Superstar directors

More than 20 years ago, a new idea shook up the world of movies. It was called the "auteur theory," and it suggested that the director is the true "author" of a film.

Many people scoffed at this. Surely the star is the most important person in a movie! Surely the screenwriter is the real author! Yet today's Hollywood is full of "superstar directors" who louder publicity -- than most of the people who act in their pictures.

In this year's race for the "Best Director" Oscar, only on of the bright young superstars is present.He's Francis Ford Coppola, veteran of the "Godfather" pictures nominated for "Apocalypse Now," his massive depiction of the Vietnam was as a mental, moral, and physical struggle reminiscent of Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness."

If logistics were the main consideration, Coppola would easily win for this gigantic achievement. Yet the story of the film is episodic, and everybody seems to agree that the finale (featuring Marlon Brando as a crazed commander) degenerates into pseudomystical gibberish. Moreover, Coppola's troubles in making the movie were enormously publicized: the shattered schedules, the vast overspending, and the indecisiveness about how the tale should end. Unless there's a strong sympathy vote this year Coppola may find himself out of the running, though the film itself could win in the "Best Picture" Category. If I'm right about "Apocalypse Now" being a long shot, the directional front-runners are probably Peter Yates for "Breaking Away" and Robert Benton for "Kramer vs. Kramer," with Benton having the edge. Neither of these men has ever aspired to "superstar" status, and their current pictures prove ti: These are modest yet powerful "people pictures" with a lot of heart and little flashy footwork. The Academy can look on with pride if Yates or Benton walks away with the "Best Director" Oscar.

A double win in the "Best Picture" category is also possible for "Breaking Away" or "Kramer vs. Kramer" -- and even conceivable for "Apocalypse Now" and "All That Jazz," which are likewise nominated in both major races. It's hard for a film to be selected for the "Best Picture" race without a nomination for the person who controlled its visual style, though the director of the "Best Picture" won't win if the voters consider the movie a "happy accident" won't win if the voters consider the movie a "happy accident" where artistic control is less important element than the "chemistry" of stars and screenplay. Interestingly, Martin Ritt is not even nominated for "Best Director" although his "Norma Rae" is a strong contender for the "Best Picture" Oscar.

In any event, "All That Jazz" is also nominated in the "Best Director" and "best picture" races. It's a bouncy film, to the point of arrogance. And it contains brilliant sequences. Director Fosse may also pick up votes on account of the personal nature of the movie which chronicles a director's difficulties with health, wealth, and women. Its a derivative film, though, and at times a distasteful one. I don't think its against -- however musical -- can compete with the delicate feeling of a "Breaking Away" or a "Kramer vs. Kramer."

The last contender simply doesn't belong on the list. Somehow, a very minor comedy called "La Cage aux Folles" (about a homosexual and his family) became an enduring success at the box office, and the Academy is taking belated notice with some prestigious nominations. But director Eduardo Molinaro is simply not in the "Best Director" class.

With him effectively out of the running, in my opinion, the chances are all the more encouraging that Yates or Benton will win the directorial statuette, proving once again that sincere and solid craftsmen, not superstars, are the best auteurs after all.

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