“Congratulations to those men,” said actress and writer Issa Rae after announcing the Best Director Oscar nominees on the morning of Monday, Jan. 13. Her words, though said in passing, dripped with the disaffected contempt of a woman scorned. There are a lot of trends in the past week’s Oscars nominations that I do not care for, such as the nomination of only one actor of color for an acting award (Cynthia Erivo for Harriet), the lack of acting nominations for roles in foreign language films and the continual presence of “Joker” in this awards season, but nothing reflects a worse trend in Oscars history than the omission of women directors from the Best Director category.
Since the first Academy Awards in 1929, only five women have been nominated for Best Director, starting with Lina Wertmüller for “Seven Beauties” in 1976 and most recently with Greta Gerwig for “Lady Bird” in 2017. The only win for a female director ever was Katheryn Bigelow for “Hurt Locker” in 2009.
At the dawn of the silent era, women directors were much more common, as movie making was sort of a free-for-all. However, when the studio system was created, women were mostly shut out from creative leadership roles. In American film, throughout most of the 20th century, women were not directing because of lack of access, the refusal of studios to take a “risk” by letting a woman behind the camera and other blatantly sexist rules and norms.
That is not to say that there were no women directing films then, because there were, they were just few and far between and, as I have mentioned, rarely got any professional recognition. I would be remiss if I wrote an article about women directors and didn’t mention Penny Marshall (“A League of their Own”), Mary Harron (“American Psycho”) or Sofia Coppola (“Lost in Translation”).
But here is what makes this year different. 2019 saw the largest number of female directors making serious Oscar contenders ever. Research from USC’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative shows the percentage of women directors in the top 100 grossing films of each year doubled from 2018 to 2019. The showing from women this past year has been enormous and amazing. Just a short list includes Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell,” Marielle Heller’s “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” Lorene Scafaria’s “Hustlers,” Kasi Lemmons’ “Harriet,” Melina Matsoukas’ “Queen & Slim,” Alma Har’el’s “Honey Boy,” Olivia Wilde’s “Booksmart” and of course “Little Women,” directed by Greta Gerwig, who many consider to be snubbed from this year’s best director nominations.
One of the reasons many have justified this snub is because the male Academy voters (who make up the majority of the directors’ bloc) just did not go see “Little Women,” which may be true, because although “Little Women” earned a Best Picture and two acting nominations for Saoirse Ronan and Florence Pugh, the acting categories have a much more diverse voting bloc, and every academy voter votes for Best Picture. Not to mention that up to ten films can be nominated for Best Picture, while only five directors can be nominated for their work. But even with the radical expansion and diversification of Academy voters in the years since #OscarsSoWhite, we still see white male domination in major categories.
What makes this so mind boggling is that Greta Gerwig is an accomplished, previously nominated director: she has backing from major studios, industry ties up the wazoo and, dare I say it, a partner who is an accomplished filmmaker as well. Oh, yeah, she is also white. If she cannot get a nomination now, then think of how many years it is going to take to see a woman win again or see a woman of color even get nominated.
In past years the “there aren’t enough female directors in Hollywood” was a logical excuse for the gender disparity behind the camera because the film industry is a massive one with lots of resistance to change, but now it is just no longer valid. There are plenty of women directing movies — and they are good movies, movies that are making tons of money and are garnering critical acclaim. The film is there and the talent is there. Now the establishment needs to grant them the same prestige that they have lauded men with for years.