Posted by Susan Doll on January 14, 2013
Every year when the Academy Award nominations are announced, I am usually surprised by one or two curious inclusions or unexpected omissions, aka snubs. I have faithfully followed the Oscar race since I was in grade school, and while I have been disappointed by the dullness of the awards show in recent years, I would never think of giving it up. Last week, the nominations were announced for this past year, and I confess I was more than surprised. I was downright irritated at the omission of Kathryn Bigelow in the Best Director category, which included David O. Russell for Silver Linings Playbook, Ang Lee for Life of Pi, Steven Spielberg for Lincoln, Michael Haneke for Amour, and Benh Zeitlin for Beasts of the Southern Wild.
Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty was nominated for Best Picture, and star Jessica Chastain was recognized in the Best Actress category. It was also nominated for Best Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen, Best Editing, and Best Sound Editing. While there have been occasions in the past in which the director of a Best Picture nominee was snubbed, it is surprising in Bigelow’s case because she was considered such a “shoo-in.”
Some have speculated that the controversy in the press over the torture scenes hurt Bigelow’s chances for a nomination. Journalist Jane Mayer of the The New Yorker has argued that Zero Dark Thirty “endorses torture” while social critic Naomi Wolf of Britain’s The Guardian piled on the hyperbole by comparing Bigelow to Leni Riefenstahl, claiming that the director “will be remembered forever as torture’s handmaiden.” (I can’t wrap my mind around the word “handmaiden” in reference to a contemporary woman, let alone “torture’s handmaiden.”) The criticism spread to Washington where three senators, Dianne Feinstein (D-California), Carl Levin (D-Michigan) and John McCain (R-Arizona), formally complained that the film touts torture as the tactic that led to the capture of Osama Bin Laden. There are also rumors of a government investigation of Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal and the sources they uncovered for research to construct the narrative. However, I doubt if the ire of a few politicos affected Bigelow’s chances for a nomination. If Academy members really feared controversy, Zero Dark Thirty would not have received a Best Picture nomination.
Bigelow’s snub reminded me that Hollywood remains a boys’ club. Two years ago, she made history when she became the first woman to win an Academy Award as Best Director of The Hurt Locker. But, her historical accomplishment was almost overshadowed by the spin that some members of the press put on the contest. During the race, the press pitted her against ex-husband James Cameron, who was nominated for Avatar. The coverage took on a battle of the sexes spin, perhaps provoked by Bigelow’s preference for directing violent genre films that are the domain of male directors. The coverage undermined her achievement—and Cameron’s, too, for that matter. But, it was Bigelow who was making history; I would have preferred her accomplishment be treated with more respect. During this awards season, unflattering depictions of Bigelow and producer-writer Mark Boal’s relationship in the Hollywood Reporter mixed with rumors of his forceful role on the set imply that she is not as responsible for the merits of Zero Dark Thirty as claimed. I doubt if any entertainment reporter plans to trot out Steven Spielberg’s relationship with producer Kathleen Kennedy for scrutiny; nor is anyone casting aspersions on the directing abilities of the other nominees, including neophyte Benh Zeitlin. Why can’t Bigelow—a veteran director with 30 years of experience—simply be lauded for her work.
I would never say that sexism is exclusive to specific guilds, groups, or institutions in Hollywood; it’s more like it has been intrinsic in the industry ever since the studios and the ruthless men who ran them began to dominate American filmmaking around WWI. Before that, during the pioneering era when the industry had not yet taken shape, women directed, wrote, produced, and starred in films with some regularity. After the industry’s systems and practices were standardized, and its exclusive guilds established, pioneering women such as Alice Guy Blache, Gene Gauntier, Grace Cunard, Ida May Park, Cleo Madison, Ruth Stonehouse, Elsie Jane Wilson, Ruth Ann Baldwin, Kathlyn Williams, and Lois Weber were shut out and forgotten. Even the respected and prolific Frances Marion lost much of her clout during the 1920s. With the coming of sound, the studios became more powerful and the industry even more set in its ways. Industry systems and practices eventually changed, but opportunities for women did not.
I have written previously about the lack of women behind the camera in Hollywood. It is nothing new and it is not a complaint exclusive to me. During the 2002 Oscar season, an art-activist group known as the Guerrilla Girls paid for a billboard at the corner of Highland and Melrose featuring an anatomically correct Oscar. Chunky and pale, rather than sleek and golden, he stood in his familiar pose covering his crotch. The tagline read, “He’s white and male, just like the guys who win.” The late Nora Ephron once quipped about the problems she faced, “I always think every movie should begin with a logo that says, for example, ‘Warner Bros. did everything in its power to keep from making this movie.’”
