Just hand Christopher Nolan his directing Oscar, you say? It’s rarely that simple

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Here are two words for those who believe Christopher Nolan can’t possibly lose the Best Director race at this year’s Academy Awards for “Oppenheimer”: Bob Fosse. And here are three more: Francis Ford Coppola.

When you think about how many consider Coppola’s 1972 masterpiece “The Godfather” to be perhaps the greatest American film ever made, it might shock them to learn that while the film won Oscars in ’73 for Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay and Best Actor for Marlon Brando, Coppola lost the director race to Fosse for “Cabaret.” Nothing against Fosse or his iconic musical, but his win over Coppola was shocking even if deserved. The lesson is that you simply never know what might happen on Oscar night. “Oppenheimer” could clean up, as is being widely predicted, and Nolan could still somehow miss out even though all indicators tell us it’s a done deal.

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SEEOscar Experts are unanimous that Christopher Nolan (‘Oppenheimer’) will win Best Director

It’s worthy of note that some upsets in Best Director races over the years seem more surprising in hindsight than they were at the time. It’s difficult to tell, naturally, how that will play out for the 2024 Oscars years down the road. But here are a half-dozen that are today considered to have been unforeseeable and Oscar voters may wish they could have back:

  • Steven Spielberg loses for “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” in 1983 to Richard Attenborough for “Gandhi”: At the time, “E.T.” had set the all-time worldwide box office record, beating out “Star Wars.” It’s one of Spielberg’s best, but academy voters were likely wowed by the scope and ambition of Attenborough’s epic biopic.

  • Sidney Lumet and his prescient masterwork “Network” are defeated in 1977 by John G. Avildsen for “Rocky”: “Rocky” was a blockbuster in sports film annals, to be sure. But Lumet’s efforts on “Network” elevated things to a whole other level, particularly in the Academy Award-winning performances he extracted from Peter Finch, Faye Dunaway and Beatrice Straight and the nominated one he coaxed out of Ned Beatty in one of cinema’s greatest-ever scenes.

SEE‘Oppenheimer’ production designers Ruth De Jong and Claire Kaufman on how Christopher Nolan ‘is on this other stratosphere’ [Exclusive Video Interview]

  • Quentin Tarantino and “Pulp Fiction” lose out to Robert Zemeckis for “Forrest Gump” in 1995: Tarantino took home the trophy for Best Original Screenplay, but what is arguably his greatest creative achievement wasn’t rewarded  for his directing work. “Gump” was of course a blockbuster hit that also won Best Picture and an Oscar for Tom Hanks, But 30 years (yikes) later, it seems like Tarantino was robbed.

  • Stanley Kubrick loses for “2001: A Space Odyssey” to Carol Reed for “Oliver!” in 1968: It’s noteworthy that Kubrick – nominated four times for his directing but never winning – earned his lone Academy Award triumph on “2001” for his work on its visual effects. The fact he failed to win for directing one of the great sci-fi classics of all time renders one almost speechless. Not to take anything away from the musical “Oliver!” or Reed, but there’s just no comparison in the directorial achievement.

SEERevisiting Christopher Nolan’s 5 Oscar nominations in honor of ‘Oppenheimer’

  • Martin Scorsese and “Raging Bull” are defeated by Robert Redford and “Ordinary People in 1981: “Raging Bull was something of a flop when it was released in 1980. It was only later that a consensus built around its being perhaps the finest film of the 1980s. “Ordinary People” won four Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director for Redford, and most often in those days it was rare to win one without the other. But I’ll bet even Redford would vote for the spectacularly filmed “Bull” today.

  • Scorsese loses for “Goodfellas” in 1991 to Kevin Costner for “Dances with Wolves”: Again, we have a situation of an actor-turned-filmmaker being honored with multiple statuettes. And while “Wolves” was certainly epic on every level, it’s difficult to imagine today that Costner would be honored over Scorsese for making his mob classic.

If Nolan wins the DGA Award this weekend for theatrical feature, it’s difficult to imagine him failing to claim the Oscar next month. But the reason they bother voting on these things is little is ever set in stone – or in Emma Stone or Lily Gladstone, for that matter.

PREDICT the 2024 Oscar winners through March 10

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