If the best director matchup at the Academy Awards on Sunday looks familiar, you aren’t hallucinating: On a warm spring night in Los Angeles in 1994, Jane Campion and Steven Spielberg, who are nominated this year for The Power of the Dog and West Side Story, went head-to-head.
But unlike this year, when Campion and her queer Western, The Power of the Dog, are the runaway favourites, both directors had a fighting chance in 1994.
At the time, Spielberg was 47 and had yet to enter the greatest-of-all-time conversation, although he had a stellar three Oscar nominations for directing. That was the backdrop when he was nominated for Schindler’s List, the Holocaust drama about a German businessman who saved more than 1,100 Jews from Nazi death camps. The film was the most-nominated feature that year, with 12 mentions in all, including one for best picture.
Although the directors’ field included James Ivory (The Remains of the Day), Jim Sheridan (In the Name of the Father) and Robert Altman (Short Cuts), Spielberg’s strongest challenger was Campion, then 39, who was just the second woman ever nominated in the category, for her period drama The Piano. That film about a Scottish woman finding love outside an arranged marriage in 19th-century New Zealand earned eight nominations, including best picture. (Campion wrote the screenplay and had become the first female filmmaker to win the Palme d’Or, the highest prize at the Cannes Film Festival, the previous summer.)
At first, Campion had the edge after winning best director at the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards and the New York Film Critics Circle Awards, but both groups gave best picture to Schindler’s List. Spielberg’s film picked up a third accolade from the National Board of Review, which gave best director to Martin Scorsese for The Age of Innocence.
Film critic Jack Mathews noted in Newsday that the first three critics awards naming Schindler’s List as their best picture while snubbing Spielberg in the director race recalled the controversy over The Color Purple eight years earlier, when that Spielberg drama received 11 Oscar nominations but none for directing.
“The charge made then by outraged Spielberg supporters was that his colleagues were too jealous of his success to honor him,” Mathews wrote.
But in 1994 Spielberg mounted a comeback, winning the Golden Globe in January and the Directors Guild Award in early March. By the night of the 66th Academy Awards ceremony, on March 21 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the race was his to lose.
He got off to a strong start: Schindler’s List picked up awards for the best-adapted screenplay, art direction, cinematography, film editing and original score (John Williams’ third Oscar for collaboration with Spielberg). The Piano won best actress for Holly Hunter’s wordless performance as a sign language-using piano player; a surprise best-supporting actress statuette for Anna Paquin, who at 11 became the second-youngest winner of a competitive acting Oscar (after Tatum O’Neal for Paper Moon); and a best original screenplay prize for Campion.
Although it was a great night if you were Spielberg, the stack of Schindler’s List victories hardly made for gripping television — Orlando Sentinel film critic Jay Boyar bemoaned that “this year’s Oscarcast was only a little more exciting than a wine snob droning on about his favourite vintages.”
But then, it was time for the big reveal.
The best director presenter, Clint Eastwood, who had won the previous year for Unforgiven, slid open the envelope. “The Oscar goes to — this is a big surprise,” Eastwood said dryly before reading the name everyone knew was coming. “Steven Spielberg.”
A teary Spielberg kissed his wife and hugged his 74-year-old mom. He made his way to the stage as the room gave him a rousing standing ovation. He hugged Eastwood and took the statuette — his first Oscar — clutching it to his heart as he tentatively felt its weight.
“This is the first time I’ve ever had one of these in my hand,” said Spielberg, who had previously been nominated for Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T.
In a speech that lasted a little over two minutes, he thanked Auschwitz survivor Poldek Pfefferberg, who talked Thomas Keneally into writing the book on which Schindler’s List is based, as well the film’s cast and its screenwriter, Steven Zaillian. He concluded with an acknowledgement of those who died in the Holocaust, “the 6 million who can’t be watching this among the 1 billion watching this telecast tonight.”
In all, Schindler’s List won seven Oscars, including best picture — the most of any film that year — while The Piano took home three.
Fast forward to 2022, and this time it’s Campion, 67, who’s the presumptive favorite, for The Power of the Dog, which earned a pack-leading 12 nominations in February. After scoring best director victories at the Critics Choice, Directors Guild, BAFTAs and Golden Globe Awards, her path to her first directing statuette looks straightforward — if she herself doesn’t sink her chances. Campion apologized last week after wrongly suggesting in her Critics Choice Awards acceptance speech that tennis greats Venus and Serena Williams didn’t compete against men the way she had to.
But Spielberg, 75, isn’t stepping aside and making way. He’s the first person to be nominated for directing in six different decades (he also won for Saving Private Ryan), and West Side Story, which picked up seven nominations, is a virtual lock to take home at least one award on the night: Ariana DeBose is considered a sure thing in the supporting actress category.
What will probably hurt Spielberg’s outside shot, though, is that West Side Story missed out on nominations for adapted screenplay and editing. (No director has won the Oscar without a film being considered for screenplay and editing.) None of the other non-Campion nominees in the category — Kenneth Branagh for Belfast, Paul Thomas Anderson for Licorice Pizza and Ryusuke Hamaguchi for Drive My Car — scored an editing nomination, either.
So Campion remains the safe bet, despite the possibility that The Power of the Dog may not win a single acting category given Will Smith’s string of best actor triumphs for King Richard and CODA actor Troy Kotsur’s run of wins for supporting actor. If Campion were to win, she would become just the third female director to win the prize, after Kathryn Bigelow’s victory in 2010 for The Hurt Locker and Chloé Zhao’s triumph last year for Nomadland.