Oscar Profile #507: Steven Soderbergh

Born January 14, 1963 in Atlanta, Georgia, Steven (Andrew) Soderbergh was the second of six children of Mary Ann and Peter Soderbergh, a college professor and later dean of the College of Education at Louisiana State University. He became interested in filmmaking as a teenager and made experimental 8mm and 16mm films from the age of 15.

Soderbergh moved to Hollywood after graduating high school in the early 1980s. His first job was as a game show composer and cue card holder, after which he found work as a freelance film editor. He directed the concert video 9012Live for the rock band Yes in 1985, for which he received a Grammy Award nomination for Best Music Video, Long Form.

In 1989, at the age of 26, Soderbergh wrote and directed Sex, Lies, and Videotape which he submitted to the Cannes Film Festival where it won the Palme d’Or for Best Film. Released later that year in the U.S., it earned him his first Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. Also, in 1989, he married actress Betsy Brantley with whom he would have a daughter in 1990. They would divorce in 1994.

Soderbergh’s second film, 1991’s Kafka, was a notorious flop. His third and fourth films, 1993’s King of the Hill and 1995’s The Underneath, were well received by the critics but not by the public. It would take 1998’s Out of Sight and 1999’s The Limey to bring him back into the spotlight and 1990’s Erin Brockovich and Traffic to bring him back into awards contention. With those two films, he became the first director since Michael Curtiz in 1938 to be nominated for Best Director Oscars for two films in the same year, winning for Traffic.

Traffic was the first film on which Soderbergh also worked as the film’s cinematographer under the pseudonym of Peter Andrews, a practice he has repeated ever since.

In 2001, Soderbergh’s remake of Lewis Milestone’s 1960 film, Ocean’s 11, became the biggest box-office attraction of his career. He followed it with his 2002 remake of Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 film, Solaris. In 1993, he married his second and current wife, Jules Asner.

Soderbergh continued to make high profile films such as 2004’s Ocean’s Twelve, 2006’s The Good German, 2007’s Ocean’s Thirteen and Che! Part One, 2008’s Che! Part Two, 2009’s The Informant! , 2011’s Contagion and Haywire, 2012’s Magic Mike, and 2013’s Behind the Candelabra, after which he retired.

Retirement didn’t last long. He came back the next year to direct the TV series, The Knick which lasted two years. He was back on the big screen with 2017’s Logan Lucky and more recently directed 2019’s disappointing The Laundromat.

The 57-year-old director currently has Let Them All Talk ready for release and Kill Switch in pre-production.

ESSENTIAL FILMS

SEX, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE (1989)

Soderbergh came out of nowhere to submit his first film to the Cannes Film Festival where it won the Palme d’Or, the festival’s top prize. It also won James Spader the Festival’s Best Actor award as the therapist who gets off on his female patients’ taped sex conversations. Soderbergh was nominated for a Golden Globe for his screenplay while Andie McDowall was nominated for Best Actress and Laura San Giacomo for Best Supporting Actress. Film Independent Spirit Award gave Soderbergh a win for Best Director with McDowell and San Giacomo also winning. Only Sonderbergh was nominated for an Oscar, given for his screenplay.

ERIN BROCKOVICH (2000)

This superb dramatization of the life of an unemployed single mother who becomes a legal assistant and almost single-handedly brings down a California power company for polluting a city’s water supply, was one of two awards magnets that year for Soderbergh. It earned him one of two nominations for Best Director, for which he lost to himself for his direction of Traffic. The Best Actress Oscar went to Julia Roberts in the title role while Albert Finney, nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of her boss, attorney Ed Masry, lost to Benicio Del Toro in Traffic.

TRAFFIC (2000)

Based on the 1989 British mini-series, Traffik, with the setting changed from Germany, England and Pakistan to the U.S. and Mexico, this film about drug trafficking was an even more critically acclaimed film than the same year’s Erin Brockovich making Soderbergh the first director since Michael Curtiz in 1938 to be nominated for Oscars for Best Director for two films in the same year. He won for this as did Benicio del Toro as a Mexican cop for Best Supporting Actor, Stehen Gaghan for Best Adapted Screenplay and Stephen Mirrione for Best Film Editing, losing only Best Picture among its five nominations.

CONTAGION (2011)

Based on scientific fact, this eerily prescient thriller featured many characteristics with the COVID-19 virus that raged in 2020. At the end of 2019, the film was 270th in popularity in the Warner Bros, catalogue. By March 2020 it was second only to the Harry Potter films. The film’s all-star cast is headed by Oscar winners Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet, and Marion Cottiard and nominees Laurence Fishburne, Elliott Gould, John Hawkes, Jude Law, and Bryan Cranston. Damon, Winslet, Cottilard, Fishburne and Jennifer Ehle filmed a Public Service Announcement on COVID-19 on March 27, 2020.

BEHIND THE CANDELABRA (2013)

Submitted to Cannes by Soderbergh, the film was released theatrically outside of the U.S. where it was presented on HBO. Nominated for 15 Emmys, it won 11 including one for Soderbergh for his direction and one for Michael Douglas as Liberace. Soderbergh was also nominated for Best Cinematography under his pseudonym of Peter Andrews. Matt Damon and Scott Bakula were nominated for their supporting performances. Also featured in the cast were Dan Aykroyd, Rob Lowe, Nicky Katt, Anthony Crivello and Debbie Reynolds in her last on-screen performance as Liberace’s mother.

STEVEN SODERBERGH AND OSCAR

  • Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989) – nominated – Best Original Screenplay
  • Erin Brockovich (2000) – nominated – Best Original Director
  • Traffic (1976) – Oscar – Best Director

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