Director Steven Spielberg sets up a shot in the film "Lincoln." (David James / DreamWorks…)
Michael Lehmann has been casting his Oscar ballot for nearly two decades. But when the filmmaker, best known for helming the 1988 comedy classic "Heathers," looked at the director nominees this year, he found himself stumped.
"It's the most difficult director choice I've had to make since I joined the academy in 1996," Lehmann said Tuesday. "There's no clear front-runner, and every movie is not only really good but so different from every other movie."
Lehmann said he had such a hard time with which filmmaker to choose that, as of early Tuesday afternoon, he had not filled out his ballot. (It was due at 5 p.m.)
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Those campaigning for Steven Spielberg, who helmed the hit historical drama "Lincoln," may disagree with the notion that the contest lacks a front-runner. But in a season when contenders in several Oscar categories have long been considered shoo-ins (Anne Hathaway, anyone?), the director's race is thought wide open.
Ang Lee, say several consultants with no connection to the film, has a head of steam for "Life of Pi," his 3-D story of a boy trapped on a boat with a tiger, while David O. Russell ("Silver Linings Playbook") has been the focus of a campaign by the Weinstein Co. for his dramatic comedy about mental illness. German auteur Michael Haneke, who made a movie about the melancholia of old age ("Amour"), and the New Orleans indie artist Benh Zeitlin, who helmed a magical-realist film about a young girl on the Louisiana bayou ("Beasts of the Southern Wild"), round out the field.
Making the competition especially slippery is that the helmer of the movie garnering much of the attention for best picture — Ben Affleck's "Argo," which won top honors from the Directors Guild and other Hollywood groups — isn't even on the director ballot. That means this could turn out to be the rare year when a filmmaker wins the director prize without having helmed the best picture winner.
The last person to accomplish the feat? None other than Ang Lee. (He won for "Brokeback Mountain" even though his 2005 drama lost out to "Crash" for best picture.)
Some voters think that history could repeat itself.
"I think a lot of people like Ang Lee for best director," said Sheldon Kahn, a member of the academy's editors branch who said he voted for Lee. "My reason is simple: He took a book that a lot of people thought was too esoteric to film and made a great movie out of it. And the tiger looked so real." If Lee's name is called at the Academy Awards on Sunday, it would be the first time a director won for helming a 3-D movie.
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Without a star at the center of his film, Lee could also attract voters who want to honor "Life of Pi" with a major prize but have few other options to do so. ("Lincoln" and "Silver Linings" each boast major stars who are front-runners in the acting races.) The movie is also a huge global hit, taking in nearly $600 million.
But Lee faces a formidable challenge in Spielberg.
As a prolific director who has been making well-regarded movies since the 1970s, Spielberg has a strong base of support among the Hollywood veterans that comprise the academy. And though considered an Oscar perennial, he also hasn't won the director prize since "Saving Private Ryan" 14 years ago, which could prompt some voters to mark off his name. (In a curious coincidence, the last time Spielberg was nominated for director, for his 2005 period drama "Munich," he was beaten by Lee.)
"Lincoln" has also been both a critical darling and, with $176 million in domestic box office, one of the most popular historical dramas in decades.
The film, however, has been beset by attacks in recent weeks that it misrepresented the final vote on the 13th Amendment, a last-minute controversy that could have played on voters' minds as they cast their ballots.
For his part, Russell drew headlines when he met with Vice President Joe Biden in Washington, D.C., recently to discuss mental-health policy. And "Silver Linings" was a hit too, crossing the $100-million mark domestically several days ago. Russell's film has also been lauded for its balance of comedy and drama, though comedies don't win directing Oscars very often.
The nomination for Russell marks his second in three years — he was also nominated for "The Fighter" in 2011 — and represents a second act of sorts for the helmer after a more hotheaded earlier phase of his career.
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"I'm in a humble, focused phase of my work," Russell told The Times several weeks ago. "'I'm grateful to be doing the work,' is my whole attitude. It's a good attitude. I've had the other attitude and it doesn't work."