Most of the time, the Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director go to the same production. When that doesn’t happen, we have split years. 26 times in Oscar’s history, this has occurred. Often, those Director choices can be some of the most interesting choices that Oscar voters can make. That situation is what inspires our newest top ten list.
Today, we’re going to be looking at ten of the most interesting winners of the Best Director prize when Best Picture went to something else. Once a rarity, it’s become a far more likely occurrence in recent years, including just this past ceremony when Alfonso Cuaron won for “Roma.” Part of that is due to the Academy changing, of course. However, for this list, we’re just looking strictly at the win, taking it on its own accord.
10John Huston for “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” (1948)
While “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” fell in many categories to Laurence Olivier’s “Hamlet,” John Huston managed to pull out the win in Best Director. An all-time great Western, it got Huston an Oscar win, something he’d never do with another film (though he also won for Writing here). Olivier may have directed himself to a Best Actor win, along with Picture, but he couldn’t best Huston in Director.
9Steven Soderbergh for “Traffic” (2000)
Double nominated in Director, Steven Soderbergh was up against himself. While both “Erin Brockovich” and “Traffic” both lost Best Picture to “Gladiator,” Soderbergh emerged victorious for his latter effort. His gritty aesthetic and attention to detail were perfect matches for this difficult material. In other years, voters might not have been bold enough to choose this for the win. It’s a good thing they did though, as we have Soderbergh among the Best Director winners because of it. In terms of his filmmaking, this was the height of his complex storytelling.
8John Ford for “The Grapes of Wrath” (1940)
In an old fashioned year of ten Best Picture nominees, “The Grapes of Wrath” was one of the titles that fell to “Rebecca.” In Director, however, John Ford came out on top. The second of his four Academy Awards, Ford would again take the prize the following year. This adaptation of the John Steinbeck novel was prestige incarnate, terrifically brought to life by Ford.
7Frank Capra for “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” (1936)
Frank Capra has the rare honor of winning Best Director when nothing else from his film won an award on Oscar night. That will appear elsewhere on this list, but that situation almost never happens. Here, Capra saw “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” upended by “The Great Ziegfeld” in Picture. You don’t often see comedies get this sort of an honor, but Capra was a special filmmaker. We’ll ignore the Adam Sandler remake that came down the pike about 70 years later, so his accomplishment remains untarnished.
6Alfonso Cuaron for “Gravity” (2013)
In a down to the wire race, Alfonso Cuaron couldn’t see his science fiction outing “Gravity” beat a historical epic in “Twelve Years a Slave.” That was in Best Picture, at least. In Best Director, Cuaron ran away with the prize. Shades of this past year where “Roma” lost to “Green Book?” It’s not the same types of films, but the outcome was more or less the same in Director. Cuaron cruised to victory. The first time around, it was impossible to deny him. A technical marvel, it helped cement the filmmaker as a true visionary.
5Ang Lee for “Brokeback Mountain” (2005)
Ang Lee has actually been a part of the Best Director split twice in his career. He’d again accomplish this about a half-decade later with “Life of Pi,” which lost to “Argo.” Here, he suffered a last-minute upset, as his film “Brokeback Mountain” was the Best Picture favorite going into Oscar night. Of course, “Crash” would upset in Picture, while Lee hung on in Director. A tender love story crafted with immense care, Lee wound up an apt representation for the movie.
4Oliver Stone for “Born on the Fourth of July” (1989)
Only three years after winning Director for “Platoon,” Oliver Stone took the category again here. This time, however, his movie couldn’t win Picture as well, with “Born on the Fourth of July” infamously falling to “Driving Miss Daisy.” This showed that Stone could revisit a top in a whole new way, as he chronicled what happened to a disabled Vietnam veteran once he returned home. This came at the height of the Academy’s love of all things Stone. Even so, it’s tremendous directing, allowing him to use all of his tools, though never losing sight of the character at the film’s core.
3Damien Chazelle for “La La Land” (2016)
The Best Director split doesn’t usually come from a shocking upset. In this instance, however, it did. While Damien Chazelle was on a collision course with a Best Director win, his movie “La La Land” was also slated to dance to an easy Best Picture win. Then, well…we all know what happened. The musical was wrongly announced as the victor, with confusion quickly being cleared up and “Moonlight” announced as the rightful holder of the Oscar. When you remove all of that, you’re still left with a brilliant composition from Chazelle, one that’s all the more impressive a feat when you remember how young the filmmaker is. Arguably, his best days are still ahead of him. It’s rare you can say that about a Best Director winner, but here we are.
2Steven Spielberg for “Saving Private Ryan” (1998)
Another shocker. In one of the dirtiest campaigns ever, Steven Spielberg’s war epic “Saving Private Ryan” was upset in Best Picture by Harvey Weinstein’s efforts. He got “Shakespeare in Love” over the hump there, but Spielberg was not to be denied. He took his second Director statue for one of the most visceral filmmaking accomplishments ever. The Omaha Beach Landing sequence alone likely got him the Oscar, though the entire picture is absolutely brilliant.
1Mike Nichols for “The Graduate” (1967)
A historic win, Mike Nichols was the only victory for “The Graduate” among its seven nominations. A revolutionary film, Nichols is largely responsible for helping to usher in a whole new era of cinema. The Academy took notice and rewarded him in Best Director, obviously, but went in another direction in Best Picture, tapping “In the Heat of the Night” instead. Even so, Nichols’ win remains one of Oscar’s top picks in the Director category. That it’s a split situation only makes it stand out more.