When discussing greatest directors of all time it is easy to get caught up in critical praise. It is a short path between a stacked award case and a director’s status in the history books. One of the most highly sought after statuettes is the Oscar. Handed out every year since 1929, the Academy Awards is easily the most distinguished trophy in the world of cinema. Simply being nominated puts you in exclusive company, but winning puts you in a league of your own.
That said, not every iconic director received that honor before they passed away. In this list we take a look at 10 of the best directors that never won an Academy Award before they died. We’re only looking at competitive wins, so we’re not counting honorary or lifetime achievement awards. Since a lot of directors write, produce, and do other tasks on their films, we are also excluding any directors that won in any category, whether that be special effects (Stanley Kubrick), music (Charlie Chaplin), or writing (Orson Welles). We are also excluding any directors that had their heyday before the Academy Awards started, such as many silent era directors (Buster Keaton).
10. Sam Peckinpah
Peckinpah’s work was often ignored by the Academy. While his output was a bit mixed in quality, he was capable of creating timeless classics. His 1971 thriller Straw Dogs still has an eerie feel to it, and his 1969 western The Wild Bunch gave new life to a struggling genre. The latter earned him his only Oscar nomination, a best writing nod he shared he with Walon Green and Roy Sickner.
9. Francois Truffaut
A man of many talents, this French writer/director earned three nominations; the first as best director for 1959’s The 400 Blows, the other two as best director and best screenplay for 1973’s Day for Night. While his earliest nomination was also the one most likely to earn him a win, his legacy has gone far beyond a single title. With films such as Shoot the Piano Player, Jules & Jim, and The Soft Skin, he has ensured his place in cinema history despite never lifting an Academy award.
8. Fritz Lang
While Lang’s most iconic film Metropolis saw the light of day two years before the Oscars began, this Austrian director had a long career well into the 1950’s. In addition to his landmark epic from 1927, Lang added to his legacy with films like M, Fury, and While the City Sleeps. Despite his storied filmography, Lang never received a single nomination before his death, nor has he received any honorary or lifetime achievement award following his passing.
7. Robert Altman
A giant of American cinema, this Kansas City native earned seven nominations before his death in 2006. After a long career in TV and documentary film making, he earned his first nomination as best director for M.A.S.H. in 1971. He went on to direct iconic flicks like Short Cuts, Nashville, Gosford Park, and The Player but never earned himself a fully fledged win.
6. Akira Kurosawa
This legendary Japanese director only earned one nomination throughout his career, a best director nod for 1985’s Ran. His earlier work was ignored by American award shows, yet when you look back at films like Seven Samurai, Rashomon, and Yojimbo it is amazing he never earned a mention earlier. It is likely politics played a big role in his exclusion from the proceedings, however another factor might be that the Academy were slow to recognize the brilliance of foreign directors, as seen with several of the other entries on this list.
5. Federico Fellini
It is said that practice makes perfect. If that is the case then this director likely learned how to deal with disappointment following his 12 loses at the Oscars. Receiving double digit nominations across nine films, this Italian director added several well respected entries to the annals of cinema. With films like 8 1/2, La Dolce Vita, and Amarcord, there is no shortage of celebrated material when it comes to this European treasure.
4. Ingmar Bergman
Looking back, it is surprising to see the man behind films like Cries & Whispers, The Seventh Seal, Persona, and Fanny & Alexander without an Oscar to his name. Despite earning a whopping nine nominations before his death in 2007, this Swedish director never won a competitive award. His dark Scandinavian films have amassed quite the following over the years, and while they triumphed in several other categories, Bergman himself never got a statuette.
3. Stanley Kramer
Like Ingmar Bergman, this New York native received nine nominations in his lifetime yet never won a competitive award. His work showed a fantastic range, as he delivered comedies such as It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, civil rights dramas like Inherit the Wind, and courtroom dramas like Judgement at Nuremberg. He shined a light at societal issue with films like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and The Defiant Ones, and proved himself to be a talented producer on films like High Noon.
2. Sidney Lumet
It is hard to oversell the influence Lumet has had on American cinema. He first made waves with his feature length debut 12 Angry Men, before truly marking his territory with Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico, Murder on the Orient Express, and Network. His work has a timeless feel to it, and the social commentary brought forth in films like Network is still eerily relevant to modern day society. He earned five nominations before his death in 2011.
1. Alfred Hitchcock
Most people would feel Hitchcock to be a safe bet as a director with an Oscar to his name. After all, this iconic director brought the world legendary movies on a conveyor belt during his heyday. The list is nearly endless, but includes classics like Psycho, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Rope, Strangers on a Train, The Birds, and Rear Window to name but a few. Yet, despite his perfect record, this British director had to settle for five nominations and no wins.