster and his first directing Oscar of the decade ‘Platoon’ which brought him right into the public eye and he closed the decade with another Oscar. For this one he went back to Vietnam… ‘Born On The Fourth Of July’. He co-wrote this with Ron Kovic (played by Tom Cruise) based on his autobiography.
These two films earned 16 Academy Award nominations (6 wins), 9 Golden Globe nominations (7 wins), and 5 BAFTA nominations (2 wins). All in all, not too bad.