Steven Spielberg felt bullish on the morning of Feb. 17, 1976. “Jaws is about to be nominated in 11 categories,” he crowed to a documentary crew he’d invited to film him watching the Oscar nominations announcement on TV. “You’re about to see us sweep the nominations.”
Spielberg had reason to be confident. At 29, he had directed the highest-grossing film of all time, catapulting him to the heights of the Hollywood hierarchy. Universal’s Sid Sheinberg had gloated, “I want to be the first to predict that Steve will win the Best Director Oscar this year.”
Now, surrounded by friends and employees, Spielberg called out from his desk, “Carol? Can everybody in this room have coffee, with the exception of myself, who would like a cup of tea?” He hunched over an office chair, fists planted in his cheeks and a camera in his face, and watched the nominations announced for Best Director: Robert Altman, Federico Fellini, Miloš Forman, Stanley Kubrick, and Sidney Lumet.
“Oh, I didn’t get it! I didn’t get it!” Spielberg moaned. He turned to his friends, all shaking their heads, and said with disbelief, “I got beaten out by Fellini.” Best Actress was up next, and the director quickly papered over his disappointment with shtick: “Wait a second. The shark was an actress.” Jaws got on the Best Picture list, but it was the sole contender without a nominated director. As his pals pronounced it “a dark day in Hollywood,” Spielberg turned comedian: “Cancel my day! Cancel my week! I’m going to Palm Springs!”
For Carl Gottlieb, whose screenplay for Jaws was also passed over, the forced levity was “a very honest look at Steven,” he recalled in an interview. “That’s how he looks when he’s upset.” Spielberg went on to rationalize for the cameras, whose presence he must have immediately regretted: “This is called commercial backlash. … Everybody loves a winner, but nobody loves a winner.”
“It didn’t fit his master plan at all,” Gottlieb said. “He was going to be acclaimed as an auteur director. It was like Hitler getting to the English Channel and not being able to cross it.”
Forty-seven years later, Spielberg is a Hollywood elder statesman at the forefront of the Academy Awards race. His late-career bildungsroman, The Fabelmans, is nominated for seven Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. By now, it’s a commonplace assumption that Spielberg is the master of Oscar bait—that he makes the kinds of movies the Academy loves, and is rewarded accordingly. But as much as Spielberg seems like a perennial shoo-in, his Oscar history is surprisingly spotty.
Sure, he gets nominated a lot: He has 22 total nominations on his résumé, including the three he received this year. (He also co-wrote The Fabelmans’ nominated screenplay with Tony Kushner.) But since 1976, when Jaws lost that Best Picture race to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, he has won only three Oscars—two for directing and just one for Best Picture. Perhaps chastened by his humiliation in front of that camera crew in 1976, he’s rarely shown a public hunger for Oscars in the decades since—but that doesn’t mean he’s above them. “He’s mad for awards,” said one campaign consultant who’s worked with Spielberg. “It validates him.” A win for The Fabelmans would give his up-and-down Oscar story a triumphal third-act twist worthy of, well, a Spielberg movie.
Oscar Wars: A History of Hollywood in Gold, Sweat, and Tears
By Michael Schulman. Harper.
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After his snub for Jaws, Spielberg became notorious for losing Oscars, even as he turned out blockbuster after blockbuster. He lost for Close Encounters of the Third Kind, then Raiders of the Lost Ark. The year E.T. was nominated, he lost Best Director and Best Picture to Gandhi. The message was clear: Spielberg was a hit-maker, not an artist. In 1985, seemingly in response to that reputation, he made The Color Purple, a period drama based on an acclaimed novel. It was nominated for 11 Oscars and lost every single one. In 1987 the Academy gave him the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award as a consolation prize. As he tried to keep his golden Thalberg head from toppling over on the lectern during his speech, he self-consciously joked that he was tempted “to use Sally Field’s line from two years ago.” That line, of course, was the newly immortal “You like me! Right now, you like me!”
His breakthrough finally came in 1994, when Schindler’s List received 12 nominations. The film was more than a sign that the spaceship-loving boy-man had grown up; its brutally realistic depiction of the Holocaust pointed to a reckoning with his own Jewishness. It was unbeatable. Even Bruce Feldman, who was running the movie’s Oscar campaign, knew his job was a cakewalk. “It’s not rocket science,” he recalled. “You just—duh! Don’t fuck it up!” Schindler’s List won seven Oscars, including Best Director and Best Picture. Three more went that year to Jurassic Park, crowning him Hollywood’s undisputed king of art and commerce.
