Home / World News / Oscars Rewind: The Last Time Jane Campion and Steven Spielberg Went Head-to-Head

Oscars Rewind: The Last Time Jane Campion and Steven Spielberg Went Head-to-Head

If the best director matchup at the Academy Awards next Sunday looks familiar, you aren’t hallucinating: On a warm spring night in Los Angeles in 1994, Jane Campion and Steven Spielberg, who are nominated this year for “The Power of the Dog” and “West Side Story,” went head-to-head.

But unlike this year, when Campion and her queer western are the runaway favorites, both directors had a fighting chance in 1994.

At the time, Spielberg was 47 and had yet to enter the greatest-of-all-time conversation, though he still had a stellar three career Oscar nominations for directing. That was the backdrop when he was nominated for “Schindler’s List,” the Holocaust drama about a German businessman who saved more than 1,100 Jews from Nazi death camps. The film was the most-nominated feature that year, notching 12 mentions in all, including one for best picture.

Though the directors’ field included James Ivory (“The Remains of the Day”), Jim Sheridan (“In the Name of the Father”) and Robert Altman (“Short Cuts”), Spielberg’s strongest challenger was Campion, then 39, who was just the second woman ever nominated in the category, for her period drama “The Piano.” The story of a Scottish woman finding love outside an arranged marriage in 19th-century New Zealand earned eight nominations including best picture. (Campion wrote the screenplay, and had become during the previous summer the first female filmmaker to win the Palme d’Or, the highest prize awarded at the Cannes Film Festival.)

Both “Schindler’s List” and “The Piano” had garnered ecstatic reviews from critics and audiences. In her New York Times rave, Janet Maslin called Spielberg’s film “invigoratingly dramatic,” praising his “electrifying creative intelligence” and “fiercely indelible images.” The New York Times critic Vincent Canby was no less effusive about “The Piano,” which he described as “one of the funniest, most strangely erotic love stories in the recent history of film.” (Critics had a few quibbles about it being too consciously an “art” film, but that did little to dilute enthusiasm.)

At first, Campion had the edge after winning best director at the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards and the New York Film Critics Circle Awards, but both groups gave best picture to “Schindler’s List.” Spielberg’s film picked up a third accolade from the National Board of Review, which gave best director to Martin Scorsese for “The Age of Innocence.”

The film critic Jack Mathews noted in Newsday that the first three critics awards naming “Schindler’s List” as their best picture while snubbing Spielberg in the director race recalled the controversy over “The Color Purple” eight years earlier, when that Spielberg drama received 11 Oscar nominations but none for directing.

“The charge made then by outraged Spielberg supporters was that his colleagues were too jealous of his success to honor him,” Mathews wrote.

But in 1994 Spielberg mounted a comeback, winning the Golden Globe in January and the Directors Guild Award in early March. By the night of the 66th Academy Awards ceremony, on March 21 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the race was his to lose.

He got off to a strong start: “Schindler’s List” picked up awards for best adapted screenplay, art direction, cinematography, film editing and original score (John Williams’s third Oscar for a collaboration with Spielberg). “The Piano” won best actress for Holly Hunter’s wordless performance as a sign language-using piano player; a surprise best supporting actress statuette for Anna Paquin, who at 11 became the second-youngest winner of a competitive acting Oscar (after Tatum O’Neal for “Paper Moon”); and a best original screenplay prize for Campion.

Though it was a great night if you were Spielberg, the stack of “Schindler’s List” victories hardly made for gripping television — the Orlando Sentinel film critic Jay Boyar bemoaned that “this year’s Oscarcast was only a little more exciting than a wine snob droning on about his favorite vintages.”

But then, it was time for the big reveal.

The best director presenter, Clint Eastwood, who’d won the previous year for “Unforgiven,” slid open the envelope. “The Oscar goes to — this is a big surprise,” Eastwood said dryly before reading the name everyone knew was coming. “Steven Spielberg.”

A teary Spielberg kissed his wife and hugged his 74-year-old mom. He made his way to the stage as the room gave him a rousing standing ovation. He hugged Eastwood and took the statuette — his first Oscar — clutching it to his heart as he tentatively felt its weight.

“This is the first time I’ve ever had one of these in my hand,” said Spielberg, who had previously been nominated for “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “E.T.”

In a speech that lasted a little over two minutes, he thanked the Auschwitz survivor Poldek Pfefferberg, who talked Thomas Keneally into writing the book on which “Schindler’s List” is based, as well the film’s cast and its screenwriter, Steven Zaillian. He concluded with an acknowledgment of those who died in the Holocaust, “the six million who can’t be watching this among the one billion watching this telecast tonight.”

In all, “Schindler’s List” won seven Oscars, including best picture — the most of any film that year — while “The Piano” took home three.

Fast forward to 2022, and this time it’s Campion, 67, who’s the presumptive favorite, for “The Power of the Dog,” which earned a pack-leading 12 nominations in February. After scoring best director victories at the Critics Choice, Directors Guild, BAFTAs and Golden Globe Awards, her path to her first directing statuette looks straightforward — if she herself doesn’t sink her chances. Campion apologized this week after wrongly suggesting in her Critics Choice Awards acceptance speech that the tennis greats Venus and Serena Williams didn’t compete against men the way she had to.

But Spielberg, 75, isn’t stepping aside and making way. He’s the first person to be nominated for directing in six different decades (he also won for “Saving Private Ryan”), and “West Side Story,” which picked up seven nominations, is a virtual lock to take home at least one award on the night: Ariana DeBose is considered a sure thing in the supporting actress category.

What will probably hurt Spielberg’s outside shot, though, is that “West Side Story” missed out on nominations for adapted screenplay and editing. (No director has won the Oscar without a film being considered for screenplay and editing.) None of the other non-Campion nominees in the category — Kenneth Branagh for “Belfast,” Paul Thomas Anderson for “Licorice Pizza” and Ryusuke Hamaguchi for “Drive My Car” — scored an editing nomination, either.

So Campion remains the safe bet, despite the possibility that “The Power of the Dog” may not win a single acting category given Will Smith’s string of best actor triumphs for “King Richard” and the “CODA” actor Troy Kotsur’s run of wins for supporting actor. If Campion were to win, she would become just the second female director to win the prize, after Chloé Zhao’s victory last year for “Nomadland.”

In Campion’s acceptance speech at the DGA Awards this month, she reflected on the many challenges she’s overcome to reach this point.

“The road here has been long,” she said. “I remember being the only woman in the room. I remember that outsider feeling as I fought to get my stories told from undeserved perspectives to light in a male-dominated field.”

Campion then added to loud applause: “I think perhaps it’s time to claim a sense of victory on that front. We’ve come so far, and what’s more, we’re never going backwards. That sense of the eternal horizon invigorates me.”

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