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Dual nominations for director Soderbergh

Thursday, March 22, 2001

By David Germain, The Associated Press

Two chairs were set out for Steven Soderbergh at the annual meet-the-nominees forum at the Directors Guild of America. The reason: Make two of the year's best movies, get two seats on stage.

"It's your choice, Steven," forum moderator Jeremy Kagan told Soderbergh, nominated as best director by the guild and Academy Awards voters for both "Erin Brockovich" and "Traffic." The morning forum March 10 preceded the guild awards that night.

After Soderbergh settled in the chair next to fellow nominee Ang Lee, a stagehand whisked away the empty one.

"This chair can go," Kagan said. "Unless, Steven, you want to switch back and forth?"

Every director in Hollywood knows how hard it is to land a single seat on that stage. To manage two in a year is almost unheard of.

Only once previously has the guild or the academy nominated a director for two films in one year.

"What are the odds?" Soderbergh, 38, said in an interview before the Directors Guild awards. "It's only the second time it's happened, and the double-double has never happened."

The double-double was his two directing nods, plus the two best-picture Oscar nominations he scored for "Erin Brockovich" and "Traffic."

"I think Steven would say that he's in the zone," said Laura Bickford, a producer on "Traffic."

In 1938, Michael Curtiz had best-director Oscar nods for both "Angels With Dirty Faces" and "Four Daughters," though only the latter film was nominated for best picture. Curtiz lost to Frank Capra for "You Can't Take It With You."

Back then, when talent was signed to a particular studio, directors often made two or three films a year. Today, most big films take years to develop and often, as in the case of "Traffic," float from studio to studio.

The Directors Guild gave two nominations to Francis Ford Coppola for "The Conversation" and "The Godfather, Part II" from 1974. (Coppola won both the guild and Oscar best-director honors for "The Godfather, Part II.")

At the Oscars, Soderbergh is up against Lee for "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," Ridley Scott for "Gladiator" and Stephen Daldry for "Billy Elliot."

Hollywood is divided on whether Soderbergh's two nominations will spoil his chances of winning an Oscar by siphoning votes from each other.

"I hope not. It shouldn't," Julia Roberts said backstage at the Screen Actors Guild awards, where she won the best-actress award for "Erin Brockovich." "It would be a pity not to be recognized because you were too good too many times."

Soderbergh has declined to give academy members any hints on which film he would prefer them to support. "I couldn't do that," Soderbergh said. "My sense of personal integrity is more important than winning an award."

An academy member because of his screenplay Oscar nomination for "sex, lies and videotape," Soderbergh also said he does not vote in any categories in which he's competing.

"Steven's about doing good work. He's not about the competition," said Stacey Sher, a producer on "Erin Brockovich."

Carl Reiner, master of ceremonies at the Directors Guild awards and a cast member in Soderbergh's upcoming film "Ocean's Eleven," joked at the ceremony that Soderbergh should make one good movie and one bad movie every year "so you don't cancel yourself out."

Minutes later, Lee won the guild's best-director honor for "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."

As impressive as Soderbergh's industry laurels is the audience reaction to "Erin Brockovich" and "Traffic," two issue-oriented films whose commercial potential the director himself doubted before their release.

"Erin Brockovich" grossed $126 million domestically. "Traffic" just passed $100 million.

It's all the more remarkable considering how uncommercial Soderbergh's career turned in the decade after his 1989 debut, the independent hit "sex, lies and videotape."

For most of the 1990s, Soderbergh made films with smallish to microscopic budgets, such as "Kafka," "King of the Hill" and "Gray's Anatomy." Some were praised, some were panned, and all were box-office obscurities.

In 1998, Soderbergh released his first big studio film, "Out of Sight" with George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez. Though a commercial disappointment, "Out of Sight" earned critical acclaim, and Soderbergh quickly followed with the arthouse hit "The Limey" in 1999.

On the heels of "Erin Brockovich" and "Traffic," Soderbergh is shooting "Ocean's Eleven," due in theaters this fall. The casino-heist flick reteams him with Clooney and Roberts, who called Soderbergh "my own personal god" at the SAG awards and introduced him at the Directors Guild awards as "my director, and I love to say that."

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