On his way to the podium to pick up his Oscar for Best Director for his biographical work Gandhi (1982), British director Richard Attenborough would make a stop at the side of Steven Spielberg and whisper to the younger man, “This belongs to you”, before carrying on to accept his Oscar.
It sure did.
In one of the travesties of Oscar history, ‘Gandhi’ (1982) would win eight Academy Awards including Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor (Ben Kingsley) and Best Screenplay. Steven Spielberg’s dreamscape of a film E. T. – The Extraterrestrial (1982) would win four, losing Best Director and Best Film to an inferior film. Many critics at the time pointed out that Attenborough’s film was an old fashioned Hollywood biography, one that focused entirely on the character’s goodness and great achievements rather than dare to show anything remotely negative about him.
Partway through watching the film back in 1982, I would not have been shocked had Gandhi walked on water, such was the story the director was telling. And please, I mean no disrespect to Mahatma Gandhi nor his sublime accomplishments, it is the film of his life to which I object and the shameless manner the Academy chose to honor Gandhi the man, rather than the film. One year after the film had collected Best Picture there were essays popping up in film journals and magazines challenging the Academy’s choice, and noting that Gandhi (1982) by that time out on video was already old fashioned and out of touch with modern cinema.
It marked the third consecutive year than an actor had won the Oscar for directing, Robert Redford winning for Ordinary People (1980) besting Martin Scorsese for Raging Bull (1980), Warren Beatty deservedly wining for Reds (1981), and now Attenborough. That each had also won honors from the Directors Guild of America (DGA) must have been a double sting for long time directors losing to actors at the helm.
Spielberg’s E.T. – The Extraterrestrial (1982) or Sydney Pollacks’s hysterically funny Tootise (1982) were each better choices for the litany of awards Gandhi (1982) would win. How it happened, why it happened, we all know, just as we know it should not have happened. Spielberg made a magnificent fantasy film in which the leading man was a special effect. A four foot tall chunk of latex with Einstein eyes, no visible nose, a neck that could be elongated at will, skin that was sort of damp and slimy, hands with long fingers that could heal, and feet that were, well, ugly. Voiced by actresses in post, operated by a dozen or more men with with remote controls and cable controlled switches, the little alien came to life on screen.