If history is any guide, the annual Directors Guild of America's nominations for outstanding directorial achievement in feature film usually forecast the motion picture academy's nominees. And in every year but four since 1949 the DGA's award winner has gone on to win the Oscar.
On Monday, the race kicked into high gear as the guild announced its five nominees for 1997: James L. Brooks for "As Good as It Gets"; James Cameron for "Titanic"; Curtis Hanson for "L.A. Confidential"; Steven Spielberg for "Amistad"; and Gus Van Sant for "Good Will Hunting."
For Hanson, Cameron and Van Sant, it marks the first time they have been nominated by their peers and clearly indicates that they have successfully broadened their directorial repertoire both in style and substance.
Hanson, previously known for such mainstream thrillers as "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle" and "A River Wild," enters the competition with widespread critical acclaim for "L.A. Confidential."
A layered, ornately plotted tale of police corruption made in a style reminiscent of the Hollywood's film noir period, "L.A. Confidential" has received year-end prizes from the National Society of Film Critics, the National Board of Review and critics' groups in Los Angeles, New York and Boston.
"It feels great," Hanson said of the DGA nomination. "As far as any of these awards go, honestly, I didn't think of them before at all--and now it's impossible not to. We're in the game. I've got a seat at the table. How can I ignore that fact?"
Hanson said "L.A. Confidential" was not the sort of project that a major studio green-lights in today's Hollywood. It was "multi-charactered, dense and a period piece," Hanson explained. "It goes against the grain."
Still, he added, "'L.A. Confidential' was its own reward for me. It's not only my most personal movie, but also this was my personal payoff. . . . I felt I had a window of opportunity to sort of jam through a more personal project, a labor of love, if you will."
Cameron, who gained a reputation over the years as a master of technical wizardry with such big-budget action fare as "The Terminator" and "True Lies," won this year's Golden Globe drama award for "Titanic." The three-hour disaster-themed epic surprised many filmgoers because it showed that Cameron could master a film with a heart-tugging story line.
"This nomination, at least to me, means more than all the others because this is from your peers," Cameron said Monday. "This is from the people who really know and really understand what you do."
Cameron said such awards have, in the past, always eluded him because the nature of such awards have more to do with honoring a "humanist" approach to movie-making than honoring action-oriented films. "I'm happy to be viewed that way now," Cameron said. "It gives you more options."
Cameron said choosing a best director from among the five nominations is like choosing between "apples, pears and pomegranates." A better way to look at the nominations, he said, was that these five directors were the best at the types of films made in 1997.
As for the Oscars, Cameron said, everyone is saying a backlash might be forming against "Titanic" simply because it has become such a box-office phenomenon.
"Now it falls into that category of film that the Oscars in recent years don't like," Cameron said. "In years past, films like 'The Sound of Music' and 'Ben-Hur' were celebrated because they captured the public's imagination. In recent years, the Oscars have been more of an equalizer. They are used to lift up films and put them in the public eye."
For Van Sant, the DGA nomination means that he has has successfully made the crossing from independent films ("Drugstore Cowboy" and "My Own Private Idaho") to mainstream movies.
"This is a film I always wanted to make," Van Sant said Monday of "Good Will Hunting" in a telephone interview from his home in Portland, Ore. "I think most of the story and the characters and the setting is less confrontational than my other movies--to use the word people use all the time--quirky."
"Good Will Hunting," the story of a young genius who is forced to overcome his blue-collar upbringing to achieve his full potential, was not as "off the beaten track" as his previous films, Van Sant said. "It's more mainstream--more like the Mississippi River than the Amazon River. The Mississippi is not a lesser river than the Amazon, but more in America's heartland."
Brooks, a three-time DGA nominee, won the award in 1983 for "Terms of Endearment" and was nominated in 1987 for "Broadcast News." "As Good as It Gets" also received the Golden Globe for best comedy.
"I was thrilled," Brooks said Monday after learning from his office personnel of his latest nomination. "I didn't know today was the date."
Brooks said he was glad to see the guild nominate a comedy alongside serious dramas.