Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Women Who Direct the Best Pictures

Originally published in the BG News on Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Dave_B_ under Creative Commons 3.0

While actresses are a dime a dozen, and their marriages, pregnancies, and cellulite are plastered across the covers of tabloids, few media consumers could name just one woman director.  Living unknown and unappreciated, they are the unheard cry for equality in entertainment.  
With that said, Oscar nominations for the 2011 Academy Awards were announced yesterday and the Best Director nominees are as follows:
Darren Aronofsky, for Black Swan, David O. Russell for The Fighter, Tom Hooper for The King's Speech, David Fincher for The Social Network, and Joel and Ethan Coen for True Grit.
So where are the women? 

“Women didn’t make any movies this year,” you might say. 

But you would be wrong.
Actually, Winter’s Bone, directed by Debra Granik and The Kids Are All Right, directed by Lisa Cholodenko are both in the running for Best Picture.  How is it that these films are worthy of Hollywood’s highest honor, but their directors received no recognition?
“Movies rarely get awarded ‘the best’ in multiple categories,” you might say. 

But you would be wrong. 

Every contender for Best Director is waiting to see if their masterpiece will also win Best Picture.  Unfortunately, the inverse is not also true.
And this is one of Oscar’s most frustrating habits. In the past, five other films directed by women have been nominated for Best Picture without being nominated for Best Director. 

In 1986, it was Randa HainesChildren of  a Lesser God. In 1990, it was Penny Marshall’s Awakenings. A year later, the same thing happened to Barbra Streisand and Prince of Tides Valerie Faris missed out in 2006 for the hilariously moving Little Miss Sunshine and Lone Scherfig was snubbed last year, even though An Education was nominated.

While Scherfig fell victim to the Best Picture phenomenon, women in film had an epic win in 2010.  Kathryn Bigelow was the first woman director to ever win an Academy Award for Best Director for her film The Hurt Locker.

Yet in the midst of progress, imbalance remains the norm.  The continuing discrepancies in nominations caught the attention of Ms. magazine, recapping an extensive history of women’s unhealthy relationship with Oscar. 

Michelle Kort wrote that Bigelow “broke through a brick wall of directorial misogyny,” preceded by only three other women nominated for Best Director-- Lina Wertmuller for Seven Beauties in 1975, Jane Campion for The Piano in 1993 and Sofia Coppola for Lost in Translation in 2003.
Holding their breath for Tuesday’s nominations, The New York Times drew our attention to more concerning numbers.  Brooks Barnes reported out of 100 box office hits in 2010, only three were made by women.  And needless to say, The Last Song, Nanny McPhee Returns, and Ramona and Beezus weren’t going to win any awards, even with the talents of Miley Cyrus and Selena Gomez.
While women don’t fill traditional theaters, it seems they are more accepted and more successful outside the mainstream media.  Barnes contrasted the box office figures with the 27 of 117 films showing at the Sundance Film Festival directed by women—which is still a very small percentage. 
But the decisions at Sundance are made by a more diverse group of people striving for variety.  “Founded in 1981 by Robert Redford in the mountains of Sundance, Utah, the [Sundance] Institute secures a space for independent artists to explore their stories free from commercial and political pressures.”  They spend the whole year searching for “risk-taking storytellers” to promote with their “platform” festival.  In other words, they’re looking to fill quotas.
Oppositely, the Academy tends to hold the (white) male gaze while assuming their biased choices stem from expert status. 
And women in the industry have noticed.  Oscar-winning producer Cathy Schulman is President of Women in Film, “a non-profit organization dedicated to advancing sexual equality in moviemaking.”  Schulman believes women are left out for many reasons, starting with the fact that studios remain exclusive boys clubs. 

Directing is also considered a full-time job, nearly impossible to balance with child-rearing.  Meanwhile, Steven Spielberg shares seven children with his wife Kate Capshaw, but motherhood is still assumed be more life-consuming than fatherhood by today’s standards.
Schulman told The New York Times women directors “need to work harder to cross over from show to business.”  Translation; make movies that can be shown in 3-D.
While Hollywood seems unwilling to change, Sundance plans to draw real attention to gender and equality with panels discussing opportunity, involvement and the representation of women in the media.  Women in Film will be present, along with special guest Gloria Steinem.
Perhaps it’s time for feminism to focus on this new frontier-- because film appears to need it desperately.

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