Three is a crowd, especially when you’re trying to win an Oscar. But that was the choice before the Academy back in 1979 when the voters had a trio of exceptional directors to choose from but only one trophy to hand out. Among the top three vying for the prize were eventual winner Robert Benton for ‘Kramer vs. Kramer,’ Bob Fosse for ‘All That Jazz,’ and Francis Ford Coppola for ‘Apocalypse Now;’ the full slate of nominees was rounded out with Peter Yates for ‘Breaking Away,’ and Edouard Molinaro for ‘La Cage aux Folles.’ But the real battle was between the first three, so let’s take a look at the tale of the tape.
- Four nominations (at the time; two that year)
- Zero wins previously
- Won the DGA, LAFCA, Nation Society of Film Critics, Kansas City Film Critics
- Nine total nominations for ‘Kramer vs. Kramer,’ five wins
Francis Ford Coppola
- 12 nominations (at the time; three that year)
- Five wins (Best Adapted Screenplay – ‘Patton’; Best Adapted Screenplay – ‘The Godfather’; Best Adapted Screenplay – ‘The Godfather Part II’; Best Director – ‘The Godfather Part II’; Best Picture – ‘The Godfather Part II’
- Won Golden Globe, BAFTA, Cannes Palme d’Or (1979), David di Donatello
- Eight total nominations, two wins
- Four nominations (two that year; last nominations of career)
- One win (Best Director – ‘Cabaret’)
- Won Cannes Palme d’Or (1980)
- Nine total nominations for ‘All That Jazz,’ four wins
At this point in time, most cinephiles will look back at the 1980 ceremony in horror as they wonder how ‘Kramer vs. Kramer’ could have beaten perhaps the greatest war film of all-time in ‘Apocalypse Now,’ but let’s not throw it or Robert Benton under the bus so prematurely. ‘Kramer vs. Kramer’ is a simpler picture than either of the films from Coppola or Fosse, but it is handled with Benton’s delicate touch and allows fantastic performances from Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep and the young Justin Henry to take center stage. It wouldn’t be the first or last time that less flashy, more subtle direction won the award. And in case you want to make the argument of who is Robert Benton compared to a Fosse or a Coppola, Benton wrote – and was nominated for – ‘Bonnie and Clyde,’ one of the films responsible for paving the new Hollywood that Coppola and Fosse would thrive in.
And yet… Revisiting this race it’s easy to see why the Academy went safe; in fact it, it would prove to be their trend more often than not for the 80s and even at times beyond it. In hindsight, though, this should truly come down to Fosse and Coppola in a rematch of the 1973 ceremony where Fosse won Best Director for ‘Cabaret,’ beating out Coppola for ‘The Godfather.’
Let’s take a look at Coppola’s journey into hell, not just in the film but in the process of making it too. The troubled production of the adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ set in the middle of the Vietnam war is well documented (see ‘Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse’), but when the product on screen is what ‘Apocalypse Now’ turned out to be you have to think it was worth it. Coppola was at the apex of his career with this film, such a height he has yet to reach since. ‘Apocalypse Now’ is regarded as one of the all-time classics, and at the center of it all was Coppola’s relentless commitment to his vision.
Then there is Fosse’s semi-autobiographical film. ‘All That Jazz’ is stunning; an artistic feat that laid the groundwork for future musicals. One that easily comes to mind is Rob Marshall’s ‘Chicago.’ It is my opinion that Fosse outdid his Best Director winning ‘Cabaret’ with ‘Jazz.’ And even with all the intricate details and lavishness of the production, Fosse still manages to help draw out arguably the best performance of Roy Scheider’s career.
I wish I could call this one a tie between Fosse and Coppola, but that would be cheating. So, I’m going to go with Coppola here. Both films are unbelievable achievements by each director, but ‘Apocalypse’ retains the most relevance of all three of the previously mentioned films.