The Deakins Oscar Drought Continues

By  · Published on January 26th, 2017

Still no Academy love for one of cinematography’s greatest.

Perhaps the greatest living director of photography, Roger Deakins has been working in Hollywood for the better part of forty years, turning in some of the greatest images captured on film. His work? The Shawshank Redemption, Fargo, Kundun, O Brother Where Art Thou?, The Man Who Wasn’t There, No Country for Old Men, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, The Reader, True Grit, Skyfall, Prisoners, Unbroken, and Sicario. There are many more films that Deakins has worked on, but the aforementioned titles are just the films he received Academy Award nominations for. It should come as some surprise then that Mr. Deakins has never actually won an Academy Award.

That streak will continue as Tuesday marked the first time in five years that Roger Deakins wasn’t nominated in the Best Cinematography category. Despite authentically replicating some of film history’s greatest genre work like Esther Williams’ swimming pictures, biblical epics like The Robe, and golden age musicals for Hail, Caesar!, Deakins lost out in favor of cinema’s other emerging talent. One on hand, at least Deakins’ loss streak will be put off for another year, on the other, it’s disappointing to see such strong work continually ignored.

2007 appeared to be his year with Deakins shooting both No Country for Old Men and The Assassination of Jesse James. Any shot from either film would be worthy of framing. Take the fog that envelopes Jesse James’ (Brad Pitt) silhouette lit only by the train he plans to pilfer. Undoubtedly an iconic shot meant to illustrate just how large the outlaw’s legend loomed over the West. Then, with each distorted view that follows, Deakins reminds viewers that the mythic figure on the screen is terrifyingly human. A sentiment that feels fully book-ended with Deakins’ comment on James’ death toward the end of the film. James isn’t the center of the frame, rather the reflection of his corpse in a camera lens, which speaks volumes about the power of celebrity that resulted in James’ death in the first place.

The silhouette work in No Country for Old Men is also gorgeous but used to convey anxiety, not the construction and deconstruction of an iconic figure. Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) drags himself out of bed to give a dying man water and instead finds much more than he bargained for when he looks back to find his truck joined by another. It’s a feeling of panic that’s been conjured before in other movies, but none have so quickly sunk viewer’s stomachs as soon as the truck headlights penetrate the darkness of the Texas frontier.

Paint It Black: The Silhouettes of Cinematographer Roger Deakins

The Academy Award would have to be his, seemingly. Well, that didn’t happen. Even after winning multiple cinematography guild awards from the International Cinephile Society and the British Society of Cinematographers for his efforts, votes were split among the two films and Robert Elswit wound up winning the Oscar for There Will Be Blood. Several films later, and after his transition to digital, Deakins turned in Skyfall and earned his tenth nomination.

Maybe the most beautiful Bond film in the franchise’s history, Skyfall was widely-praised. The high-rise fight in Shanghai will be a staple of action montages for years to come, but he captures the proceedings while also infusing emotional depth. The glass and mirrors present in Bond’s (Daniel Craig) fight with an assassin mark Skyfall as a film about reflections. Certainly, Bond being the most reflective: a man coming to terms with his past and his own obsolescence. The American Society of Cinematographers award looked like a precursor to Oscar success, but Mr. Deakins didn’t carry home the trophy for Skyfall either.

One would be remiss to suggest that the lack of Oscars is a stigma to the man’s career, rather than the Academy needing to have their heads examined for not rewarding Deakins already. Especially after having 13 chances to do so. It will happen… eventually… maybe after Blade Runner 2049? Oscar is a foregone conclusion for a man of his talent.

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