Tuesday, October 3, 2023

How Steven Spielberg’s Journey Toward His First Oscar Win Might Resemble Christopher Nolan’s With “Oppenheimer”

The date is March 21st, 1994. The venue is the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles, California. Steven Spielberg, coming off the most acclaimed and successful year of his career, is the clear runaway favorite to win the Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director for “Schindler’s List.” The film has twelve Oscar nominations that evening, the most of any film that evening. That same year, his blockbuster film “Jurassic Park” would gross over $1 billion at the box office and receive three Academy Award nominations for Best Sound, Sound Effects Editing, and Visual Effects. “Jurassic Park” would go on to win all three Oscars it was nominated for, and “Schindler’s List” would win the most Oscars of the evening, winning seven, including Best Picture and Best Director for Steven Spielberg, his first Academy Award win after he received his first nomination in 1977 for “Close Encounters Of The Third Kind.” When he took to the podium to deliver his speech for Best Director after receiving a standing ovation from those in attendance, you could hear someone in the audience shout, “About time!” implying after many years of merging art and entertainment into countless successes for the industry, was finally recognized by his peers with the highest honor one could bestow on a filmmaker in Hollywood.

And it’s true. Spielberg had become a household name after “Jaws” and only continued to deliver with “Close Encounters Of The Third Kind,” “Raiders Of The Lost Ark,” and “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial,” “The Color Purple,” “Empire Of The Sun” and two more “Indiana Jones” films. From his first Oscar nomination in 1977 for “Close Encounters Of The Third Kind” to 1993 with “Schindler’s List,” he earned seven Oscar nominations, and his films had grossed over $4 billion. He had earned the entire industry’s respect and admiration, becoming one of the most beloved film directors of all time. It all culminated on that evening in 1994 when both of his films, one the most acclaimed artistic triumph of his career and the other, a game-changing blockbuster that ushered in a new era of visual effects, dominated the Academy Awards, signifying to the entire world that at that point in time, Steven Spielberg was the standard for what any filmmaker could achieve in this business. And now, thirty years later, some would argue the spiritual successor to Steven Spielberg’s success, someone who merged artistic contributions towards the medium with blockbuster-level storytelling to produce memorable cinematic experiences for audiences all over the world, is none other than Christopher Nolan.

No other director since Spielberg has been able to capture the imagination of audiences and give them a reason to venture to the cinema quite like Nolan while earning the same level of acclaim, respect, and admiration from their peers and the moviegoing audience steadily throughout their career. As such, Steven Spielberg’s Oscar night in 1994 for his film year in 1993 may very well resemble Christopher Nolan’s journey towards his first possible Oscar win in 2024 with his 2023 film “Oppenheimer.” There are, of course, some dissimilarities in their journeys. Spielberg released two monumental films in 1993, while Nolan only has the one in 2023. Nolan did not receive an Oscar nomination for Best Director until his seventh film, “Dunkirk,” while Spielberg received his first Oscar nomination for his fourth directorial effort. However, Nolan did at least receive his first Oscar nomination (shared with his brother Jonathan Nolan) early on in his career, like Spielberg, for Best Original Screenplay for his second film “Memento.” To this day (and not counting “Oppenheimer,” whose tremendous box-office performance is still growing at $560.9 million as of today), Nolan’s films have grossed over $5 billion at the box office, and he has personally been nominated for five Academy Awards without a win. That all may change on March 10th, 2024, as Nolan’s narrative toward his first Oscar win feels very similar to Spielberg’s first win.

Shockingly, Spielberg did not receive an Oscar nomination for his smash-hit blockbuster film “Jaws” in 1976, despite the film receiving a Best Picture nomination and winning all of the other craft categories it was nominated for. Whether it’s because it was early in his career or some within the industry scoffed at the idea of rewarding the giant shark movie is up for debate (Spielberg hilariously reacted to the news claiming he got “beaten out by Fellini“). He received BAFTA, Golden Globe, and DGA nominations for Best Director, but he had to wait until the following year to receive his first Oscar nomination for Best Director.

Christopher Nolan was nominated for the Critics Choice and DGA awards for Best Director for “The Dark Knight” in 2008. The film would go on to earn over $1 billion at the box office, re-define the superhero genre, change how blockbusters were perceived by modern audiences, and receive eight Academy Award nominations becoming the first superhero film to win an Oscar for acting with Heath Ledger’s incredible performance as the Joker. Despite the acclaim, box-office success, and accolades, Nolan’s pop cultural phenomenon of a film was looked over for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay. Even Steven Spielberg admitted the film should’ve been nominated for Best Picture that year. It’s widely believed the film’s miss for a Best Picture nomination caused the Academy to change their nomination practices going from five nominees for Best Picture each year to ten the following year to allow more films such as “The Dark Knight” a better chance at being recognized. However, this wasn’t even the most egregious miss of all, considering what would happen two years later.

