Back to the Oscars: The Last Time Jane Campion and Steven Spielberg Faced Off
If next Sunday’s Best Director Oscar match sounds familiar, you’re not freaking out: On a warm spring night in Los Angeles in 1994, Jane Campion and Steven Spielberg, who are nominated this year for ‘The Power of the Dog and “West Side Story”, clashed.
But unlike this year, when Campion and his queer western are favorites, the two directors had a fighting chance in 1994.
At the time, Spielberg was 47 and had yet to strike up the greatest conversation of all time, despite still having three career Oscar nominations for directing. It was the backdrop when he was nominated for ‘Schindler’s List,’ the Holocaust drama about a German businessman who rescued more than 1,100 Jews from Nazi death camps. The film was the most nominated feature film that year, with 12 nominations in all, including one for Best Picture.
Although the realm of directors includes James Ivory (“The Remains of the Day”), Jim Sheridan (“In the Name of the Father”) and Robert Altman (“Short Cuts”), Spielberg’s strongest challenger was Campion, then aged 39, who was only the second woman ever nominated in the category, for her period drama ‘The Piano’. The story of a Scottish woman finding love outside of an arranged marriage in 19th-century New Zealand won eight nominations, including best picture. (Campion wrote the screenplay and the previous summer had become the first female filmmaker to win the Palme d’Or, the highest award given at the Cannes Film Festival.)
“Schindler’s List” and “The Piano” had both garnered rave reviews from critics and audiences. In her New York Times eulogy, Janet Maslin called Spielberg’s film “an invigorating drama”, praising its “electrifying creative intelligence” and “fiercely indelible imagery”. New York Times reviewer Vincent Canby was no less enthusiastic about “The Piano”, which he described as “one of the funniest and most bizarrely erotic love stories in history.” recent history of cinema. (Critics had some quibbles about it being too consciously an “art” movie, but that did little to dilute the enthusiasm.)
At first, Campion had the edge after winning Best Director at the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards and the New York Film Critics Circle Awards, but both groups gave “Schindler’s List” the best picture. Spielberg’s film received a third accolade from the National Board of Review, which awarded Best Director to Martin Scorsese for “The Age of Innocence.”
Film critic Jack Mathews noted in Newsday that the top three Critics’ Awards naming ‘Schindler’s List’ as their best film while snubbing Spielberg in the director race was reminiscent of the ‘Color Crimson’ controversy eight years ago. earlier, when this Spielberg drama received 11 Oscars. nominations but none for directing.
“The accusation leveled then by outraged Spielberg supporters was that his colleagues were too jealous of his success to honor him,” Mathews wrote.
But in 1994, Spielberg made a comeback, winning the Golden Globe in January and the Directors Guild Award in early March. On the night of the 66th Academy Awards, March 21 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the race was up for grabs.
It got off to a strong start: “Schindler’s List” won the prizes for the best adaptation of the screenplay, artistic direction, photography, editing and original music (third Oscar for John Williams for a collaboration with Spielberg). “The Piano” won Best Actress for Holly Hunter’s wordless performance as a pianist using sign language; a surprise Best Supporting Actress statuette for Anna Paquin, who at age 11 became the second-youngest winner of a competitive acting Oscar (after Tatum O’Neal for “Paper Moon”); and a Best Original Screenplay award for Campion.
While it was a great night if you were Spielberg, the “Schindler’s List” stack of wins wasn’t cut out for TV capture – Orlando Sentinel film critic Jay Boyar lamented that “the Oscarcast of this year was only slightly more exciting than a wine snob buzzing about his favorite vintages.
But then it was time for the big reveal.
The best presenter director, Clint Eastwood, who had won the previous year for “Unforgiven”, slipped the envelope. “The Oscar goes to – it’s a big surprise,” Eastwood said dryly before reading the name everyone knew was coming. “Steven Spielberg.”
A tearful Spielberg kissed his wife and hugged his 74-year-old mother. He made his way to the stage as the room gave him a rousing standing ovation. He hugged Eastwood and took the statuette – his first Oscar – clutching it to his heart as he shyly felt its weight.
“It’s the first time I’ve had one in my hand,” said Spielberg, who was previously nominated for “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” and “ET.”
In a speech that lasted just over two minutes, he thanked Auschwitz survivor Poldek Pfefferberg, who convinced Thomas Keneally to write the book on which “Schindler’s List” is based, and the cast of the film and its screenwriter, Steven Zaillian. He concluded with an acknowledgment of those who died in the Holocaust, “the six million who can’t watch this out of the billion watching this show tonight.”
In all, “Schindler’s List” won seven Oscars, including Best Picture – the most of any film that year – while “The Piano” won three.
Fast forward to 2022, and this time it’s Campion, 67, who is the presumed frontrunner, for “The Power of the Dog,” which earned 12 nominations topping the pack in February. After scooping top directorial wins at the Critics Choice, Directors Guild, BAFTA and Golden Globe Awards, her path to her first directorial statuette seems simple – if she herself doesn’t miss her chances. Campion apologized this week after wrongly suggesting in her Critics Choice Awards acceptance speech that tennis greats Venus and Serena Williams didn’t take on the men the way she should.
But Spielberg, 75, isn’t stepping back and making no headway. He’s the first person to be nominated for directing in six different decades (he also won for “Saving Private Ryan”), and “West Side Story,” which earned seven nominations, is a virtual lock to win at the minus one award on the night: Ariana DeBose is considered a safe bet in the supporting actress category.
What will likely hurt Spielberg’s exterior shot, however, is that “West Side Story” missed nominations for Adapted Screenplay and Editing. (No director has won the Oscar without a film being considered for screenplay and editing.) None of the other non-Campion nominees in the category – Kenneth Branagh for “Belfast”, Paul Thomas Anderson for “Licorice Pizza and Ryusuke Hamaguchi for “Drive My Car” – scored an editing nomination, either.
So Campion remains the safe bet, despite the possibility that ‘The Power of the Dog’ won’t win a single acting category given Will Smith’s string of Best Actor triumphs for ‘King Richard’ and the winning streak of “CODA” actor Troy Kotsur for SECOND ROLE. If Campion were to win, she would become the third female director to win the award, following Kathryn Bigelow’s 2010 win for ‘The Hurt Locker’ and Chloe Zhao’s triumph last year for ‘Nomadland’.
In Campion’s acceptance speech at the DGA Awards this month, she opened up about the many challenges she overcame to get to this point.
“It’s been a long road here,” she said. “I remember being the only woman in the room. I remember that underdog feeling as I fought to have my stories told from undeserved perspectives in the light of a male-dominated field.
Campion then added to loud applause: “I think it may be time to claim a sense of victory on this front. We’ve come this far, and what’s more, we’ll never back down. This sense of the eternal horizon invigorates me.