Why Didn’t Steven Spielberg Get an Oscar Nomination for ‘The Post’?
Posted January 31, 2018 3:16 p.m. EST
It was Oscar nominations day in Los Angeles, and Steven Spielberg was so certain his picture would do gangbusters that he invited over a camera crew to film his reaction as the nominees were read out live on television.
Things didn’t quite go as planned.
Spielberg’s movie was nominated for best picture, but his name was not among the directing nominees, prompting two friends watching with him to splutter in outrage.
“This is a dark day in Hollywood,” one friend told the camera. “The greatest picture of all time was made and they haven’t recognized the director.” The camera swung over to friend No. 2. “Who made it?” he asked, referring to the film. “The shark?”
The movie was “Jaws,” the year, 1976, and if Spielberg, fresh-faced and 29, was stunned by the rebuff, he played it off as a joke. “I’m suffering,” he said. “Cancel my day. Cancel my week. I’m going to Palm Springs.”
Wryness aside, the pointed cold-shouldering from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was something Spielberg would be forced to reckon with, or at least stomach, right up until today.
With 17 Oscar nominations — seven of them for directing — and three wins (four, counting the honorary Oscar he received in 1987), Spielberg has hardly been ignored by the academy.
But, along with “Jaws,” his films “The Color Purple” (which landed 11 Oscar nominations), “War Horse,” “Bridge of Spies” and now “The Post” all secured Academy Award nominations for best picture but not for their director.
Explanations for the latest snub abound. Some film experts see in it echoes of the fraught relationship, curdled by jealousy, that first sprang up between the academy and Spielberg around the time of “Jaws.”
“Coldhearted academy members can think, ‘Here’s the one thing we can deny the man who has everything,'” said Tom O’Neil, founder of the awards forecasting site Gold Derby. “He’s penalized for being good. They have to punch a hole in him somehow.”
Others say that “The Post” feels too much like a traditional Oscar movie from another time, a hallmark of an establishment that, funnily enough, resisted accepting Spielberg in the first place.
“Is it the long-term enmity showing itself again? He’s not a kid. He’s a gray eminence by now,” said Lester D. Friedman, emeritus professor of cinema at Hobart and William Smith Colleges and the author of “Citizen Spielberg,” which examines the filmmaker’s career. “I just think it hit the wrong note in the wrong historical period.”
Others dispute that it’s a snub at all. When the academy expanded its best picture pool to up to 10 nominees in 2009, it kept the best director category limited to five. The exclusion of a few directors is inevitable every year, including this one, when there were nine best picture nominees.
“Had there been nine directors nominated, there’s not a chance in my mind that he wouldn’t have been there,” said Sid Ganis, a producer and a past president of the academy. “What some call snubs and others call craters sometimes just happen that way.”
While “The Post” arrived late in the season, it had all of the outward marks of a runaway awards winner. It starred Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks as Katharine Graham and Ben Bradlee, and told a larger story — of a paranoid president, Richard M. Nixon, who fought the press and tried to keep state secrets from the public — that had clear resonance today.
Critics met the film warmly, and Seth Meyers made a gag of its starry might during his opening monologue at the Golden Globes in January, introducing it as a woman came onstage with an armful of trophies. “No, not yet, we have to wait,” Meyers said, to guffaws. But “The Post,” which was up for six Globes, went home empty-handed, and, weeks later, scooped up just two Oscar nominations (the second went to Streep).
In some views, its failure to gain much awards traction is an indicator of a shifting Oscars landscape, where “Moonlight,” a small independent film with an all-black cast, won best picture over the white-on-white spectacle of “La La Land.”
Friedman said in this awards season especially, one distinguished by underdog stories and diversity in “Lady Bird,” “Get Out” and other pictures, “The Post” felt out of place. For all of its important messaging, it remains a very white, very upper-middle-class film. “This isn’t the year for a middle-of-the-road Hollywood drama,” he said.
Still, others watching the Oscar game feel that Spielberg remains a man whose talents are taken for granted by many academy members, and whose current work invariably competes with the high bar he set for himself with “Schindler’s List” (1993), his multiple-Oscar-winning drama.
Joseph McBride, a film professor at San Francisco State University and the author of “Steven Spielberg: A Biography,” said that while he considered “The Post” a flawed, run-of-the-mill film that told “a liberal fairy tale about how we have a free press,” it still showed that as a director, Spielberg was “a master of his craft.”
“He has been around so long and has been so honored (since some but not all of the hatred of him has lessened in Hollywood and elsewhere) that he may be seen as somewhat old-hat and his skills assumed rather than honored,” McBride wrote in a follow-up email.
Early aversion to Spielberg was rooted in the filmmaker’s box office successes, something Spielberg spoke to in the “Jaws” snub clip. “This is called commercial backlash,” his young self said to the camera, “When a film makes a lot of money, people resent it. Everybody loves a winner. But nobody loves a winner,” he added a little later, emphasizing the last word. For a while, Friedman said, Spielberg was seen as “a lightweight, a great B director of action films,” churning out one hit after another. In his book, McBride quoted the film critic Pauline Kael, who counted among the many observers who blamed Spielberg for Hollywood’s so-called blockbuster syndrome, and groused, “Everyone else has imitated his fantasies, and the result is the infantilization of culture.”
“Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” all landed best director nods, but couldn’t land Spielberg the win. “Jealousy has haunted Spielberg throughout his career,” O’Neil said. “And he’s paid his price at the Oscars too many times.”
When Spielberg switched to more serious fare, like “The Color Purple” (1985), he drew critical opprobrium that endures — a 2014 Los Angeles Magazine article lamented its “Disneyfication of race in America.” “Empire of the Sun,” released two years after “Purple,” has since won more critics over. Still, at the time, Spielberg was often seen as a showman who had no place tackling big subjects and, Friedman said, became “the New York Yankees of film production.”
“They hated him as everyone hated the Yankees, or the New England Patriots,” Friedman said. “He had the biggest budgets, the biggest stars, the biggest profits.”
With “Schindler’s List,” Spielberg finally won his first directing Oscar. “They could not deny it to him,” O’Neil said. He also collected best director five years later for “Saving Private Ryan.” And in adding “Lincoln” and “The Post” to his oeuvre, Friedman said, “he seems to have evolved into our national history teacher” (quibbles about the films’ historical accuracy aside).
For what it’s worth, not everyone, at least publicly, agrees that there’s lingering jealousy. Ganis said Spielberg was considered “one of the best, and iconic in his ways.” The fact that he made “The Post” while finishing another movie — “Ready Player One” — Ganis said, made fellow filmmakers “scratch our heads, and wonder how he does what he does, and how it comes out so good.”
For his part, Spielberg, who is in postproduction with “Ready Player One,” wouldn’t offer an explanation for his latest no-show on the directors list. “It’s not for me to say because I respect my fellow directors, producers and their academy branches,” he wrote via email.