But his next move wasn’t directing a movie. It was building his own dream factory. Seven months after the Schindler’s triumph, Spielberg, David Geffen, and Jeffrey Katzenberg announced the creation of a brand-new studio. Even before the new enterprise had a name—DreamWorks—the press went wild over the “dream team,” as if they were a rock ’n’ roll supergroup.
It took Spielberg three years to release his first DreamWorks film, the slave-uprising drama Amistad, which opened to a weak box office and mixed reviews. Even the DreamWorks marketing team called it “the spinach movie.” Spielberg had hopes for another Oscar, but he shunned campaigning, believing that the movie should speak for itself. “He really didn’t get involved at all in the Amistad campaign,” recalled former DreamWorks staffer Mike Gottberg. “He just felt it was distasteful. It was an old-school thing.” It fell on Terry Press, the studio’s blunt head of marketing, to tell him it wasn’t looking likely. She was right: Neither the picture nor Spielberg was nominated in 1998.
That summer, Spielberg released his World War II epic Saving Private Ryan, which grossed $216 million domestically and an astonishing $482 million worldwide. Critics lavished praise on the movie’s opening D-Day scene, which Time’s Richard Schickel called “quite possibly the greatest combat sequence ever made.” Like Schindler’s List, Ryan represented more than a movie: It was a commemoration of the aging Greatest Generation, which included Spielberg’s own father, who had served in a B-25 bomber squadron in Burma. For DreamWorks, it was also the film that finally made the studio click. “You were like, This is a Steven Spielberg movie. This is why we joined this company,” one former employee said. “Saving Private Ryan was a flag flying on top of the building.”
For Spielberg, tap-dancing for awards was still out of the question. “He held—and still holds—the Academy in great esteem and didn’t feel like it needed to be debased,” publicist Mitch Kreindel recalled. No matter: As summer turned to fall, Saving Private Ryan was the undisputed front-runner. How could it lose?
That December, Harvey Weinstein’s Miramax released Shakespeare in Love, upending a race that DreamWorks thought it had in the bag. On Feb. 9, 1999, Ryan got 11 Oscar nominations; Shakespeare got 13. Shakespeare vs. Private Ryan would be remembered as one of the ugliest Best Picture fights in Oscar history, largely because of Weinstein’s aggressive campaigning. Miramax hired a battalion of freelance consultants and flooded the trades with ads, which former Miramax marketing executive David Brooks described as “very colorful and fun and romantic—a distinct contrast to Private Ryan.” “Harvey made the Academy feel like Shakespeare in Love was a classic,” publicist Dale Olson said later. “He made it so it was almost criminal not to vote for it.”
DreamWorks, a new studio working by old Hollywood’s rules, suddenly looked complacent next to the Weinstein machine, but Spielberg remained resistant to campaigning. “It really was a full-court press to try to get Steven out in the world telling people how proud he was of this film,” Gottberg recalled. After months of inevitability around Private Ryan’s Oscar chances, front-runner fatigue had set in. And though the director was known as a mensch, an “undercurrent of resentment,” as one observer called it, was building toward Spielberg, whose success was so out of proportion to that of his peers. There were big-name directors, but Spielberg was a titan.
Then the tinderbox exploded. One day, Press was at DreamWorks, on the phone with journalist Lynn Hirschberg, who gave Press a heads-up: Weinstein had tried to persuade her to write that Saving Private Ryan peaked after the first 25 minutes and then became a standard World War II drama. In the years before social media allowed anyone to spotlight a nominee’s old antisemitic comments or off-color jokes, even a whiff of Washington-style oppo was taboo. By casting Ryan’s bravura D-Day sequence as a liability, though, Weinstein had channeled one of Karl Rove’s rules of the political dark arts: Attack your opposition’s strength, not its weakness. “It was shocking to my system,” Press said, “which shows how completely naive I was.” Incensed, she marched into Spielberg’s office and told him what she had heard. The director was crystal clear: “No matter what, I do not want you to get in the mud with Harvey Weinstein.”
