Editor’s note: This is part of a 37-part series dissecting the 86th Academy Awards, brought to you by the Large Association of Movie Blogs and its assorted members. Nearly every day leading up to the Oscars, at least one new post written by a different LAMB will be published, each covering a different category of the Oscars. Also, every Best Picture and Best Director nominee gets its own post. To read the other posts regarding this event, please click here. Thank you, and enjoy!
BEST DIRECTOR: ALEXANDER PAYNE
BY JASON OF THE ENTERTAINMENT JUNKIE
When we think about directors – especially Oscar-nominated directors – we like to think about them as auteurs, as people who have a clear cinematic voice and whose body of work makes up a grand cinematic project. These aren’t people who simply make a film to entertain, but are rather making a statement, be it artistic, social, historical, political, philosophical, or some combination of those. We want to believe that their films mean something and weren’t just the products of commercial calculation. As a result, we hold these directors in higher regard, proclaiming them to be “artists” while those who don’t fit the bill are generally tossed aside as mere “directors” (said as if all they did was sit back while the film made itself) or, worse, “hacks.” Cinephiles like us gravitate toward auteur theory, because it helps us separate the “masters” from the rest of the crowd.
Alexander Payne, who’s picked up his third career Oscar nomination for directing Nebraska, is not an auteur. There are themes that his films share, like characters with rich inner lives facing existential crises, but they’re not themes that are ultra-specific to his work, and certainly don’t seem to be functioning as his commentary on anything. His style has a distinct admiration, perhaps adoration, for the film’s characters, but it’s not a style that draws attention to itself the way that we think of auteurs such as, say, Martin Scorsese or the Coen Brothers. In other words, if you happen upon one of his films that you’ve never seen on television, it’s not immediately evident that you’re watching an Alexander Payne film.
This isn’t meant to be a knock on Payne. If anything, Payne proves the limits of auteur theory, at least in application. As a director, he looks for the life that’s within the pages of the script, and brings to the screen characters that feel so natural – so real – that it’s easy to forget that they’re fictional. Many noted that Nebraska is the first film that Payne has made in which he has not received a co-writing credit; the screenplay is solely the product of writer Bob Nelson (who is also nominated for Original Screenplay). If anything, this only highlights how talented he is as a director. His casts are often filled with both professional and amateur actors, and he often uses these actors in interesting ways that aren’t immediately obvious (remember how odd it was at the time for Sideways to star Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen, and Sandra Oh in their respective roles).
Nebraska is a fine example of this. The way Payne has everyman concerned son David played by Will Forte, who was previously best known for Saturday Night Live and a number of broad comedies, shows the depth that he can bring out of his actors. Similarly, Bruce Dern – who was an icon of ’70s counterculture cinema – and June Squibb – who has been in theatre since the 1950s, but only first began film acting in 1990 – are given room to play characters that are deeply rooted in their humanity, warts and all. Of course, much of these performances are the products of the actors themselves, but some credit must be given to Payne for providing the space – physically, intellectually, emotionally – for these performances to emerge. It’s a film where the focus is placed on the characters, and it’s because of Payne’s investment in the characters that the audience, in turn, is able to invest in them as well.
Of this year’s crop of directing nominees, Payne’s the only one who’s not really celebrated as an “auteur,” and many of us were surprised to see his name included. However, with the possible exception of Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave), none of the nominated directors imbued their characters with the humanity and warmth that Payne did in Nebraska. If nothing else, Payne is the perfect example of how it doesn’t always take unique style to make a great director.
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