Roger Ebert, the film critic, wrote a recent blog post that began, “Ramin Bahrani is the new great American director. After three films, each a master work, he has established himself as a gifted, confident filmmaker with ideas that involve who and where we are at this time.”
I’d never heard of Ramin Bahrani, but if Roger Ebert was enthused about him, I was curious to learn more. The blog revealed some details: Bahrani was born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, to Iranian parents, his father was a psychiatrist, he went to Columbia University in Manhattan, then spent some years in Iran, returned to America, and started making movies.
Winston-Salem is probably best-known for its tobacco industry. It isn’t known for incubating film directors. I wondered what places are known for incubating film directors, especially good film directors. To answer that question, I made a list of good film directors, along with where they grew up.
Who qualifies as a “good” film director? I decided to look at those directors who’ve received two or more Academy Award nominations for best director. I figured that getting one nomination might be a fluke, but getting two nominations is significant.
As of writing this, there are 83 directors who got nominated for best director twice, treating Joel and Ethan Coen as one because they always got nominated together.
I also had to decide what I meant by the “place where they grew up.” For example, Frank Capra was born in Sicily but his family immigrated to Los Angeles when he was six. I decided to go with the place they called home for the longest time before age 18. Using that definition, Frank Capra grew up in Los Angeles and Elia Kazan grew up in New York City. Steven Spielberg moved around a lot growing up, so I didn’t know what to put as the place where he grew up, other than the United States!
Frank Capra cuts army film as a Signal Corps Reserve major during World War II
I created the list in an OpenOffice Calc spreadsheet and also uploaded it to swivel.com.
[Update: swivel.com shut down in the summer of 2010, and the live embedded charts that used to be in this post vanished with them. I guess the lesson is to make your own charts; don’t rely on live charts provided by third parties.]
So where did the good directors grow up?
52 of the 83 (63%) grew up in the United States, eleven grew up in England, three in Austria-Hungary, two in Germany, two in Italy, and two in Sweden. The rest are the sole good directors to grow up in the country that they did. I didn’t expect to see three who grew up in Austria-Hungary, a country which hasn’t existed since the First World War. Those three are Billy Wilder, Fred Zinnemann, and Otto Preminger.
Only one good director grew up in my home country, Canada, namely Norman Jewison. He grew up in Toronto and has been nominated for best director three times. James Cameron, Atom Egoyan, Arthur Hiller, and Jason Reitman didn’t make the cut because they’ve been nominated only once. James Cameron also won—for directing Titanic—but I guess it was a fluke. He’s free to prove me wrong by getting nominated a second time.
[Update: James Cameron did prove me wrong. He was nominated for best director again (for Avatar).]
I was also curious about the cities where good directors grew up. I found that twelve grew up in New York City, five in Chicago, three in London, two in Los Angeles, two in Philadelphia, and two in Vienna. All other cities had either one or no good directors who grew up in them. (There were 14 where the city where they grew up wasn’t clear or was multiple cities.) I wasn’t surprised that so many grew up in New York City, but I was surprised with how many grew up in Chicago.
Many good directors grew up in New York City
I noticed there are no women in my list of good directors. In fact, only three women have been nominated for best director, and each of them was nominated only once, so far. Those three are Lina Wertmuller, Jane Campion, and Sofia Coppola. All were nominated since 1975. I suspect we’ll be seeing more female nominees in the future.
[Update: After I wrote this post, Kathryn Bigelow went on to be nominated for, and win, the best director award for directing Hurt Locker. She was the first woman to win best director.]
The bottom line is that no good directors (by my definition) came from Winston-Salem, North Carolina. All are men and most grew up in the United States, with New York City being the most productive city. I don’t mean to suggest that Winston-Salem won’t produce some good directors. If Roger Ebert is right, we can probably look forward to that in the coming years.
Did I make a factual or logical mistake? If so, please let me know in the comments below. I may repair the mistake and if I do, I’ll give you credit.
Image credits: Photo of Herbert Brenon with actress Alla Nazimova is a press photograph from the George Grantham Bain collection, which was purchased by the Library of Congress in 1948. According to the library, there are no known restrictions on the use of these photos. Winston-Salem Skyline at Night Courtesy of: Winston-Salem Convention and Visitors Bureau, http://www.visitwinstonsalem.com. Photo of Frank Capra: This image is a work of a U.S. Army soldier or employee, taken or made during the course of the person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain. Manhattan Sunset Dream #3 by aturkus on Flickr is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license.