In 92 years of Oscar history, only five women have been nominated for Best Director:
Lina Wertmüller (Seven Beauties, 1976), Jane Campion (The Piano, 1993), Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation, 2003), Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker, 2009) and Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird, 2017).
How many of them had won? One. Kathryn Bigelow in 2010.
Does that mean there aren’t many women directors around? Definitely not. It just reveals how things are for these artists striving under the glass ceiling. The USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative research is a good frame of reference for annual facts and trend of women in the film industry. According to their newest study entitled “Inclusion in the Director’s Chair: Analysis of director Gender & Race/Ethnicity Across 1,300 Top Films from 2007 to 2019” (Jan. 2020), female directors of top-grossing films reached a 13 year high in 2019: 10.6%, breaking an average of just 4.8% throughout the past 12 years. Maybe studios have begun to see women can be trusted to make profitable movies after all.
Yet, how many women are nominated for Best Director in the 2020 Academy Awards?
This is not a post of protest, nor of analysis, but of reminiscence. I’ve made a mental inventory of some of my favorite films, ones that have stirred some ripples in the Pond, and found many of them are directed by women. Their works might not have made it to the ‘top-grossing’ list… but, this just shows where my interests lie.
Here they are in alphabetical order, with my favorite films bolded. Links are to my reviews:
Kathryn Bigelow – The Hurt Locker (2008, Best Picture Oscar, Best Director), Zero Dark Thirty (2012). Bigelow is the only female to have won an Oscar in Directing. She has shown that when a woman takes on a military movie, she can master the conflicts both external and within.
Jane Campion – The New Zealand director is one of the five women in Oscar history to be nominated for Directing. The Piano (1993) is visually stunning and bold in its depiction of the yearnings of the human heart. Campion is the first (and only, so far) woman to have won the prestigious Palm d’Or at Cannes with this film. Bright Star (2009) is a lyrical portrayal of English poet John Keats and his muse Fanny Brawne before his untimely death at 25. A beautiful tapestry weaving together the visual and the word.
Nora Ephron – I miss Nora Ephron. It seems with her passing in 2012, romantic comedies aren’t the same anymore. Sleepless in Seattle (1993) and You’ve Got Mail (1998) will remain iconic from a period that still valued face-to-face meeting over the telephone or emails. And for some reasons, Meg Ryan seems to have gone out of sorts too. Hopefully she’ll make a come-back like Renée Zellweger did with Judy (2019).
Sarah Gavron – Brick Lane (2007) prompted my interest in the British director with her focus on a Bangladeshi wife in London; Suffragette (2015) depicts women’s personal struggles against a monumental period of British social history, but Rocks (2019) is the gripping, down-to-earth drama following a black teenage girl being left alone to fend for herself and take care of her little brother when their single mom deserts them, achingly real.
Greta Gerwig – Little Women (2019) is a production that I’d enjoyed far more than Lady Bird (2017) for which Gerwig got a Best Director Oscar nom in 2018. It’s plain snubbing of her achievement in this year’s Academy Awards where the slate of Directing nominees are all males. Recognized at the Oscars or not, Gerwig’s Little Women will remain a definitive and worthy contemporary adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic.
Mia Hansen-Løve – In Things to Come (2016), the French actor-turned-director Hansen-Løve presents a woman at the crossroads of life. Isabelle Huppert plays a philosophy professor whose husband leaves her for a younger woman, while her elderly mother with dementia needs her constant care, her publisher finds her text book no more relevant, and her two children have grown and lead lives of their own. What are the things to come for her?
Mira Nair – The Namesake (2006) is the movie adaptation of the Pulitzer-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri’s first novel. A delightful and humane look at the generation gap within an immigrant family from India, and the clash the son has to face being caught between his present American life and his cultural roots.
Sarah Polley – Polley adapts Canadian Nobel Laureate Alice Munro’s short story for the film Away from Her (2006). At age 27, the Canadian actor-turned-director wrote the screenplay of an elderly couple facing separation as the Alzheimer stricken wife has to move away to live in a care home. Polley’s directorial debut sent veteran British star Julie Christie to the Academy Awards as a Best Actress nominee, and Polley herself for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Dee Rees – Mudbound (2007) is the adaptation of Hillary Jordan’s novel set in the American South at the end of WWII. Two military men, one white, Jamie, and one black, Ronsel, came back from Europe’s war zone to their home in Mississippi, each faces a different predicament. And for Ronsel, a decorated soldier who had fought under General Patton, home is a totally new battlefield.
Kelly Reichardt – Reichardt’s styling is naturalistic, casual but nuanced. Certain Women (2016) is a triptych of three short stories by Maile Meloy. Against the vast landscape of Montana, lives can be very ordinary, but Reichardt shows there’s no ordinary life. Similarly, Wendy and Lucy (2008) is a simple narrative about a young woman looking for work drifting through the Pacific Northwest with her dog Lucy. Reichardt has major stars in her cast who all look very comfortable being anonymous.
Lone Scherfig – Scherfig’s forte is her pleasant styling even when depicting a troubling story. Their Finest (2016) is England in her darkest hour during the Blitz in WWII but with the mood of a romantic comedy. And in 2009, Scherfig tells the story of an innocent teenage girl and her parents being duped by a man in An Education (2009). Carey Mulligan in her breakout role, landing her with a BAFTA win and an Oscar nom for Best Actress.
Agnès Varda – In her last film shortly before her death in 2019, Varda by Agnès, the French New Wave icon stated three crucial concepts in her filmmaking: Inspiration (the why), Creation (the how), and Sharing. The soft-spoken but astute artist has left us with a treasure trove of works, albeit not readily accessible in N. America. I’ve been able to watch several, including my favorites Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962) and Faces Places (2017).
Lulu Wang – The premise of the Chinese American director’s real-life family experience in The Farewell (2019) could be shocking to Western viewers, but that just shows the divides separating us who are framed by different cultures: to tell or not to tell an elderly family member of her terminal illness diagnosis. What Wang has ingeniously achieved in her film is to bridge the chasm separating the two sides with a human touch that transcends borders. Amazing feat.
Chloé Zhao – I hope this is a new trend, that is, let Asian Americans, or any underrepresented Americans of various cultural roots, to have the chance to showcase deserving works. The Rider (2018) is a poetic narrative of a contemporary cowboy–a rodeo bronco rider– recovering from debilitating head injury. Chinese American director Zhao is an unlikely person to tell the story; yet this is her vision after befriending the Sioux community in a South Dakota reservation.