Girls on Film is a weekly column that tackles anything and everything pertaining to women and cinema. It can be found here every Thursday night, and be sure to follow the Girls on Film Twitter Feed for additional femme-con.
We should’ve known things would go badly this morning when host Seth MacFarlane quipped that the five Best Supporting Actress nominees (Sally Field, Anne Hathaway, Jacki Weaver, Helen Hunt, Amy Adams) “no longer have to pretend to be attracted to Harvey Weinstein.” He continued with zingers like Amour being “much better” than Hitler, the “last time Austria and Germany got together and coproduced something.” But even MacFarlane’s crappy jokes were deadened by the announcement of the Best Director nominations.
One by one, the names were announced. David O. Russell. Ang Lee. Steven Spielberg. Michael Haneke. Then there was a pause. One more name would be announced. It would surely be Kathryn Bigelow. Seth then wrapped the category: “And Benh Zeitlin for Beasts of the Southern Wild.”
Though she kicked critical ass with Zero Dark Thirty, historically, Bigelow winning again was a longshot. She made history by being the first – and only – woman to win a Best Director Oscar. To receive two in five years would be huge. But regardless of winning, she was the sure directorial bet for a nomination. She is a skilled filmmaker who now boasts an Academy track record. Her latest currently has a 94% fresh rating, and even more importantly, her directorial work has absolutely rocked critics awards, earning the top prize from groups in New York, Boston, D.C., Chicago, San Francisco and other cities, along with groups like the AWFJ. And even if we want to maintain a taste divide between critics and filmmakers, Bigelow had already earned a nomination from the Directors Guild of America, which usually is right in line with the Academy.
Still, by 2013 we are conditioned for uber-disappointment. Everyone has their defining Oscar upset, where their jaw dropped and they wondered – How can that be? – where it wasn’t that the lesser-preferred skilled performance/film that won, but a film/performance more about popularity or safeness. For some it’s Rocky beating out the likes of Network, Taxi Driver and All the President’s Men, or when Shakespeare in Love won. For me, it was the moment Julia Roberts’ name was called out, beating the heart-wrenchingly perfect performance from Ellen Burstyn in Requiem for a Dream. At some point, that sparkling façade that the Academy has so painstakingly crafted will crack inside the film lover, and it’s rare that the feeling of cinema magic can ever completely return. All that remains is this morsel of hope and “sure” folly to be dashed when the Academy offers its picks and bites its thumb in the general direction of every Oscars pundit.
There is no easy answer as to why this happened.
Is it too political? Ben Affleck, director of Argo, was also snubbed, and both films outline the messy road that led to successful, historical moments. Yet Steven Spielberg received a nod for Lincoln, about the tricky political maneuverings needed to pass the 13th Amendment in the face of rampant racism. Did the sheen of time and separation help the theme?
Was Zero Dark Thirty too controversial? For all its acclaim, Kathryn Bigelow’s film has been slammed by folks who have – very wrongly, I might add – proclaimed that it’s pro-torture. Some, like the Guantanamo detainees, are criticizing the film without seeing it. Others, like John McCain, argue that the film shows torture leading to important information. Yet, as Mark Bowden pointed out, the film shows torture failing and shrewd trickery working. He writes: “And it is cleverness, coated with kindness, that produces something useful.” Regardless, the film earned five other nominations, so this theory holds no water.
Did Bigelow miss out because she is a woman? Do Academy voters feel that they’ve done their job giving it to Bigelow once, and that’s enough? It’s hard not to feel some truth in this, considering that she’s won so many Best Director prizes over the last two months, yet can’t even get a nomination from the Academy. The film did earn nominations in acting, writing, film and sound editing, and Best Picture, so clearly it was appreciated on most levels, but it begs the question: What was it about her directing that made her contribution the least notable aspect? It wasn’t her fiercely determined female protagonist, since Jessica Chastain is continuing her meteoric rise with back-to-back nominations. Were they hung up, like THR, on Bigelow and Boal’s so-called “unorthodox relationship” and the claim that “what struck some observers, however, was the degree to which the 61-year-old Bigelow, the only woman to win an Academy Award for best director, listened to her far younger and less experienced partner?”
Is it a matter of like picking like? As the L.A. Times pointed out last year, the Academy is – not surprisingly – “overwhelmingly white, male.” It’s a body made up mainly of white (94%) men with a median age of 62 (only 14% are under 50). In the director’s branch, only 9% are female. Former president Frank Pierson said: “We represent the professional filmmakers, and if that doesn’t reflect the general population, so be it,” as if familiarity has no bearing on how a person votes, or what films even penetrate any voter’s sphere of consciousness. This is, after all, a community where last year a publication dedicated to cinema didn’t even realize that there were female filmmakers earning critical praise.
The idea is further bolstered by the look of the Academy’s Best Documentary picks – 5 Broken Cameras, The Gatekeepers, How to Survive a Plague, The Invisible War and Searching for Sugar Man. Though the documentary world is one area where female filmmakers elicit a strong amount of buzz and numbers, not one of the films are directed by a woman, though many notable docs have come from them this year. Sarah Burns may have been in the shadow of father and collaborator Ken Burns in the buzz for The Central Park Five, but there was no iconic father to distract from the accomplishments of Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s Detropia, Jessica Yu and Last Call at the Oasis, Lauren Greenfield and The Queen of Versailles, Katie Dellamaggiore and Brooklyn Castle, Amy Berg and West of Memphis, or Alison Klayman and her Sundance Jury-winning Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry.
That theory gets dashed too, when you consider that though the Academy is overflowing with old white men, there has been at least one black actor and/or actress nominated every year – except 2011 – for an Oscar since Denzel Washington and Halle Berry made history with their dual wins in 2002. In the last 10 years, Queen Latifah, Djimon Hounsou, Don Cheadle, Sophie Okonedo, Terrence Howard, Will Smith, Eddie Murphy, Ruby Dee, Taraji P. Henson, Viola Davis, Morgan Freeman and Gabourey Sidibe have all received nominations (some earning more than one), while Jamie Foxx and Morgan Freeman each took Oscars in one year (Freeman actually kept Foxx from the possibility of two wins in one year), along with Forest Whitaker, Jennifer Hudson, Mo’Nique and Octavia Spencer. This is to say nothing of the Asian, Iranian, Maori, Indian and South American actors given nominations.
Though that dual win led to an almost annual trend of diversity in nominations, distinctly changing the amount of diversity in the acting categories, not one woman has even earned a nomination since Bigelow’s win. To this day, there have been only four Best Director nominations given to women: first, Lina Wertmüller for Seven Beauties, then Jane Campion for The Piano, Sofia Coppola for Lost in Translation, and Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker, who won.
There are always skilled female filmmakers left out of the conversation. This year, Ava DuVernay leads the pack with Middle of Nowhere. In previous years there have been the likes of Sarah Polley for Away from Her and my own personal gut churner – Lynne Ramsay for We Need to Talk About Kevin. But these women also failed to dominate the discussion leading up to the Academy nominations. When a woman clearly dominates cinematic discourse, applauded by critics and directors alike, and can’t even manage a nomination, there is something horrifically wrong with this picture.
It’s a great reason to avoid the Oscars altogether.