Film

The Best Director Deadlock

Joe Vallese

Or: Why Your Guess at this Category's Winner is as Good as Anyone's!

Though 2012 may not have been the strongest or most groundbreaking year for movies -- very good movies aplenty, sure, but nothing particularly mind-blowing -- the 2013 Academy Awards ceremony has the potential to be the most memorable in recent years. And not because Seth McFarlane probably won’t be able to resist doing his Stewie voice on the Oscar stage (#LOLZ, #SMH, #etc.). Rather, for the first time in quite a while, there simply don’t appear to be too many shoo-ins.

Jessica Chastain seemed undefeatable just a month ago, but now Jennifer Lawrence appears to be surpassing her as the favorite as Silver Linings Playbook keeps expanding its audience and Zero Dark Thirty continues to fade in the wake of controversy and Kathryn Bigelow’s directorial snub. Anne Hathaway’s recent wide-eyed theater-kid shtick at every award ceremony may have begin to backfire and all those moments of bowing down to worship at the altar of Sally Field may actually work in Field’s favor. Daniel Day-Lewis’ Lincoln seems the easy pick -- but is it too easy? Could Bradley Cooper emerge victorious alongside costar Lawrence? It’s pretty clear that Robert DeNiro’s taking home the gold man for his turn in Playbook, and so maybe there’ll be a strange sweep that extends to Best Picture and Best Director for David O. Russell?

And here’s where things get trickiest. Best Director couldn’t possibly be more of a free-for-all than it currently is. When the Academy decided to expand the Best Picture nominees from five to ten in 2009, harkening back to the Award’s earlier days and a way, presumably, to shake up the predictability factor, they actually managed to make things more predictable. Best Director most often corresponds to the film that will win Best Picture, a formula that has proven mostly true (though, of course, this isn’t always the case, as evidenced by Ang Lee famously winning for Brokeback Mountain, a possible atonement-in-advance by the Academy for spinelessly giving Best Picture honors to Crash, and Roman Polanski taking the prize for The Pianist in 2002 despite Chicago grabbing top honors). The increased number of Best Picture nominations simply thins out the pool for what film can actually win, highlighting the few directors whose films are in the running, since there exists an important reciprocity here: films can’t win Best Picture if their directors aren’t at least nominated. Right? Well, not so fast.

This could be the year that all that gets turned upside down. At the time of the great Bigelow snub, Zero Dark Thirty still seemed like the Best Picture frontrunner, but once Bigelow was out, its chances of collecting any awards at all seems to have shrunk to Zero. And yet, Ben Affleck’s Best Director snub seems, strangely enough, to have elevated Argo as the most likely candidate for Best Picture. I know, I know: historically, that ain’t how it works. But Argo, of all the nominees, is -- not surprising, given the plot – the most conventional “Hollywood” film in the lot, and in many ways is the more digestible alternative to Zero. What’s more, everyone -- critics and moviegoers alike, and surely those precious voters -- seem genuinely pissed off that Affleck, who has worked so, so hard to rehabilitate his image over the past decade (from his questionable post-Good Will Hunting film choices to his unforgivable role in the melodramatic soap opera known as BENNIFER) and has proven himself an exceptional craftsman behind the camera, wasn’t acknowledged in the Director category. If Argo takes Best Picture, and there are plenty of reasons to believe it will, then it will make history and join a very elite club, including Driving Miss Daisy in 1989, Grand Hotel in 1932, and Wings in 1927.

That still leaves us scratching our heads about who will win Best Director, a puzzle that, at once, seems both impossible and easy to decode. Though there’s plenty of fantastic whimsy and poignancy in Beasts of the Southern Wild, we can pretty much strike Behn Zeitlin off the list. The Academy loves to acknowledge notable feature film debuts, but for Zeitlin the honor will almost certainly in being nominated. Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln nomination is fair but unexciting. If he does win, though, it seems likely that he’ll also snatch Best Picture and, coupled with Day-Lewis’ likely win, the sweep will make fine sense, but would be a let down given the build-up buoyed by the strange tone the nominations have set for this year’s awards.

Speaking of strange tones, as I mentioned earlier David O. Russell’s unconventional romantic comedy Silver Linings Playbook has become something of a dark horse in this race, filling out each acting category—another anomaly. While O. Russell has certainly done more striking work, he’s constantly inching toward mainstream success, directing Christian Bale and Melissa Leo to their first Oscars in 2011 for The Fighter and now earning box office numbers that seemed unfathomable back in 2004, when I Heart Huckabees played on a loop in college dorm rooms across the country. Ang Lee, on the other hand, is always a sure thing for a nomination, but Life of Pi, despite very favorable reviews for the epic visual feast it serves up, hasn’t quite resonated with audiences or been the type of conversation starter that one would expect of a film poised to take home a major Academy Award.

Which brings us to divisive auteur Michael Haneke, who has miraculously gone from surprise nominee to underdog favorite. Haneke, known for his unsettling commentaries on humanity’s dark sides with fare such as Cache, Funny Games, and The Piano Teacher, has received near-universal acclaim for his Amour, an unflinching look at love and devotion amidst the physical and mental disintegration of aging. Each of the abovementioned nominees in his (all “his”es, sadly) contributes to a splintering of the votes that might ensure Haneke’s path to victory. Coupled with a very likely Best Foreign Language Film win, the night’s big winner could very well be Haneke—the kind of Oscar night scenario that film buffs would indeed remember for years to come.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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