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Steven Spielberg ‘The Color Purple’: Biggest Oscar Snubs

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Whoopi Goldberg The Color Purple
Steven Spielberg The Color Purple Oscar snub: Whoopi Goldberg did receive a Best Actress nomination.
Ramon Novarro Beyond Paradise

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.”

Despite the DGA’s push, The Color Purple went on to tie with Herbert Ross’ The Turning Point (1977) as the biggest loser in Oscar history: 11 nominations; 0 wins.

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.

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Kim Carman -

Dear Sirs/Madams,
“THE COLOR PURPLE” is my favorite movie and every time it’s on,… you will find me in front of the T.V. watching it! It has so much ‘feeling,’ ‘truth,’ and at the end; triumph over what ‘Callie’ had to go through in order to see not just her sister(who was torn away from her @ an early age,), but her Son and Daughter from Africa! We also get to watch as her (undeserving husband who beat her all the time), husband,(played by Danny Glover), finally turned his life and heart around(after Callie left him!), and felt like he wanted to do something right(for the wife he abused continually), and went down to “Immigrations ” Office and brought Callie’s whole family into the United States from Africa. That movie should have won all 11 nominations as far as I’m concerned. It was a wonderful drama (that kept u guessing what was going to happen next!), heartfelt true ‘love’ in it, as well as a wonderful, intriguing story to tell.

Alice -

…And he didn’t win for E.T. either which was the bigger snub – the biggest film of all time! F*ck the academy, who cares. They have got no idea what the public want anyway.

Eugene Tan -

I ahve to agree with Robert Mai. Akira Kurosawa had his directign career begin alot earlier than Spielberg (1940 something, earlier than even, made many amazing films that are still considered among the best forign films ever. At least Steven Spielberg recieved his director’s award just 10 years later. If Akira didn’t win this one, he would never have another chance.

Kurosawa is, along wiht Sergio Leone, considered the greatest foreign film director ever, and one of the greatest worldwide. Spielberg received a good amount of Best Director noms, while Kurosawa probably only recieved 1. The fact that Kurosawa won is no snub on ANY of the nominees’ parts. Its a much-deserved award for one of the greatest directors ever, who had not a single nom for nearly 40 years. Spielberg was still a freshman at that time, his first big film, Jaws, made in 1975 only 9 years earlier.

The mere fact that Seven Samurai didn’t sweeep the Academy’s floors in 1954, or even receive a nom for anything, or even win best Foreign film, is nothing less than a travesty.

Andre -

By “snubbed” I meant that Steven Spielberg — like the others in my “Oscar Snubs” articles — was sure to receive a nomination — but didn’t.
(Adding insult to injury, “The Color Purple” received 11 nominations.)
It didn’t matter who got nominated in his place, whether we’re talking Akira Kurosawa or Ron Howard.
And having Spielberg here certainly doesn’t mean that *I* personally thought he should have been nominated.
Or “”Dreamgirls.” Or Barbra Streisand. Or even Bette Davis in “Of Human Bondage.”

Carol Stepanis -

I loved Whoopi until she became a member of The View, a show I NEVER watch. Anyway, she definitely deserved Best Actress for The Color Purple. I recently watched it for probably the third time, Whoopi was phenomenal, as was Spielberg’s direction. This, “IMO” remains one of the very best films ever made.

Robert Mai -

Well, if you’d consider that Akira F**king Kurosawa was nominated for the first time in his amazing career, I’m not feeling too bad about the snub. Of course, it was weird, considering that Spielberg won the DGA, but Kurosawa getting nommed was just plain awesome.

Andre -

A clarification: Spielberg’s DGA win came *after* the Oscar nominations were announced.

Proman -

The Color Purple is a transcendent film. It contains scenes of such unbelievable power that it they rank among cinema’s all time greatest.
It is also a film of incredible scale and ambition that it is all the more rewarding that it is so masterfully executed. In addition to Spielberg’s work (and the guy really gives his all, time after time) I also want to praise the editor. The sequence where Cecile is about to give Mister “a shave” intercut with African sacrificial rituals is one of the greatest edited and envisioned scenes I have ever seen.

Spielberg is a very underrated guy when it comes to awards but he won enough that it almost makes one disregard the numerous snubs he received in light of sheer range and quality of his works. To me, the fact that he did get an Oscar nod for this film AND won the DGA is at least some consolation.


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