Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: With the Academy Awards coming this Sunday, we’re highlighting work by master filmmakers who never won the Best Director Oscar.
Renowned film director Stanley Kubrick never won an Academy Award for Best Director, though he did technically win an Oscar for the visual effects of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Based on the back stretch of his career, the lack of a big directing trophy doesn’t seem all that strange, especially once he started making movies at the rate of approximately one technically stunning but emotionally chilly picture per decade. But Kubrick’s earlier years include some more traditional Hollywood material, perhaps none more traditional than his 1960 epic Spartacus. Indeed, this film about a slave revolt won four Oscars, for art direction, costumes, cinematography, and Best Supporting Actor, and was nominated for two more. But Kubrick went unrecognized for arguably his most Academy-friendly work.
It was also apparently some of his least Kubrick-friendly work; the director did not have final cut and did not approve of the final version, or show much interest in subsequent restorations. But the story of Spartacus (Kirk Douglas), who winds up leading an army of fellow slaves against their Roman oppressors in the final century before the birth of Christ, was an enormous hit. It’s easy to understand why: It’s an impressively mounted production that applies Kubrick’s signature meticulousness to an involving story, opening up his aesthetic before it became more idiosyncratic and, sometimes, more insulated in his later years.
Spartacus, which sprawls over three hours in the restored version (including a lengthy overture, intermission, and long Saul Bass opening credits) and was Kubrick’s only color film until 2001, has less concentrated intensity than a lot his other films, though some shots of Douglas’ glowering face have a distant kinship with similar face shots in The Shining and Full Metal Jacket, and there are touches of Kubrickian perversity (like the camera lingering as Spartacus drowns a Roman guard in a vat of soup). Moreover, as soon as some of the Roman senate scenes begin to drag, Kubrick will return to the wider expanses of Spartacus and his army of freed slaves as they make their way across Italy. These environments are often shown in glorious pans and tracks, like one that surveys a Roman camp bathed in orange flame post-battle. And for a sword-and-sandal epic, the movie’s conclusion is smaller in scope, but not in emotional impact.
Add in the famous “I am Spartacus!” scene, and the film’s pretty Oscar-friendly. It’s hard to argue against the Academy’s Picture/Director combo for 1960: The Apartment and its director, Billy Wilder (even if Wilder also beat fellow never-Oscared director Alfred Hitchcock). It’s equally hard to imagine Kubrick’s subsequent work winning over a majority of the Academy; if he didn’t make it in for an expertly crafted crowdpleaser like this one, he must have known (and/or not cared) that the jig was up.
Availability: Spartacus is available on Blu-ray or DVD from Amazon, Netflix, or possibly your local library/video store. It can also be rented or purchased from the major digital outlets.