Though films schools graduate almost as many women as men, women make up only 15% of directors, writers, producers, editors, and cinematographers working in Hollywood movies. This statistic was compiled from a study of the top 250 Hollywood films of 2007 by Martha M. Lauzen, Ph.D., of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film. The situation does not seem to be improving. In 2004, there were 11 women nominated for Oscars who worked as directors or screenwriters on films nominated in the eight major award categories. In 2012, there were only four female nominees who worked as a writer or director on films nominated in these categories.
In her studies Lauzen has exposed certain myths regarding women directors that male executives claim as fact. An impression exists that films made by women do not earn as much as those made by men. According to Lauzen, “We have done statistical analysis on box office grosses, comparing films that had women behind the scenes with others. The notion that films made by women don’t earn as much just doesn’t hold up,” at least domestically. Director Martha Coolidge, a former president of the Directors Guild of America who works primarily in television now, offers another refrain that women hear whenever studios or backers turn down their pitches. According to Hollywood, girls and women are just not a lucrative market. Another assumption presumes males generally make the movie-going decisions for themselves and their girlfriends. Supposedly, young men seek out action and take along their dates who are content to watch what their boyfriends select. Sarah Jacobson, director of the indie film Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore, validated Coolidge’s observation. She recalled that a distributor at the Sundance film festival told her, “Girls don’t go to the movies without their boyfriends. It’s just not a viable market.”
If established women filmmakers suffer because of the industry’s misconceptions and prejudices, it is not hard to predict that women of color battle additional issues. Leslie Harris’s Just Another Girl on the IRT was released in 1992 to critical acclaim, and it made a profit. The following year, she directed a piece on aviatrix Bessie Coleman for BET, then spent ten years trying to launch a second feature about an African-American rhythm-and-blues singer. She was told by studio execs and potential backers that a black woman [in a lead role] couldn’t carry a film.
I suspect that the situation is the most difficult for women directors like Bigelow who prefer to make Hollywood genre films. In an interview, Coolidge recalls that many times she has lobbied a studio or producer to do a film she was passionate about, only to have them balk because the material wasn’t a “chick flick.” She was set on directing a film about a mixed race man named Johnny Spain, a member of the San Quentin Six, whose problems with race resulted in a tragic life, but she was told that it was not appropriated for a white woman to make a film about a black man. Mira Nair, director of Monsoon Wedding, was excited to make a political thriller, but during her interview, it was obvious the studio execs were only humoring her. Needless to say, she did not get the assignment. Mary Harron expected her directorial career to accelerate after her violent shocker American Psycho pulled in a lot of money at the box office, but, instead, she waited patiently as peers like Darren Aronofsky fielded offer after offer.
Some women in the industry, especially producers and studio execs, prefer not to speak out because they don’t want to be stigmatized for rattling the cage; others offer a variety of reasons for a situation that seems to be getting worse. Harron and Nancy Savoca, director of indie dramas such as Dogfight among, made a similar observation when interviewed. They noticed younger and younger male executives working at the studios, and these execs grew up on male-dominated fantasy-driven films. Harron notes, “Male executives are looking for fantasy versions of their younger selves.” This applies to both the directors and the films they prefer to support.
As I watched Zero Dark Thirty, an excellently crafted film that is both provocative and entertaining, one scene stood out to me. When the CIA operative Maya, the main character responsible for ferreting out Bin Laden, attends a meeting to present her findings, she pulls out a chair to sit at the huge conference table. Her male superior then tells her to “go sit over there” in a chair by herself along the wall as the all-male group takes their seats at the big table to go over her work. A medium shot shows Maya alone, excluded from the inner circle. I couldn’t help but think that this was an apt metaphor for Bigelow and other women directors in contemporary Hollywood.
Goldberg, Michelle. “Where Are the Female Directors?” Film 07-08: Annual Editions. Dubuque: McGraw-Hill, 2007.
Masters, Kim. “The Unorthodox Relationship Between Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boals,” The Hollywood Reporter, December 19, 2012.
Mayer, Jane. “Zero Conscience in Zero Dark Thirty,” The New Yorker. December 14, 2012.
Turan, Kenneth. “Commentary: ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ and Bigelow Are Losers in This Political Game,” Los Angeles Times. January 10, 2013.
Wolf, Naomi. “A Letter to Kathryn Bigelow on Zero Dark Thirty’s Apology for Torture,” The Guardian. January 4, 2013.
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