Impossible Oscar: The Miss Daisy Phenomenon

By  · Published on March 8th, 2010

In 1989, Driving Miss Daisy did something incredible: it won the Oscar for Best Picture. Of course, winning the big prize is an achievement in and of itself, but that year, Missy Daisy actually did the unthinkable, it did something no film had done since the earliest years of the Academy – back when they were still privately meeting in a hotel ballroom.

It won Best Picture without its director Bruce Beresford being nominated for Best Director.

There has been an inextricable link between Best Picture nominees and Best Director nominees ever since the Oscars first started. It makes sense. After all, it stands to reason that the best film of the year would most likely be helmed by the greatest (or at least one of the greatest) talents in the bunch.

This was especially true up until 1943 when there were ten Best Picture nominees with only five Best Directors. The exception being its first years when Wings won the very first award without having a director nominated, and a few years later when Grand Hotel won. Of course, the structure of the Awards was far different then, especially when it came to honoring directors. It would be almost six more decades before another film repeated the distinction, and it would be done under far different rules.

The other phenomenon at work here is the Nominee Swap that occurs in all but five years since the awards began. In 1957, 1964, 1981, 2005, and 2008, all of the Best Directors who were nominated also had their movie up for the top prize. In all other years, there was always a spoiler or two – movies that didn’t make the cut for Best Picture but whose directors sneaked their way into the nominee pool. With those extra directors in the mix, it also meant that it was possible for a film to win Best Picture but for its director to lose.

This happened more than a few times, probably more than you’d think. Notable examples include when Around the World in 80 Days won the top award, but director Michael Anderson lost out to George Stevens for Giant; when Chicago won Best Picture but director Rob Marshall lost to Roman Polanski for The Pianist; and when Gladiator won but Ridley Scott lost to Steven Soderbergh for Traffic.

So there are almost always a few spoilers in the bunch, which opens up to the prizes to be spread around (although they usually do fly straight down the row like we saw last night with The Hurt Locker).

It also opens up to The Impossible Oscar.

Imagine sitting in that grand theater with the most famous of filmmakers in attendance as the names of the directors being lauded that year are announced. Oliver Stone…for Born on the Fourth of July. Woody Allen…for Crimes and Misdemeanors. Kenneth Branagh…for Henry V. Jim Sheridan…for My Left Foot. Peter Weir…for Dead Poets Society. The silent hush floats above the heads of all those famous people, and in an instant, Oliver Stone is up on the stage gripping that gold tight and thanking everyone he can think of.

Just a few moments later, they announce the nominees for Best Picture, and among them is a flick whose director didn’t even make the dais. He might as well not have been in the building. And then, something that hadn’t happened in modern times happened. They call the name of Driving Miss Daisy as the best film made all year – beating out Born on the Fourth of July as Oliver Stone waits in the wings to possibly stomp back on stage. Beating out Dead Poets Society and My Left Foot as their directors sat hoping they might have a rare shot at the Academy voters celebrating their film even if they hadn’t celebrated their directing. Beating out Field of Dreams who also had the long shot of winning without having its director nominated.

Considering the intense rarity of the situation, the odds were clearly stacked against it, but Miss Daisy pulled off the impossible.

Oddly enough, the phenomenon seems almost obsolete at this point. The Academy has reverted back to its pre-1943 model of stacking ten films deep, ensuring that the five directors they pick will certainly be in that pool – even if their film has no chance of winning. But just as it’s obsolete, it also means that the feat will never be accomplished again. Driving Miss Daisy will be the last film in the history of the Academy to be the Best Picture of the year without receiving even nominal recognition for its director.

Perhaps it’s frivolous trivia, perhaps it’s the kind of thing you can only bring up for a moment at a party, but I tend to look at it as a curious sidestep in the history of the most important film awards. And in an Awards season full of the predictable, and a culture growing more and more savvy, it’s nice to know that somewhere out there, back in 1989 in the back of a car, there’s a film that defied the odds – even if no one really knew those particular odds existed.

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Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.