Christopher Nolan's Inception Oscar Snub

Nolan saw nominations for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay for Inception—but not Best Director? Chris Lee digs into the biggest mystery of this year’s Academy Awards.

02.15.11 10:35 PM ET

In the global sci-fi blockbuster Inception, Leonardo DiCaprio portrays a dream thief, a guy who can break and enter people's sleeping brains to burgle—or deposit—an idea in the name of corporate skullduggery. But when it came to the Oscar nominations last month, the movie's writer-director-producer Christopher Nolan seemed to be the one who had become the victim of some grand ripoff. The British filmmaker failed to score a widely anticipated Academy nod for Best Director (despite landing Original Screenplay and Best Picture nominations)—an omission with seemingly personal implications that left industry observers baffled and immediately sparked mass outrage across Twitter nation.

"Hey Academy…who Incepted your minds with the idea that Christopher Nolan didn't deserve to be nominated for Best Director this year? WTF!" one early responder tweeted in January.

In the final lead-up to February 27th's Academy Awards, at a time when most gurus continue to handicap the victors as well as the likeliest losers, Nolan's Oscar snub remains awards season's biggest head-scratcher. It arrives as a kind of slap in the face for a filmmaking wunderkind whose meteoric rise from art house auteur to Intelligent Action Ace has made him, arguably, the hottest director in town.

But being denied a spot in the Best Director category this year also highlights a certain image problem Nolan seems to suffer among his peers. According to a cross section of Oscar campaign masterminds—ranking publicity experts and people who have worked with the filmmaker—he's regarded by some as too cool for school. Nolan's chilly English demeanor, combined with his refusal to engage in the usual kind of Academy campaigning that has become de rigueur during awards season, may have alienated him from the rank and file of the Academy's 367-member Directors Branch.

"It's not just about not being likeable," said one film world source who knows the director and has worked with several of Nolan's collaborators, but declined to be identified for fear of losing future jobs. "People don't expect directors to be warm and cuddly. But he's as aloof a man as there ever was. I've never seen him smile."

Since bringing to the screen a trifecta of high-minded, box-office smashing action epics, the American-born, London-raised 40-year-old exists as the rarest of birds within Hollywood's studio system: a visionary with a proven instinct for mass appeal, capable of translating his original—and sometimes highly esoteric—ideas to the widest possible audience.

“They don’t seem to like to reward blockbuster directors,” said one source.

His revamps for the Caped Crusader, Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008), have combined to gross a staggering $1.37 billion worldwide. And Nolan's intricately plotted Inception wasn't even supposed to break through. In an era of franchise films and reboots, its early buzz was as Nolan's "art" project, the movie Warner Bros. let him do as a gimme in return for making his third Batman. Instead, Inception became an inescapable pop-cultural talking point, alternately baffling and thrilling viewers upon its release in July, and raking in over $823 million at the box office worldwide.

Meanwhile, Nolan's exclusion from the Best Directors Club throws into stark relief some of the tricky social mores and you-just-haven't-earned-it-yet-baby groupthink governing the annual popularity contest that is the Oscars.

While legendarily dyspeptic directors such as David O. Russell ( The Fighter), David Fincher ( The Social Network) and even the notoriously aloof Coen brothers ( True Grit) have taken to stumping for their films with endless interview roundelays worthy of a presidential campaign, Nolan has largely sat out the process. Save for appearing at the ceremonies for which he was already nominated, such as the Directors Guild Awards, and being named a Modern Master at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, the filmmaker has skipped getting on the phone with reporters to concentrate on prepping his third Batman sequel, The Dark Knight Rises.

And in that light, some feel that Nolan should have quarterbacked his own Oscar promo push.

"Put it this way: James Cameron ran his Oscar campaign for Avatar," said one publicity veteran. "Are you telling me Nolan couldn't call his own shots at Warner Bros.?"

Another idea that seems to have been Incepted within the Directors Branch—an Academy voting wing comprising successful, if not always steadily working, directors—is that Nolan has already enjoyed too much success too soon.

"My guess is there's a certain level of jealousy because he pretty much can do whatever he wants and wherever he wants," Pete Hammond wrote on last month, echoing a common refrain.

While Avatar netted James Cameron a Best Director Oscar nomination last year, a top-tier publicity maven cited the vagaries of being recognized by the Academy for achievements in direction with a big-budget FX-heavy film like Inception.

"The directors have always been a persnickety branch, often going for a foreign language director over a mainstream filmmaker," the source said. "They don't seem to like to reward blockbuster directors. And they rarely award sci-fi or heavy special-effects films."

The whole situation harkens back to a similar fate that befell Steven Spielberg in 1976. The then-young filmmaker's Jaws had redefined the word blockbuster in the previous year, irrevocably opening Hollywood's eyes the kind of staggering revenue an unabashedly commercial film could generate for the studios. But Spielberg was famously passed over for a Best Director Oscar even though the film won a Best Picture nomination (and, adding insult to injury, a film crew for the public television production TVTV Looks at the Oscars captured Spielberg lamenting an Academy nod that never materialized).

But while the perception lingers that Nolan holds himself above the Oscar fray, according to several people who have worked with him, the filmmaker isn't being coy; he's just concentrating on his job. Nolan (who declined to comment for this piece) was famously shut out of Academy balloting two years ago despite the overwhelming expectation of Oscar love leading into the race for The Dark Knight. And this year, after collecting a screenwriting statuette at the Writers Guild Awards on Feb. 5, Nolan laid bare what winning such accolades mean to him. "Nothing is more important than recognition from my peers," the filmmaker said.

In the eyes of one awards season campaign veteran, though, Nolan's Oscar snub boils down to the primary knock against Inception. With its shoot 'em up action layered between dreams within dreams within dreams, the movie is, well, confusing.

"I'm sure the Directors Branch has a feeling about guys who were handed the keys to the kingdom, but that isn't what this is about," the source said. "You walked away from Raiders of the Lost Ark, Avatar, Star Wars thrilled and entertained. I mean, Inception, can you tell me what that fucking movie was about? He didn't deserve it in the eyes of 300 directors."

Chris Lee is a senior entertainment writer for Newsweek/The Daily Beast. He previously worked as an entertainment and culture reporter for the Los Angeles Times. His work has also appeared in Vibe, Premiere and Details magazines and has been plagiarized in The Sunday Tribune of Ireland and The Trinidad Guardian.