While Spielberg would go on to earn his first Oscar nomination for Best Director following “Jaws” with “Close Encounters Of The Third Kind,” many felt the Academy would right the injustice of Nolan not receiving a nomination for “The Dark Knight” with his 2010 film “Inception.” And it’s here where the true parallel to Spielberg’s miss for “Jaws” comes through. Nolan would earn nominations for Best Director for his mind-bending movie from the Critics Choice, Golden Globes, BAFTA, and DGA. He was considered a lock for an Oscar nomination for Best Director finally. However, it was not meant to be as “Inception” would receive eight Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay for Nolan but curiously leaving him out of Best Director yet again. Much like the earlier films of Spielberg, the Academy recognized “Inception” and other Nolan films with below-the-line Oscar wins mostly, but a win for Best Director and/or Best Picture seemed out of reach. Nolan would finally earn his first Best Director Oscar nomination for “Dunkirk” in 2017, but much like “The Dark Knight” (with the exception of Ledger), “Inception” and “Interstellar” before it, the film received wins in the technical categories.

So now that leads us to “Oppenheimer,” Nolan’s historical drama about the man who created the atomic bomb. The film has earned some of the best critical notices of Nolan’s career, with many calling it a monumental achievement as he continues, much like Spielberg, to blend blockbuster and auteur filmmaking to create a populist, memorable, but dramatically heavy experience. One that will linger in the minds of all who seek it out in theaters, whether in 70mm, IMAX, or even digital projection. The film stands on its own as a gripping story that has captured the zeitgeist (no doubt aided by the “Barbenheimer” craze of releasing on the same weekend as “Barbie“) and is already considered a lock in many categories come this year’s Academy Awards.

Other than the Academy trajectories laid out before between the two men and the fact both “Schindler’s List” and “Oppenheimer” are true stories taking place during WWII, both made more money than anyone expected them to given their subject matter, and both have the benefit of featuring excellent craftsmanship from their below-the-line contributors while garnering praise for their performances. Spielberg directed Melinda Dillon (“Close Encounters Of The Third Kind“), Whoopi Goldberg, Margaret Avery, and Oprah Winfrey (“The Color Purple”) to acting Oscar nominations. Still, both of those films were missing a key Oscar nomination that could allow him to get recognized by the Academy (“Close Encounters Of The Third Kind” was missing a Best Picture nomination, and “The Color Purple” was missing a Best Director nomination). Outside of Heath Ledger for “The Dark Knight,” Nolan has never directed a performance to an Oscar nomination, let alone a win, but that all looks like it will likely change with “Oppenheimer” as Cillian Murphy, Robert Downey Jr., and Emily Blunt have all been singled out for their performances. Should any of them receive an Oscar nomination, along with the expected technical nominations the film will receive, and Nolan can get into Best Adapted Screenplay, Director, and Picture, then he will be in the best position he’s ever been to win his first Oscar finally as his film will have the support of multiple branches within the Academy including the actors, which is still the largest voting branch.

Barring another contender coming around to win Best Picture later this season, a Best Director Oscar win for Nolan feels more likely than ever before. He’s got the track record of continued success where his name can help sell a film even more than the actors attached to the project; he’s got the respect of his peers who admire his insistence on capturing everything in camera in as real of a manner as humanly possible and projecting it in the cinema on film in the highest formats in existence; he’s been overlooked by the Academy before yet continued to make films they still gravitate toward amassing thirty-five Oscar nominations and receiving eleven wins. At 53 years old and twelve films into his career (Spielberg was 47 years old and had directed fifteen films by the time he won his first Oscar), one gets the sense someone else in the Dolby Theater on March 10th, 2024, will be shouting “About time!” if Nolan takes the stage with an Oscar win, whether it be for Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director or Best Picture.

Do you think Christopher Nolan will win his first Oscar for “Oppenheimer?” If so, which category do you think he’ll win? Please let us know your thoughts in the comments section below or over on our Twitter account. And please check out our latest Oscar predictions here.

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Matt Neglia
Matt Negliahttps://nextbestpicture.com/
Obsessed about the Oscars, Criterion Collection and all things film 24/7. Critics Choice Member.

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