Even if Press was banned from going negative, that didn’t mean she was backing down. “Very quickly, we were all on red alert,” one of her staffers recalled. “We all knew we were at war.” DreamWorks pumped an extra million dollars or two into the Saving Private Ryan campaign. On a single Sunday, it ran ads in more than 60 major-market papers. As the Oscars approached, both parties felt aggrieved. Miramax thought DreamWorks was playing the victim card by complaining about the Shakespeare campaign in the press; DreamWorks staffers felt that their noble movie was getting assassinated, and Spielberg had forbidden them from fighting back. “We were hamstrung,” one publicist recalls. “These street fighters have come here from New York, and we’re being out-trashed by them. And we have our hands tied behind our backs, and we can’t respond. We can’t fight dirty like they are.”
On Oscar night, Spielberg had an aisle seat unmissable by the cameras. The host, Whoopi Goldberg, entered in Elizabeth I garb and teased the dueling Oscar campaigns: “Those boys fought World War III over World War II!” The movies traded awards all night: Best Art Direction to Shakespeare, two sound awards for Private Ryan. Best Cinematography to Private Ryan, Best Actress to Shakespeare’s Gwyneth Paltrow. The directing award went to Spielberg, who momentarily dropped his above-it-all humanitarianism when he said, “Am I allowed to say I really wanted this?” Then, snapping back to form, he thanked the families who had lost sons in the war and dedicated the Oscar to his father, who raised a fist from the audience.
Spielberg rushed back to his seat for the final award. The score was now Shakespeare, 6; Ryan, 5. The Ryan team, bracing for a photo finish, sighed in relief when Spielberg’s friend Harrison Ford walked out to present Best Picture: The Indiana Jones reunion seemed tailor-made for television. “I couldn’t imagine not winning,” Ryan producer Mark Gordon recalled. “I mean, for God’s sakes, we had no competition!”
The winner was Shakespeare in Love.
As Weinstein leaped to his feet, Press, watching from the mezzanine, felt as if her face was “on fire.” As the audience cleared out, Kreindel found Spielberg at his seat and said, “I don’t expect that you are comfortable going upstairs to do the press?” “No, I’m not,” Spielberg replied weakly. At the Governors Ball, Weinstein sought out Spielberg, but the director turned away. “Steven was no longer naive about what Harvey was capable of,” Press said later. At the Ryan after-party, Spielberg sat at a table with Harrison Ford, clutching his Oscar with cold rage.
What happened next was an arms race: The next year, DreamWorks outspent every other studio running ads for American Beauty, a project Spielberg had championed, and it won Best Picture. DreamWorks won again the next year, for Gladiator. Campaign budgets ballooned as every studio scrambled to copy the “Weinstein playbook.” But Spielberg’s Oscar luck didn’t change in the 21st century, even as he leaned into serious dramas. He lost the directing Oscar for Munich, Lincoln, and West Side Story, and went unnominated for directing Catch Me if You Can, War Horse, Bridge of Spies, and The Post. And he hasn’t cleared the Best Picture bar since Schindler’s List.
Spielberg is still a selective campaigner—he launched The Fabelmans with a cover story in Time, a New York Times profile, and an interview with Terry Gross, then made himself scarce—but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t crave one more Oscar. It’s possible that Academy voters believe that Spielberg has enough accolades already, not realizing that he has fewer directing Oscars than Frank Capra, William Wyler, and John Ford (who holds the record, with four). As Spielberg himself said back in 1976, everybody loves a winner, but nobody loves a winner.
But The Fabelmans may be different. Last fall, it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, the first Spielberg-directed movie to be entered there—both a seeming admission that The Fabelmans was different from the Spielberg movies that came before, and a signal that this movie would follow a reliable awards route. And the Oscar narrative behind it is strong: The King of Hollywood, at long last, digs into the trauma of his parents’ divorce and shows us how he became a director. (The Time magazine cover said it all: “The World’s Most Famous Director on the Story He Waited 60 Years to Tell.”) When it comes to Oscars, it doesn’t appear to be enough for Spielberg to wow us or thrill us or even move us; to get that Oscar mojo, he has to reveal himself.
If he wins this year, few will see him as an underdog. But Spielberg, after a lifetime of losing Oscars, knows better. When he won the Golden Globe for Best Director in January, he began his speech, “I always say that if I prepare something, you know, it’s going to jinx it. So I never prepare anything.” On Oscar night, he may well have prepared something, even if it’s the expectation that he’ll be passed over once again.
This story is adapted from Oscar Wars: A History of Hollywood in Gold, Sweat, and Tears by Michael Schulman, out Feb. 21 from Harper.