Steven Spielberg's Best Direction Oscar nomination for his 1985 film version of Alice Walker's The Color Purple was a given.
In fact, some felt the director of the blockbusters Jaws, Close Encounters of Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom would have a good shot at actually taking home the statuette. After all, Spielberg's first (very) serious, socially conscious drama – based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, no less – was doing remarkably well at the box office.
When the Oscar nominations were announced in early 1986, The Color Purple tied with Sydney Pollack's Out of Africa with 11 mentions each, including Best Picture. Pollack was shortlisted as Best Director, but Spielberg – despite a Directors Guild nod – was bypassed in favor of Akira Kurosawa, whose period epic Ran earned the veteran Japanese filmmaker his first Oscar nomination in that category.
This marked the second time the Academy's Directors Branch dared to pick a veteran foreign filmmaker instead of American icon Spielberg. A decade earlier, Federico Fellini landed a Best Direction nod for Amarcord, while Spielberg was left nominationless for Jaws.
“What wouldn't you have given to be a fly on the wall over at Spielberg's headquarters on Wednesday?” inquired columnist Kirk Honeycutt. (Unlike early 1976, Spielberg's reaction wasn't caught live by video cameras following the Color Purple snub.)
In a statement, The Color Purple distributor Warner Bros. expressed its “sincere appreciation” for their film's 11 nominations, adding that “the company is shocked and dismayed that the movie's primary creative force – Steven Spielberg – was not recognized.”
There were calls for internal Academy investigations that went unheeded, while others accused the Directors Branch of being envious of Spielberg's success. To put things in perspective: Christopher Nolan has had Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and Inception. Taking inflation into account, E.T. alone ($1.136 billion) made more money domestically than Batman Begins and The Dark Knight combined ($1.099 billion). Add the inflation-adjusted box office take of E.T., Jaws, and Raiders of the Lost Ark ($2.868 billion) and you get more than twice the total take of Nolan's three biggest hits ($1.391 billion).
Upon receiving a Grammy for Comedy Album, Whoopi Goldberg, who plays a poor black woman awakened to her inner strength in The Color Purple, told the media that the Academy's Directors Branch was “a small bunch of people with small minds who chose to ignore the obvious.”
Yet, in all likelihood the culprit here was not the mind size of the Directors Branch members, but the Academy's own preferential voting system. Much like Nolan's for The Dark Knight and Inception, Spielberg's name was surely found on lots of Best Direction ballots – perhaps even on every single ballot. But if he was mostly listed near the bottom, then someone like Akira Kurosawa, perhaps with fewer mentions but with higher priority, ended up taking his spot.
The Directors Guild members decided to rectify matters a little by giving Spielberg their award for Best Director of a Feature Film.
“I am floored by this,” Spielberg remarked upon accepting the award. “This is the last thing I expected. If some of you are making a statement, thank God, and I love you for it.” He then added, “I'm a movie maker and not a bellyacher. … Certainly anyone's feelings would have been hurt, but with all of the support I've received from people the last few weeks, I started to feel like Jimmy Stewart in It's a Wonderful Life.”
Years later, Steven Spielberg would take home two Best Direction Academy Awards: for Schindler's List (1993) and Saving Private Ryan (1998).
Quotes: Mason Wiley and Damien Bona's Inside Oscar and the Los Angeles Times
Whoopi Goldberg The Color Purple image: Warner Bros.