With “Barbie” now in the billion-dollar worldwide box office club and threatening to be the highest-grossing movie of all 2023, its place in the Best Picture conversation is all but assured. Suppose it stays there long enough to actually make the final ten. In that case, it will put Greta Gerwig in the record books – and not just as the first female director of a billion-dollar movie to also have a Best Picture nomination. In fact, it will make her the first director of any gender to start her solo directing career with three Best Picture nominees in a row.
As many a nitpicker would point out, Gerwig’s directorial career technically started by co-directing “Nights and Weekends” with Joe Swanberg in 2008, which means that “Lady Bird,” “Little Women” and “Barbie” aren’t her first three films as a director. Yet they are her first three solo films as a director, and no director in the modern era has ever directed their first three films on their own to Best Picture nominations – at least for the moment.
“Lady Bird” got into Best Picture and got Gerwig into Best Director, while “Little Women” could only achieve the former. But while it may ultimately become too crowded for Gerwig to get back into Best Director for “Barbie,” Best Picture should be an easier repeat at this rate. Depending on how much more money is made and how many fall festival films fall short of preseason expectations, “Barbie” might get Gerwig back into Best Picture on money and passion voting alone.
If this happens, Gerwig will set herself apart from a mere handful of other directors who helmed Best Picture films in their first two solo efforts. This doesn’t include Warren Beatty, who co-directed “Heaven Can Wait” with Buck Henry in his directorial debut before his Best Picture-winning solo follow-up in “Reds.” Yet even if that did count, “Dick Tracy” fell short of giving Beatty three straight Best Picture nominees behind the camera in some capacity.
Four other directors in the modern era started their big-screen narrative careers with back-to-back Best Picture nominees. Bennett Miller’s directorial debut was technically the 1998 documentary “The Cruise” before his first two narrative films “Capote” and “Moneyball” were in the Best Picture field. By that measure, Miller came the closest to ever starting with three straight Best Picture films, when “Foxcatcher” barely missed the field in 2014 despite Miller’s own Best Director nomination.
Before that, Frank Darabont’s first two feature films behind the camera were the nominated Stephen King prison dramas “The Shawshank Redemption” and “The Green Mile,” yet he fell short of a Best Picture nomination three-peat with the more Capra-esq “The Majestic” – for all its Oscar-baity efforts. A decade earlier, both James L. Brooks and Roland Joffe broke out with two straight nominees, as Brooks helmed the Best Picture-winning “Terms of Endearment” and then “Broadcast News” in 1983 and 1987, while Joffe made “The Killing Fields” and “The Mission” in 1984 and 1986.
But Brooks couldn’t repeat the magic with the infamously troubled “I’ll Do Anything” in 1994 – though he would rebound with the Oscar-nominated and winning “As Good As It Gets” his next time out. As for Joffe, his third film was ironically the first major big screen film to tackle the Manhattan Project, 34 years before “Oppenheimer” – yet “Fat Man and Little Boy” hardly achieved what “Oppenheimer” is projected to with the Academy.
Gerwig was already in highly selective company thanks to “Lady Bird” and “Little Women,” but now “Barbie” is set to put her in the company of just one. Still, she wouldn’t be the first director in history to direct three straight Best Picture nominees on her own at any point in their career. Nonetheless, that is a highly selective class on its own.
There is only one director who has ever gotten four consecutive films in the Best Picture field, and that was Francis Ford Coppola with “The Godfather,” “The Conversation,” “The Godfather Part II” and “Apocalypse Now” all in the 70s. That would certainly be something to note further for Gerwig’s next movie, whether it is a Narnia film for Netflix or something else. Yet behind Coppola, only ten other directors ever had a three-peat of Best Director films at any time, and two of those streaks are ongoing.
James Cameron extended his own personal nomination streak to three with “Avatar: The Way of Water” last year, following up after “Titanic” did it in 1997 and the original “Avatar” did it in 2009. And back in 2021, Adam McKay released his third straight Best Picture film in “Don’t Look Up” – no matter how many critics wish it hadn’t made the cut – after “The Big Short” and “Vice” started his streak in 2015 and 2018.
Additional three-peat streaks in recent years also include Alexander Payne for “Sideways,” “The Descendants” and “Nebraska,” David O. Russell for “The Fighter,” “Silver Linings Playbook” and “American Hustle,” Steven Spielberg for “War Horse, “Lincoln” and “Bridge of Spies,” and Martin Scorsese for “Gangs of New York,” “The Aviator” and “The Departed.” Peter Jackson also joined the club as the only director to get an entire trilogy nominated with “The Fellowship of the Ring,” “The Two Towers,” and “Return of the King.” In the middle of that, Stephen Daldry started his own run with “The Hours” before extending it with “The Reader” and the otherwise panned “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.”
In the 2000s and the era of 8-10 film Best Picture fields, it is far easier for directors to get three films nominated in a row, if not still difficult. Before that, it had only happened twice in bygone eras, from two of the most decorated directors of all time. David Lean not only had such a run with “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” “Lawrence of Arabia,” and “Doctor Zhivago,” he won both Best Picture and Best Director with the first two. Before that, William Wyler – the director with more Best Picture nominated movies than anyone in history – made two Best Picture winners in a row with “Mrs. Miniver” and “The Best Years Of Our Lives” before helming the merely Best Picture nominated “The Heiress” next.
A few directors have made two Best Picture films in a row and could join those who have made three with their next films. They include Martin McDonagh after “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” and “The Banshees of Inisherin,” Paul Thomas Anderson after “Phantom Thread” and “Licorice Pizza,” Guillermo del Toro after “The Shape of Water” and “Nightmare Alley,” and Alfonso Cuaron after “Gravity” and “Roma.” Moreover, Spielberg could become the first to do it twice if his next film gets in like “West Side Story” and “The Fabelmans” did.
Even so, all of these runs happened in the middle or latter stages of these directors’ careers, not at the very beginning. There are still only a far more select few who started their solo directorial career with two straight Best Picture nominated films, and only one right now who could be at the doorstep of being the first ever to make it three.
Gerwig isn’t the first female director to ever make two straight Best Picture nominees, as Kathryn Bigelow did it with “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty” but couldn’t make three in a row with “Detroit.” Jane Campion also made two nominated films, “The Piano” and “The Power of the Dog,” but those were 28 years and a few movies apart for her. Gerwig would be the first female director to make three Best Picture nominees, which would be historic on its own even if they weren’t all made in a row and at the very start of her solo directorial career.
While “Lady Bird” was an indie film festival darling that secured its place early in the 2017 season, and “Little Women” was a late winter studio release that was one of the last in 2019 to lock itself in, “Barbie” is a box office behemoth that now has to ride the coattails of its massive dollars and passionate fanbase for months on end. That may make it easier and more challenging to get in than it was for either “Lady Bird” or “Little Women,” yet all three films will have taken a different path into the field.
Either way, the path of Gerwig’s solo career behind the camera is already starting to look like none ever seen before in any modern era from any male or female director. Now a “Barbie” Best Picture nomination is poised to officially stand her apart from everyone in Oscar and Hollywood history. While a Best Picture three-peat is something that the greats like Scorsese, Spielberg, Lean, Cameron, Coppola, Jackson, and more have done before, none of them ever did it to start their careers. And neither has anyone else – perhaps not for another five months, anyway.
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