In 1986, when Steven Spielberg was overlooked for a best director nomination while his film, "The Color Purple," was totaling 11 nominations elsewhere, the media reacted as if they had witnessed the biggest scandal since Fatty Arbuckle threw a party in San Francisco.
Columnists whined that the directors' branch of the academy had snubbed Spielberg because its members envied his success. The Hollywood Reporter's Martin Grove, as genial a booster as the industry has had, demanded an in-house investigation. Critics pointed out that some voting directors were old enough to have made silent films, laying the snub off on the decay of years. And after "The Color Purple" failed to receive a single award, Quincy Jones, who had been nominated for the film's score, bluntly accused the academy of racism.
The question all this raises four years later is, where was the outrage when the directors failed to nominate Bruce Beresford last month for "Driving Miss Daisy," a film that led all others this year in total nominations and came within two of matching "The Color's Purple's" 11? Where were the charges of scandal, the ageist insults, the calls for mandatory drug-testing in the directors' branch?
There are several things that may explain why Beresford's snub failed to raise hackles. He is, first of all, not an industry insider. He's an Australian whose best movies ("Breaker Morant," "Tender Mercies") barely registered a pulse on the box-office charts. Certainly, no one could accuse the directors' branch of turning its nose up at his commercial success and vast fortunes. Also, Beresford had failed to land a nomination from the Directors Guild of America, the national organization whose voting often presages the Oscars. (In 1986, the DGA thumbed its nose at the academy by giving its top award to Spielberg.)
Finally, "Driving Miss Daisy" has neither polarized opinion nor drawn attention to its director the way "The Color Purple" did. It is a calm, slowly paced film that is minus the emotional fireworks and frenetic payoff scenes orchestrated for "The Color Purple." On paper, these two films have a lot in common: both are adapted from works by Southern writers looking at Southern racial issues and both were directed by white outsiders. On the screen, they were worlds apart--one stylistically aggressive, the other subdued. Just so were the reactions to the snubbing of their directors.
We will never know how "The Color Purple" would have done had Spielberg been nominated. Sydney Pollack's "Out of Africa," which was going neck-and-neck with "The Color Purple" at the box office, swept the boards that year. But Monday night, don't be surprised if "Driving Miss Daisy" succeeds where "The Color Purple" failed, by being named best picture even though its director was not nominated.
"Driving Miss Daisy" rode into the voting period on a box-office and critical high. The film's stars, Morgan Freeman and Jessica Tandy, were being extolled for their gentle performances and Alfred Uhry's adaptation of his own play was prompting thoughtful, sympathetic essays on its perceptions of the South. People seem to either love it or are unmoved by it; there has been no controversy and none of the debate prompted by "The Color Purple."
Meanwhile, its chief rival--Oliver Stone's "Born on the Fourth of July"--had just about played itself out in theaters and, as the final ballots were distributed, it was being buffeted by criticism of Stone's and co-screenwriter Ron Kovic's loose interpretation of Kovic's own story. "Born on the Fourth of July," once the heavy favorite in several categories, has gotten less certain each day. Similar attacks seemed to have buried the Oscar chances of documentary film maker Michael Moore's "Roger & Me."
Still, for "Driving Miss Daisy" to win as best picture, it would have to overcome some strong voting patterns. Every year since 1982, and for the decade before that, the voters linked the best picture with both best director and best screenplay. If "Driving Miss Daisy" wins, it will be the first time since "Grand Hotel" in 1932 that the best picture Oscar went to a movie whose director wasn't even nominated.
If that has happened this year, we'll get our first clue when the Academy Award for best adapted screenplay is presented. Uhry and Stone and Kovic are head to head in that category. Uhry has already won the adapted screenplay award from the Writers Guild of America.
The guess here, with a buck in the office pool, is that "Driving Miss Daisy" will win both best adapted screenplay and best picture.
The other three best-picture nominees are almost equal long shots. Peter Weir's "Dead Poets Society" was a commercial hit and both Weir and Tom Schulman's original screenplay were nominated. But it is a summer movie competing with films in current release.