Coens, Penn vie for top directors honor

January 26, 2008 6:00:12 PM PST
Members of Hollywood's union for filmmakers had an interesting range of choices for their top prize this year. In the running for the feature-film honor at Saturday's Directors Guild of America Awards were two brothers (Joel and Ethan Coen), a veteran art house filmmaker (Paul Thomas Anderson), a screenwriter making his directing debut (Tony Gilroy), an artist-turned-director (Julian Schnabel) and an Academy Award-winning actor who moonlights as a director (Sean Penn).

Presenters slated for the black-tie affair included Helen Hunt; Debra Messing; Anna Paquin; current Oscar nominees Hal Holbrook, Tilda Swinton and Daniel Day-Lewis; and Martin Scorsese, who won the DGA prize and best-directing Oscar a year ago for "The Departed."

Unlike other major honors, such as Sunday night's Screen Actors Guild Awards, the DGA ceremony has always been untelevised, making it a more laid-back gathering of Hollywood's elite and shielding it from some of the attention the industry's labor strife has brought to other ceremonies.

The Golden Globes banquet was canceled after stars made clear they would stay away in support of the Writers Guild of America strike, and the Oscars may face the same dilemma come Feb. 24.

Still, the writers' strike did cast a pall over the directors' big night, even though their guild last week negotiated a new contract after just days of meetings with producers. A fair number of Directors Guild members also belong to the writers union, whose strike has shut down TV shows and postponed movies, throwing thousands in the entertainment industry out of work.

Many in Hollywood hope the Directors Guild deal will help resuscitate talks between writers and producers, whose negotiations broke down Dec. 7, a month after guild members walked off the job.

Nominated for the evening's main trophy were the Coens for the crime tale "No Country for Old Men," Anderson for the historical epic "There Will Be Blood," Gilroy for the legal thriller "Michael Clayton," Schnabel for the stroke memoir "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," and Penn for the road drama "Into the Wild."

As with Scorsese last year, the Directors Guild winner almost always goes on to win the same prize at the Oscars, and the winner of that prize more often than not also wins Best Picture. Penn is the only guild nominee who is not in contention for the Oscars, whose fifth nomination went to Jason Reitman for the teen-pregnancy tale "Juno."

The Coens would be only the second two-person team to win the Directors Guild honor, following Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins for 1961's "West Side Story."

If Penn wins, he would join such actors who have won the guild prize as Clint Eastwood, who directed him to an acting Oscar in "Mystic River," plus Kevin Costner, Richard Attenborough, Warren Beatty and Robert Redford.

Along with feature films, the Directors Guild was to honor achievements in documentary, commercials and TV programs including drama, comedy and daytime soap operas.