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Ridley Scott: the Best Director to Never Win an Oscar

The great British director Ridley Scott is – with apologies to Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson and David Fincher – probably the most accomplished director working today who doesn’t have a Best Director Oscar on his mantle.

Beginning with the excellent The Duelists in 1977, Scott has reliably turned out movies every 1-2 years – ranging from masterpieces (Alien, Blade Runner) to greats (Gladiator, Black Hawk Down) to, yes, a few duds (G.I. Jane). With The Martian sure looking like it’s going to land on the upper end of that scale this week, let’s take a look back and dive into the career of one of the most versatile directors working out there.

The Box Office Monster: Gladiator

Photo via DreamWorks/Universal

One of the most rousing films ever made, this 2000 blockbuster grossed over $450 million worldwide, made a star and an Oscar winner out of Russell Crowe (the first of his four collaborations with Scott) and garnered another nomination for Joaquin Phoenix, playing a snidely conniving Roman leader against Crowe’s virtuous general. It’s not his best picture, but it’s the one that won Best Picture and influenced LeBron James to name his son “Bryce Maximus”. Figure that one out.

The Box Office Bomb: 1492: Conquest of Paradise

1492: Conquest of Paradise
Photo via Paramount

Forgot this one existed? So did audiences. Released in 1992 to capitalize on the 500th anniversary of the voyage, this bomb only made $7 million worldwide on a $47 million budget. It’s got a truly strange cast – Depardieu as Columbus, Sigourney Weaver as Queen Isabella and Armand Assante as Columbus’ adversary, along with other pros like Mark Margolis and Fernando Rey – but it’s not really all that terrible of a movie. Who knows. Maybe by 2492, people will be ready for a Columbus movie.

Although the movie didn’t do so great, the soundtrack enjoyed a nice bit of popularity when world title-holding boxer Henry Maske made the title track his ring introduction song. Bet the composer Vangelis never saw that one coming.

The Disappointment: G.I. Jane

G.I. Jane
Photo via Hollywood Pictures

Scott has always, and rightfully, been praised for his strong female characters. The movie certainly has one in Demi Moore’s first-ever female SEAL commando, but when the role earns you a Razzie Award for worst actress, you know you might have a stinker on your hands. The only Ridley Scott film on this list to be featured in the infamous award ceremony, the rest of the film is utterly ludicrous (the less said about the final act the better).

The one admirable thing here, as in all of Scott’s films, is the super casting; Viggo Mortensen, Jim Caviezel and Morris Chestnut pop up in supporting roles. Moore wasn’t a bad option either, but with what she had to go with, she had her work cut out for her.

The Over-Hyped: Prometheus

Photo via 20th Century Fox

It made a pile of money (over $400 million), but Scott’s sorta-prequel to Alien is bogged down by a clunky screenplay – you have to wonder how the rewrites from Lost veteran Damon Lindelof hamstrung the movie. It’s too bad, because there are some gripping visuals here, and Michael Fassbender’s basketball-playing, Lawrence of Arabia-worshipping android David is fantastic. Let’s hope the sequel lives up to the premise’s promise.

The Charmer You Forgot About: Matchstick Men

Matchstick Men
Photo via Warner Bros

A surprisingly understated and heartfelt 2003 film from Scott, about a neurotic con man (Nicolas Cage) who discovers he has a 14-year-old daughter, played young by a 23-at-the-time Alison Lohman. Cage’s trademark insanity is dialed down to captivating quirkiness here, and there’s real, nimble character capturing here from Scott. A smaller budget than his other films, but a bigger delight. 

The Hidden Gem: The Counselor

The Counselor
Photo via 20th Century Fox

This Cormac McCarthy-scripted tale of a lawyer (Fassbender) caught up in the drug trade is a completely insane movie, but it’s a richly-layered one that has received a fine critical reappraisal after an opening-weekend savaging. The writing was good enough to be excerpted for a piece in the New Yorker before it came out.

Unfortunately, with a cumulative gross of just over $7M, audiences didn’t appreciate what Scott was going for. But, if nothing else, it’s the best movie ever that features a woman (Cameron Diaz) having sex with a car.

The Missed Opportunity: Robin Hood

Robin Hood
Photo via Universal

Few do big-budget epics as well as Scott does, and the pairing of the Robin Hood story with another Russell Crowe partnership (along with Cate Blanchett as Maid Marian) seems like it would have been a layup. The result, however, is surprisingly inert – perhaps due to the movie’s well-publicized behind-the-scenes blow-ups. At least the Kevin Costner version had a pulse alongside its terrible accents.

The One That Got Away: Black Hawk Down

Black Hawk Down
Photo via Columbia Pictures

This may be Scott’s finest directorial work, and he earned a well-deserved Best Director nomination – somehow, losing to Ron Howard for A Beautiful Mind. It’s a masterpiece of pacing, staging and clarity; Scott captures the mass chaos of the disastrous 1993 Mogadishu raid that involved two real-life Medal of Honor winners Gary Gordon and Randall Shutgart, all while never losing sight of the movie’s theme and story. There are few war films as intricately crafted, or as stunningly emotional, as this one.

The Best, Period: Alien

Photo via 20th Century Fox

This one of the most terrifying movies of all time, and it’s the one that truly shows off all of Scott’s greatest features – the strong female lead, an unparalleled sense of story structure and clarity, and brilliant sets and designs. Scott develops Sigourney Weaver into a star as the tense tale unfolds against a backdrop of a lived-in, worn-down spaceship, creating a terror tale for the ages that launched a still-breathing franchise. 

To give you a sense of the thought Scott put into the movie: he intentionally kept the details of the famous chestburster scene a secret to the cast – resulting in one of them passing out while the scene was being filmed. What a movie. 

The Most Impactful: Thelma and Louise and Blade Runner (tie)

Scott’s movies have never shied away from a pro-feminism message, none more so than in Thelma and Louise. The exciting and vibrant partnership of Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon on the lam caused a sensation when released in 1991, winning an Oscar for screenwriter Callie Khouri and cementing its canyon-plunging finale in movie history. It’s one of the most progressive films ever made.

Meanwhile, Scott’s landmark 1982 feature Blade Runner was a bomb in theaters – but nearly every sci-fi film ever made since has been influenced by its gripping and bleakly dystopian vision of the future.  Although he won’t be directing, the fanboys and girls went wild at the news that the world will be brought back to life with Scott as a producer. The sequel will be in the trusted hands of helmer Dennis Villenueve, who did Prisoners and the now-playing in theaters Sicario.

Are there any other Ridley Scott films you think should be recognized? Let us know in the comments below.

4 thoughts on “Ridley Scott: the Best Director to Never Win an Oscar Leave a comment

  1. I agree that Ridley Scott is a masterful artist who has delivered, time and time again. But “the best director to never win an Oscar?” That would be Alfred Hitchcock, in my humblest of opinions.

    • That’s a tough one to argue, Tom. He did get a Memorial Award, but none of his 5 nominations for Best Director ever earned him the statue for it. Thanks for giving your input!

  2. Greetings,
    It is not necessary to read every word. How does something like this happen!? This man has his hand so many popular movies. Unbeknownst to movie goers that such an accomplished Director could go unnoticed for so long. Is this a politic issue in movies? Where are the ethics in giving credit where credit is due. I recently viewed the Martian movie and it was excellent!!!!

    I certainly hope Ridley gets the recognition he deserves, finally after all this time.

    Melinda Pearce

Make yourself heard!