Ang Lee's Pi 4th Top Grosser Among Best-Director Winners

Ang Lee has shown yet again his knack for making quality films that also rack up immense box-office grosses by winning four Oscars for Life of Pi, including his second Best Director Academy Award.

Pi missed out on the Best Picture Oscar, but it did something generally deemed more important — tallied more global box office receipts than all the other films nominated for this year’s Best Picture award, including the winner Argo.

With $583,370,000 box office receipts through February 24, Pi is one of the biggest box office grossers among movies that have won the Best Director Academy Award. Li’s surreal survival fantasy is topped by James Cameron’s 1997 Titanic which has grossed $2.19 billion worldwide, with the bulk of it coming from the recent 3-D re-release.

The only other best-director films to top Pi are Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (2003) at $1.12 bil. and Robert Zemeckis’ Forrest Gump (1994) at $677,387,716.

Pi did better than the Steven Spielberg blockbuster Saving Private Ryan (1998) at $481,840,100 and Danny Boyle’s dark horse hit Slumdog Millionaire which grossed $377,910,544.

Pi also did much better than Lee’s other best-director film Brokeback Mountain (2005) which grossed $178,062,759 on a $14-million budget to become the 11th biggest grossing love story of all time. Pi has even surpassed Lee’s first blockbuster, the Kung-fu romance Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) which took in $213,525,736 on a $17-million budget.

On the artistic front Lee has become one of only nine directors to win 2 or more Best Director Oscars during the past 86 years. He is also the only Asian ever to win the Oscar for best direction.

“I really want to thank you for believing in this story and sharing this incredible journey with me,” Lee said in his acceptance speech. “I need to thank Yann Martel for writing this incredibly inspiring book.”

He also thanked the 3,000 people in Pi’s cast and crew and gave effusive thanks to his native Taiwan which provided an abandoned airstrip on which Lee constructed a large wave tank in which to film the extensive ocean action sequences. The film tells the story of a shipwrecked Indian boy who finds himself stranded on a raft with a ferocious Tiger, an adaptation from the novel by Canadian novelist Yann Martel, which won the 2002 Man Booker Prize. Lee spent four and a half years completing the film.

Lee’s best director win deprived Steven Spielberg of his third best-director Oscar for the favored Lincoln. Lincoln had entered the competition with 12 nominations to Pi’s 11, and won the best actor award for Daniel Day-Lewis and best production design.

Pi’s other Oscar wins included besting The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Marvel’s The Avengers, Prometheus and Snow White and the Huntsman for best visual effects and Lincoln, Skyfall, Anna Karenina and Django Unchained for best cinematography. Composer Mychael Danna won the best original score for the Pi soundtrack.

Ang Lee was born in the small city of Pintung in southern Taiwan in 1954. His father was the principal of his highly-ranked high school and wasn’t happy when Ang failed the college boards and decided to go to Taipei to study theater and cinema at the Academy of Arts.

Lee graduated in 1976. By 1978 he was married to a medical researcher willing to support him while he earned a BA in drama at the University of Illinois. He then went to NYU to earn a masters in film directing. For the next six years he became a househusband awaiting a filmmaking break. He failed to get hired or financed but did become a first-rate chef and an excellent housekeeper, he has said.

Seeing a $26 balance on the family checking account one day compelled Lee to change his tack. Drawing on his personal experiences during those bleak years, he wrote two screenplays and submitted them to a Taiwanese government-sponsored screenwriting competition. His entries took first and second prizes.

Fortified with $16,000 in prize money and about $400,000 in financing, Lee made Pushing Hands, the story of an aging taoist master withering in New York. It was good enough to be screened at the 1992 Berlin Film Festival but failed to find distribution outside Taiwan.

His second-prize screenplay, The Wedding Banquet, translated into a film that won both critical acclaim and international arthouse success. It made Lee’s reputation as a director, winning him financing for Eat Drink Man Woman and a surprise offer from Emma Thompson to direct her adaptation of Sense and Sensibility. That was in 1994, the same year Lee and Schamus began sketching a kung-fu flick that would evolve, six years later, into Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Lee and Schamus adapted CTHD from a segment of a Chinese pulp serial novel read mostly by adolescents. In hopes of tapping the era’s craze for kung-fu flicks Lee wanted Jet Li in the lead. Li turned him down, forcing Lee to settle for Chow Yun-Fat, scale back the fight scenes, add some romance and brace for arthouse hell. While the film did begin its US box office life in a few selected arthouses in only a few major cities, its Oscar success won it the wide distribution needed to become one the runaway hit of 2001.

Lee’s projects since CTHD have been a mixed bag of frankly commercial Hollywood blockbusters like The Hulk (2003) and Mandarin projects like Lust, Caution (2007) which won the top Golden Lion prize at the Venice Film Festival.

Despite his success Lee, 58, has maintained that he is uncomfortable with celebrity.

“When I’m off the set, it’s hard for me to carry a conversation,” he said in 2006. “That’s more difficult for me than making a movie.

“Making a movie, I have plans in my head. Somehow one way or another I manage to roll the camera and get something in the can. But off the set, at the dining table … it’s still awkward for me.”