Tonight, Sacha Gervasi’s “Hitchcock” will kick off the AFI Fest in Los Angeles, giving Oscar-watchers more to murmur about while critics decide if it’s a tribute worthy of Hitch himself or a disposable dress-up piece in the “My Week With Marilyn” mold.
Either way, Fox Searchlight — who sprang a surprise on the season by moving the film up from its scheduled 2013 bow — will be aiming to get more awards traction for their starry prestige item than almost any film directed by Hitchcock himself managed.
That tidy irony, meanwhile, could emerge as the chief hook for “Hitchcock”‘s Oscar campaign: many voters will be aware of how the Academy neglected the master in the past, so might they choose to demonstrate their latter-day awareness of his greatness by voting for a film in which he’s the subject?
It is, of course, both crass and irrational to suggest that an Oscar for “Hitchcock” in any way amounts to an Oscar for Hitchcock — almost a year on, no one is laboring under the misconception that Marilyn Monroe was belatedly honored with a nomination for Michelle Williams, while throwing a pair of statuettes at “Ed Wood” didn’t amount to a pardon for the eponymous, legendarily awful director’s own work. But don’t be surprised if a line to that effect works its way into the film’s awards-season narrative (just as we had to endure all those cheesy “A Fifth Oscar for Kate Hepburn!” headlines around the time Cate Blanchett scooped an award for playing the Academy’s favorite actor).
The Hollywood Reporter’s Gregg Kilday gets the guilt-trip ball rolling with a piece that summarizes the Oscars’ sidelining of Hitchcock over the years, though it should be noted that he fared better with the Academy than many all-time great filmmakers. With five Best Director nominations, an Irving G. Thalberg Award and the distinction of having directed a Best Picture winner, he was less ignored than, say, Powell & Pressburger, Howard Hawks or Nicholas Ray — to pick only from the English-language canon.
Still, when you boil the conversation down simply to the question of which directors have a competitive Oscar to their name and which don’t, Hitch stands as one of their most absurd omissions. Moreover, and perhaps rather surprisingly, the famously unflappable director was reportedly rather bothered by the Oscar situation; Kilday quotes Hitchcock biographer Stephen Rebello (who wrote the volume upon which Gervasi’s film is based) as saying, “The lack of respect from the Academy pained him…he felt they resented him for being an entertainer and working in genres that weren’t perceived as worthy.”
The issue of the Academy’s anti-genre bias is, of course, one that extends far beyond Hitchcock’s work, though Best Picture wins for such films as “The Silence of the Lambs” and “The Departed” suggest that voters can be persuaded in that direction when a film’s cultural or sentimental significance bolsters its onscreen pleasures. It’s worth noting, meanwhile, that on two of the five occasions Hitchcock lost Best Director — for “Lifeboat” in 1944 and “Psycho” in 1960, both ‘lone director’ bids — the winner was an outright comedy, another genre that doesn’t routinely get much Academy love. You can draw your own conclusions over whether Leo McCarey for “Going My Way” and, more respectably, Billy Wilder for “The Apartment” deserved to beat him, but in neither year was populist entertainment disrespected.
Hitchcock presumably came closest to winning his first time at bat in 1940, when his romantic thriller “Rebecca” snagged the top prize. (The fact that the film’s lone other win was for cinematography suggests it didn’t win by a great margin.) Presumably the presence of reigning super-producer David O. Selznick was a more compelling draw for voters than the recently migrated British director, which is why they were happy to stick with their own in the Best Director category, handing John Ford a second Oscar for his more conventionally weighty Best Picture hopeful “The Grapes of Wrath.”
This split of Best Picture and Best Director along lines of ‘entertainment’ and ‘importance’ is one we’ve seen in several Oscar races since, most recently between “Chicago” and “The Pianist.” Hitchcock is said to have felt particularly slighted over this first defeat, though there’s hardly any shame in losing to John Ford for one of his greatest films. (Ford could have aired his own genre-related grievances, had he chosen to; arguably most celebrated for his westerns, he won four Oscars — not one of them for a film within that genre.)
Meanwhile, Ford’s name reminds us that Hitch was at least spared the indignity of losing to minor filmmakers — his five defeats came at the hands of Ford, McCarey, Elia Kazan and, twice, Billy Wilder. Of all those, if I put my hypothetical (and historical) Academy member hat on and look back through the ballots, I believe I might have checked his name only in the year of “Psycho.”
Of course, that’s ignoring the fact that he wasn’t even nominated for the likes of “North by Northwest” and “Vertigo,” a slight that today seems more egregious even than his failure to win the prize at any point. Though while Kilday points out the seeming absurdity of “Vertigo” securing a scant pair of Oscar nods for Best Art Direction and Best Sound back in 1958 — nothing even for Bernard Herrmann’s score! — the blame shouldn’t be laid squarely at the Academy’s feet. The film may have recently been voted the greatest of all time in Sight & Sound’s much-ballyhooed critics’ poll, but it was neither a critical nor a commercial success upon its release; the voters were merely following everyone else’s lead. We like the Academy to respond to critical and/or public consensus much of the time, but bless ’em, we’ve never expected future-classic clairvoyance from them.
All of which is to say that Hitchcock may never have won an Oscar, but looking at the fascination that surrounds him and his work today, you’d be hard pressed to say he needed to. Hollywood’s a risky place to state certainties, but I’m not counting on a Tom Hooper biopic generating Oscar buzz in 2062.