As almost every observer has remarked, the single largest astonishment of last week's Academy Award nominations is that the Australian director Bruce Beresford ("Breaker Morant," "Tender Mercies") was not nominated, although the film he directed, "Driving Miss Daisy," received a total of nine, tops for the year. No academy vote is without a surprise, sometimes bordering on outrage, and that was it.
There was surprise as well that Spike Lee was not nominated for his direction of "Do the Right Thing," which had been much honored by critics here in Los Angeles and elsewhere. Lee did receive a nomination for his script for the film.
Like the overlooking of Beresford, who as director bears responsibility for the film and all its nominated components, the ignoring of Lee as director seems contradictory. What was likable, or unlikable, about "Do the Right Thing," began with the script. In so personal a film, the script and the direction were in a real sense indivisible.
The list of also-rans, the academy's equivalent of the cutting room floor, is piled high with names worthy of nomination. I think among others of Ed Zwick, who did so fine a job of mixing scenes of intense intimacy and massive chaotic battle in "Glory."
Like many others, I admired "Drugstore Cowboy" for what I think of as its demythologizing of the drug scene, examining its low consumer end as the symptom of a hollowness and disappointment young people (some of them) appear to feel in their society. But the film proved to be invisible in the voting, and for the all-too-logical reason that it was not a box-office winner and was seen by relatively few voters.
But in reacting to the nominations there is a distinction to be made between personal preferences that the voters didn't agree with, and a large bafflement like the overlooking of Beresford.
Beresford, who became available for "Driving Miss Daisy" when a film he was to do for Dino De Laurentiis collapsed, worked closely with Alfred Uhry on the script. Because no one would finance the film at the relatively modest figure--$12 million--at which it was originally budgeted, Beresford helped plan the production changes that cut the costs by nearly a third. The contradictions in the nominating process arise, as ever, because directors vote for directors, writers for writers, actors for actors, and so on, while everybody gets a shot at best picture. The branches vary widely in population, with the actors numbering more than 2,000 and some of the technical branches with only a few dozen voters.
Traditionally, the writers have been the least tethered and the most adventurous of the branches (or so it has seemed to me) and thus the nomination for Lee in their category.
Considered historically, the academy voting has become broader and more democratic over the years, and also more internationally-minded, as witness 1987 when the directors failed to nominate a single U.S.-born director.
This year's tally of 4,900 voters is a modern record, probably double what it was a quarter-century ago. The academy leadership has tried hard to make the voting fairer and more representative of the industry as a whole.
While some of the branches still have a clubby feeling in which new boys and girls have to wait their turn for honors, the voting generally is free of the influence of studios, as it was not in the past.
But what remains true is that the Motion Picture Academy, like all academies of honor, reflects an older, more conservative viewpoint. An academy of creative craftsmanship inevitably rates craft highly--higher than trenchant social commentary, especially when the commentary is toned with anger, criticism and pessimism. Especially pessimism.
The voters clearly respect success, yet it's too easy to dismiss the Oscars as a popularity contest. Too many big box-office winners ("Batman" this year) are ignored. The likelier explanation is that more voters get to see the good films that are also long-running hits. The good, tough little film that doesn't make it into citywide release continues to be the academy's prime casualty.
As in any election, subjective matters come into play. There are times when the academy voters seem to play share-the-wealth, overlooking certain achievements because the achiever has been honored recently before. And now and again a nomination and indeed an Oscar can only be interpreted as honoring not just the immediate achievement but a life's work (e.g., John Wayne in "True Grit").
The vote-out, so to speak, between "Born on the Fourth of July" and "Driving Miss Daisy," as the final ballot promises to be, will be a fascinating study in the academy's psychology. The choice would be between the angers, triumphantly resolved, of Oliver Stone's look at the traumas of Vietnam, against the warm humanism of "Daisy," with its subtle-enough reminders that there were hatreds and prejudices just up the street and that the standard status quo was not necessarily wonderful, even for wise chauffeurs.
Ironically, all the analysis of the nominating process does not really explain the bypassing of Beresford by his fellow directors. Did it seem that with a sure-fire script and two (or four) wonderful performers, the director only had to call "Action" and "Cut"? The directors, of all groups, ought to know better.