Chloé Zhao wins top Directors Guild award for ‘Nomadland,’ cementing Oscar status

Director Chloé Zhao won the top prize at the 73rd annual Directors Guild of America Awards for “Nomadland,” certifying the elegiac exploration of the lives of itinerant workers in the American West as the film to beat at the Academy Awards.

Zhao is only the second woman, and the first woman of color, to earn the top DGA Award, after Kathryn Bigelow won for 2009′s “The Hurt Locker.”


Accepting, like all the winners, over Zoom, Zhao used her entire speech to pay heartfelt tribute to each of her fellow nominees. To “Promising Young Woman” director Emerald Fennell, Zhao said, “You’re in such control of your craft, and with such unique voice. I can’t wait to see what thought provoking journey you’re gonna take us on next.” She told “Minari” director Lee Isaac Chung that his film “touched me on such a personal level.” After calling “The Trial of the Chicago 7” director Aaron Sorkin “a poet,” Zhao said, “I can feel my heart beating with yours when I watch your film.” And Zhao said that all of the movies from “Mank” director David Fincher are a “master class,” but her biggest discovery about him was more personal: “You are also super funny, I just found out!”

With his win for first-time feature film, “Sound of Metal” director Darius Marder continued the Amazon Studios film’s ascendant awards season run. Marder thanked his fellow nominees, expressing his hope that once the pandemic is over, he can actually meet them in person. “It’s incredible to be in your company,” he said. “I raise a plastic hotel cup to you guys.”


Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw won the documentary award for the Sony Pictures Classics film “The Truffle Hunters.”

“We made this film because we stumbled on a world that felt like a fairy tale, and we wanted to translate that into cinematic form,” Kershaw said. “We wanted to celebrate the joy and beauty that still exists in this world.”

Susanna Fogel won the first award of the night, for TV comedy for directing the premiere episode of HBO Max’s “The Flight Attendant.” “We talk a lot about healthy versus unhealthy dynamics in our industry and that is one of the most important things really is possible to be nice and still make great things,” she said. “Which is my third favorite thing about being a director after the business class tickets and dental insurance. We can create a family where everyone feels supported and excited to come to work every day.”

Lesli Linka Glatter won the TV drama award for the final season of Showtime’s “Homeland,” which she accepted surrounded by her “fully vaccinated” directing team. Scott Frank won the TV movie and limited series award for directing every episode of the Netflix limited series “The Queen’s Gambit.”

Amy Schatz took home the award for children’s programs for HBO’s “We Are the Dream: The Kids of the Oakland MLK Oratorical Fest.” Joseph Guidry won the reality TV award for HBO Max’s “Full Bloom” for the episode “Petal to the Metal.”

Melina Matsoukas won the commercials award for a Bests by Dr. Dre advertisement; it was presented by director Spike Jonze, who has won multiple DGA awards for advertising, and comedian Tiffany Haddish, who played Jonze’s inner self, joking that she was there because Jonze had put mushrooms in his breakfast cereal that morning.

Don Roy King won his sixth consecutive Variety/Talk/News/Sports series award for “Saturday Night Live,” for the episode hosted by Dave Chappelle.

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DGA president Thomas Schlamme -- who also won the Variety/Talk/News/Sports -- Specials award for “A West Wing Special to Benefit When We All Vote” -- opened the evening by acknowledging the extraordinary circumstances the entertainment industry has faced over the previous year, both through the pandemic and ongoing reckoning over issues of racial and gender equality and workplace misconduct.


“We overcame the daunting task of getting our industry back to work and most importantly, back to work safely,” he said. “And in this transition of reckoning, our guild was brought closer together to listen, to learn, and often to unlearn. As we forge ahead with the commitment to always do better.”

Prolific TV director and former DGA president Paris Barclay accepted the honorary life membership award. Remarkably, Barclay is the first Black director to receive this award -- or any lifetime achievement honor -- from the DGA, a fact he acknowledged by noting that the first winner of the award was D.W. Griffith, director of the virulently racist film “The Birth of a Nation.”

“I think that says a lot about how far this guild is coming in just a few short generations,” Barclay said.

After thanking his husband, Barclay spent the bulk of his speech addressing his sons to explain why he so passionately pursued a career in directing -- and especially working within the DGA to improve working conditions for fellow guild members -- that had so often meant he was away from home. He quoted actor Michael B. Jordan’s believe that, “When personal purpose and meaning align, it allows you to be a man.”

“I thought my purpose was to be a director, producer, a writer, professional distractor and occasional edifier,” Barclay said. “But I became a man when I realized that all has to have some meaning.”

Betty Thomas accepted the Robert B. Aldrich achievement award, for her extraordinary service to the DGA and its members. Brian E. Frankish earned the Frank Capra achievement award, which honors assistant directors and unit production managers. And associate director Joyce Thomas -- who survived a life-threatening battle with COVID-19 -- earned the Franklin J. Schaffner achievement award, which honors associate directors and stage managers.