On February 17th, 1976, Steven Spielberg was filmed watching that year’s Oscar nominations come in. A little more than a month earlier, Jaws, the director’s second theatrical feature, had been confirmed as the highest-grossing film of all time. The reviews had been strong. It was beyond a phenomenon. Sure enough, Jaws secured four nominations, including one for best picture, but Spielberg was not mentioned for director. Five giants of cinema took those spots: Robert Altman, Stanley Kubrick, Sidney Lumet, Miloš Forman and – the only one not nominated for a best-picture finalist – Federico Fellini for Amarcord. Spielberg had just turned 30. He could live with that line-up. Right?
Maybe not. “I wasn’t nominated? I got beaten out by Fellini?” he gabbled in “mock fury and disbelief” (as the New York Times charitably put it years later). “This is called commercial backlash. When a film makes a lot of money people resent it.” Earlier on in the clip, he had predicted 11 nominations.
Nearly half a century later, Spielberg finds himself on the other side of the fence. When The Fabelmans took the People’s Choice award at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, more than a few pundits – summoning up the Curse of the Early Front Runner – anointed it as favourite to take best picture. It is still in the running. But Spielberg is now the veteran and his film competes against behemothic descendants of Jaws as a modestly performing, low-key drama. Avatar: The Way of Water, a near-certain best picture nominee, is, at time of writing, still adding to a take of $1.8 billion (€1.6 billion). Top Gun: Maverick, also sure of a place, clocked out at $1.5 billion. Even oddball sci-fi comedy Everything Everywhere All at Once, a more likely winner than those two films, managed more than $100 million. The Fabelmans has yet to open in many territories (this one included), but it is unlikely to do more than double its current takings of $17.3 million.
We should not get carried away. As things stand, three films look the most likely contenders for the top prize: The Fabelmans, Everything Everywhere All at Once and Martin McDonagh’s The Banshees of Inisherin. The Spielberg and the McDonagh films won, respectively, best drama and best comedy or musical at the recent Golden Globes. All three listed above landed nominations for “outstanding cast” at the Screen Actors Guild Awards. All three are longlisted for best film at the British Film Academy Awards.
The British awards send out some worrying signals for Sir Spielberg (he got a KBE in 2001 for “services to the British film industry”). Astonishingly, though The Fabelmans made it on to that 10-strong longlist for best film, the director failed to place among the 16 longlisted for best director. An insistence on gender balance on that last list may have done for him. But the subsequent win for director at the – admittedly eccentric – Golden Globes put him on back on the path.
Even if The Fabelmans slides in the best picture race at the Oscars, Spielberg will probably survive as favourite in the director category. A third win would put him in an exclusive club. Only three men have won so many. William Wyler and Frank Capra completed the hat-trick. John Ford – a significant figure in The Fabelmans – went on to an unequalled four. The Academy would, on balance, be happy admitting Spielberg to that set. They may have occasional snooty tendencies, but the members surely appreciate the contribution of a man who, on three occasions, directed the highest-grossing film of all time.
Spielberg’s equivocal relationship with the Academy lasted for a decade or two. Three years after the Jaws embarrassment, he secured a director nomination for Close Encounters of the Third Kind. He landed in that category again with Raiders of the Lost Ark, ET, and The Colour Purple. Rubbing salt in a raw place, the Academy nominated that last film – till then, his most conspicuous lunge into awards territory – for 11 awards, but rewarded it with no wins, thus allowing it to tie the record for Oscar’s greatest loser (an unwelcome title it still shares with The Turning Point).
It was not until 1994, his annus mirabilis, that he finally got his hands on the prize itself. That year, Spielberg the Worthy won the Oscar for Schindler’s List and broke the all-time box office record again with Jurassic Park. He won best director once more in 1999 with Saving Private Ryan as Shakespeare in Love, boosted by a Harvey Weinstein campaign, scored an unexpected best picture win.
Spielberg no doubt approaches next week’s nominations in a more relaxed frame of mind. Dealing with his own childhood in Arizona, The Fabelmans comes across neither as awards fodder nor as hungry blockbuster. The director has nothing left to prove. It seems unlikely he will be hunched over the telly with quite the same intensity of that 30-year-old in 1976. Spielberg has lasted long enough to take the Fellini seat (in a way).