- Gordon Willis for Klute (1971), The Godfather (1972), The Paper Chase (1973), The Godfather: Part II (1974), All the President’s Men (1976), Annie Hall (1977), Manhattan (1979), The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)
- Caleb Deschanel for The Black Stallion (1979), Being There (1979)
Those nominated – or not nominated – in the “technical” categories tend to be ignored by most of the media and Oscarwatchers in general. So, it’s not like there was widespread screaming, eye-rolling, and gnashing of teeth over the fact that Michael Nyman’s haunting scores, Lee Smith’s splashy film editing, and Caleb Deschanel’s and Gordon Willis’ masterful camerawork failed to receive Academy Award nominations. Even so, many were outraged.
“I have no idea why they don’t nominate me,” the New York-based Willis remarked at the time of his Manhattan snub. “Maybe if I bought a house in Hollywood I’d have a better chance.” Conrad L. Hall felt differently, asserting that the Academy’s Cinematographers Branch failed to recognize Willis’ darkly lit, grainy work because “the veterans want to see the eyes, always the eyes. They said they would have been fired if they’d shot that way.”
Also in 1979, Willis’ fellow non-nominee Caleb Deschanel (for Being There and/or The Black Stallion) admitted: “I’m disappointed. The fact that so many people told me I was sure to get the nomination has made it harder to take. On the other hand, who am I? I’m just a young punk making his name in this business. [Deschanel began his feature-film career that year.] But to ignore Gordon Willis is a crime.”
I’m sure there are some who wonder to this day if in early 1980 the members of the Cinematographers Branch voted for The Black Hole – which was shortlisted – thinking they were voting for The Black Stallion.
Since then, Gordon Willis has been nominated for two Academy Awards: Zelig (1983) and The Godfather: Part III (1990). Along with Lauren Bacall and Roger Corman, Willis received an Honorary Oscar at the Academy’s first Governors Awards ceremony in November 2009.
Caleb Deschanel has been nominated for five Oscars: The Right Stuff (1983), The Natural (1984), Fly Away Home (1996), The Patriot (2000), and The Passion of the Christ (2004). Deschanel will probably be getting his own Honorary Oscar sometime in the not-too-distant future. (Note that both Willis and Deschanel received their first Oscar nomination in 1983, four years after the Academy’s Manhattan/The Black Stallion debacle.)
- Michael Nyman for The Piano (1993), The End of the Affair (1999)
- Lee Smith for Inception (2010)
“The much admired, awarded and internationally popular new Jane Campion film, The Piano,” wrote Mark Swed in the Los Angeles Times in November 1993, “is regularly mentioned as prime Oscar material. So, since it is a film about music and since the soundtrack album has attracted considerable interest from Warsaw to Sidney [sic], isn’t it just possible that the composer, Michael Nyman, could also be nominated for an Academy Award?” Huh, No.
Nyman, best known for his collaborations with Peter Greenaway (Drowning by Numbers, The Cook the Thief His Wife & Her Lover) was bypassed by the Academy’s Music Branch. To date, Michael Nyman has yet to receive an Academy Award nomination.
As for the failure of the Academy’s Film Editors Branch to shortlist Lee Smith for his work on Christopher Nolan’s multi-dream-layered Inception, Oscar-nominated visual effects artist Paul Franklin complained to The Hollywood Reporter, “If there was one category that I thought we were going to get, it was editing. It’s a real shame for Lee Smith; he kept Inception cohesive, while telling four stories simultaneously. We worked very closely. Chris has an established team. Working with Lee is an absolute dream.”
Lee Smith has been nominated for two Academy Awards: Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003) and The Dark Knight (2008).
Note: The “Biggest Oscar Snubs” series isn’t a reflection of my personal tastes. Instead, the “snubs” are listed according to the furor they generated at the time. Sometimes I agree with those who called the Academy nuts; other times I’m in full agreement with those Academy members who cast their vote for somebody else.
Note Part II: This article and its follow-ups are revised, updated versions of pieces initially posted in January 2010.
Gordon Willis, Conrad L. Hall, and Caleb Deschanel quotes: Inside Oscar by Mason Wiley and Damien Bona.
Photo: Inception (Stephen Vaughan / Warner Bros.)