Oscar’s Best Director: Steven Spielberg Vs. David O. Russell

With Ben Affleck not nominated, the race is hard to predict. Ramin Setoodeh on who will take the prize.

With only two weeks left until the Oscars—mark your calendars for Feb. 24—most of the winners are so locked up, this article doesn’t need a spoiler warning. Argo will grab the Best Picture award. The acting trophies will go to Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook), Daniel Day-Lewis (Lincoln), and Anne Hathaway (Les Misérables). And the best-director statuette belongs to Ben Affleck.

Oh, wait. Even though Affleck won the Golden Globe, the Critics' Choice Award, and the Directors Guild Award for making Argo, he’s not in the running for a directing Oscar. There are plenty of Internet conspiracy theories about his snub, but blame likely goes to the snooty auteurs who vote for the nominees in the category. They look down on actors who want to direct.

If Affleck were nominated, he’d surely win. But since he’s been sidelined, the best-director Oscar race will be one of the few wild cards of the night. “I think it’s between Ang Lee [Life of Pi], Steven Spielberg [Lincoln], and David O. Russell [Silver Linings Playbook],” says an Academy voter who would only speak anonymously about handicapping the Oscar race. The other nominees are the underdogs Michael Haneke (Amour) and Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild).

Oscar forecasters like to trot out old statistics when deciding who will win which awards. But this year, all those numbers are useless. The bumped-up Academy calendar has made things especially weird. If Argo wins Best Picture, it will be the first movie to do so without a director nomination since 1989’s Driving Miss Daisy. And since 1948, the winner of the Directors Guild of America Award has gone on to win the Oscar all but five times—which doesn’t help either. That award went to Affleck last month.

Few filmmakers are as admired in Hollywood as Lee. His Life of Pi is an epic achievement—told in 3-D!—and adapted from bestselling novel by Yann Martel about a boy stranded at sea with a Bengal tiger. Then again, actors, the largest voting branch of the Academy, are notorious technophobes. The same group that passed over James Cameron for Avatar probably won’t give Lee the prize. And he won this category in 2006 for Brokeback Mountain; he might not be due for another Oscar so soon.

Spielberg has won two other Oscars, for 1994’s Schindler’s List and 1999’s Saving Private Ryan. But like Meryl Streep with The Iron Lady, there’s an overwhelming sentiment in Hollywood that he’s overdue to win again. (He’s been nominated seven times.) At the awards website Gold Derby, 17 of the 25 pundits are predicting a Spielberg victory in the directing category, making him the clear favorite. “A lot of people in the Academy really love him, so it could happen because of that,” says the Academy voter. “He’s always invited to the dance, and it’s been a long while since he’s been crowned king.” Adds Sasha Stone, the editor of Awards Daily: “It could be Spielberg, of course, as Spielberg’s interest in Lincoln is legendary throughout Hollywood. He’s been making it for about 13 years.”

The uphill battle for Lincoln is that the movie doesn’t feel like a winner. A month ago, after it landed 12 Oscar nominations, it was the movie to beat for both Best Picture and best director. Then Argo swept the precursor awards and stole all its thunder. In years where the Academy splits on picture and director, one of the winners comes as a surprise. “The funny thing about this race,” Stone says, “is that both Steven Spielberg and Ang Lee had big director/picture upsets, with Saving Private Ryan versus Shakespeare in Love and Brokeback Mountain versus Crash. Pundits are now predicting an upset along those lines. And from what I know of upsets, you can’t see them coming.”

So what if there is an upset? At 30, Zeitlin would be the youngest director ever to win the Oscar. (He’s the seventh-youngest nominee in Academy history.) Still, that would be an unlikely feat for Beasts of the Southern Wild, the indie darling from Sundance about a storm in Louisiana. You could make the argument that Haneke is the real dark horse, given all the critical praise he received for Amour, a haunting love story about an aging married couple. The 70-year-old German director of Caché and The White Ribbon has paid his dues. But he might have to settle for the best-foreign-film Oscar as a consolation prize. No filmmaker, not even Fellini or Bergman, has ever won the director’s Oscar for a film not in English.

That leaves us with one last contender. If there’s a surprise, my money is on David O. Russell, the director of Silver Linings Playbook. He’s made the first movie in 31 years that landed all four of its actors Oscar nominations, and he was previously nominated himself for The Fighter. If the Academy wants to spread the wealth, voters can give him the second-best prize (after the third-best prize to Lincoln and the first-best prize to Argo). Even if Russell has a reputation as a hothead, he’s softened that with the narrative about how he made Silver Linings Playbook for his oldest son. He’s been campaigning everywhere. And he’s reduced his leading men, Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro, to tears on recent TV appearances. If Russell wins the Oscar, expect a lot more crying.