At a recent awards ceremony where The Hurt Locker director Kathryn Bigelow accepted one of the many accolades she's earned on the pre-Oscar circuit, Bigelow, who is 58, was met with a whooping cry of " Go, Girl!"
It was the kind of remark that's hard not to smile at—at least, at first—but that lingers in the air, eliciting a longer-lasting cringe, and ultimately dumps out a suitcase's worth of sexist issues of the sort that have been trailing Bigelow on her long march to the Academy Awards.
Bigelow gets back-handed compliments that essentially boil down to: How cool is that? A chick made a dude flick!
On March 7, Bigelow may well become the first woman in the history of cinema—or, at least since Hollywood began bestowing Oscars back in 1929—to be named Best Director of the year. In the wake of her sweep of the BAFTAs over the weekend, it seems possible that Bigelow's film may also win Best Picture. If so, it will be the first film directed by a woman to win that award.
• The Daily Beast’s Complete Oscar CoverageIt's a milestone stunningly long in the making, both for those who thought we got through most of feminism's heavy-lifting two or three decades ago, as well as for those who like to think that Hollywood is no longer a boy's club, with women like Amy Pascal and Mary Parent running major movie studios. (Don't bother trying to name others; there aren't any.) And yet, it's a milestone that can't be ignored.
Perhaps in order to not dwell on the shame of it, over the last few months—as Bigelow has racked up award after award, flashed her 200-watt smile at the cameras, and gracefully deflected questions about her ex-husband and Oscar rival, James Cameron—much of the talk about Bigelow has been couched in female-empowerment tones. But many in Hollywood lament all the attention focused on her gender, not only because it detracts from her merit as a candidate, but because it hints at the question that no one dares ask: If she wins, will it be because she's a woman?
"That's horrible, that really upsets me. I'd like to believe that everyone has moved past that," said Marcia Nasatir, a producer who was one of Hollywood's first female studio executives. (In the early 1970s, Nasatir was introduced by her male bosses at United Artists as "our woman vice president.") "I would like to believe that if [Bigelow] wins, she gets rooted for by the Academy because she made a very good movie."
She should. The Hurt Locker is a gripping, intelligent, finely executed film of timely importance: It spotlights the critical work of American bomb-squad technicians working in Iraq. And critics have been beside themselves over the movie since it was first released last summer, even if the word, until now, hadn't quite reached audiences. (It's grossed a paltry $17 million worldwide).
Yet at the same time, there's no denying that Bigelow and her film are being viewed through a distinctly sexist lens. Her admirers in the so-called industry, in applauding Hurt Locker, give Bigelow kudos for making a "man's movie." Even Nasatir falls prey, saying, "She made a movie that's what we would call a guy's movie." The Los Angeles Times' Pete Hammond has said, "She made a movie that looked like it was directed by a man."
Which, in the context of the Oscar race, is a back-handed compliment drenched in machismo that essentially boils down to: How cool is that? A chick made a dude flick!
But does that mean that had Bigelow made Under the Tuscan Sun she wouldn't have been nominated? And does it explain why—sigh, is there no better phrase than chick-flick?—directors such as Nora Ephron and Jane Campion have yet to win? (Ephron hasn't even been nominated for a directing Oscar, though she's received three for writing.)
Similar questions floated uncomfortably in the air when Halle Berry became the first African-American woman to win a Best Actress Oscar in 2002 for Monster's Ball. Actually, they were worse for Berry, who, some claimed, won not just because she was a "first," but because she'd stripped for the role. In 2006, Monster's Ball producer Lee Daniels told The New York Times that members of his family "told me that they felt that the only reason she won is because she took her clothes off."
Bigelow has dealt with the focus on her gender with graceful yet defiant diplomacy. When her sex is inevitably brought up backstage by the press, where she's often asked what it's like to be a "female director," she quickly responds by saying, "As a director, I think…" and then drops it. (It's a tactic reminiscent of another candidate who could never completely divorce himself from his physical appearance, and who was forced to endure condescending remarks about how "articulate" he was.) Bigelow also employs her quick sense of humor to defuse such comments. At the BAFTA Awards—where The Hurt Locker won six awards, including Best Director and Best Picture—when a reporter asked how it felt to be the first woman to win a directing BAFTA in 63 years, she joked, "Seriously? I didn't know that!"
Being a woman in the spotlight has subjected Bigelow to other demeaning realities. In Hollywood, looks, as they say, never hurt. But nor are they seized upon quite so eagerly when the person in question is a man. What do we know about Bigelow? That she's hot! Even more titillating: She's hot and she's 58! (Cue the ageist discussion that there is simply not enough time or space for.)
In feminist circles, Bigelow's Brooke Shields-like appearance might be discounted, but not in Hollywood. As New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis told The Daily Beast, "I honestly think that women have to present themselves better in public, because they are more viciously critiqued. When you're a cultural, social minority, you're held up to a higher standard, including a physical standard. Would [Bigelow] have been nominated if she was a very ugly woman? I don't know. But I don't know how I'm to even think about that."
Not only is Bigelow beautiful (lest anyone wonder where Cameron got the idea for his Na'vi creatures in Avatar, cast a glance at Bigelow's tiny hips and mile-long legs and torso) but she has been the model of grace and poise these last few months, pointing out another double standard: that women not only have to look better than men, but behave well, too.
Would the Academy, for instance, tolerate a woman mouthing off to The New York Times Magazine as Lee Daniels did—another Best Director nominee—boasting that he had "co-directed" Monster's Ball? (Marc Forster was the real director.) Could she get away with the swagger bordering on smugness of Jason Reitman ( Up in the Air), who has been a non-stop mouthpiece for his film ever since it premiered at the Telluride Film Festival last year?
Just ask Mo'Nique, the front-runner in the Best Supporting Actress race for her knockout performance in Precious, who's been pilloried for what Hollywood considers insubordinate behavior, i.e., not actively campaigning for her Oscar. Instead, Mo'Nique has spent much of the season in Atlanta, where she tapes her talk show. Yet somehow, when men like Steven Spielberg (who famously hates to schmooze for awards) keep a low-profile, they are praised for being high-minded and above-the-fray. They are also rewarded. Though Spielberg barely lifted a finger when it came to tub-thumping for Schindler's List (he did not even allow Universal to send out screeners) he swept the Oscars that year. Granted, Mo'Nique will likely get away with it; she's considered a lock. But the amount of ink that's been spilled on her "diva" antics speaks for itself.
Bigelow, by contrast, has been all good manners, self-effacing charm, and quiet beauty. No, it's not the reason she is poised to take home gold, but it confirms to the stodgy old men in the Academy that she's worthy. As Tom O'Neil, who writes the Gold Derby blog for The Los Angeles Times, put it, "The beauty pageant is a big part of the Oscars. To be very cruel about this, Oscar voters are old guys who tend to vote for women they want to sleep with."
For those who want to tar and feather O'Neil, listen to the more measured Dargis: "Does it help that she's hot? It never hurts anybody. It helps every single actor who's nominated. I think there are a lot of things that different people do to get attention. It's helped [Quentin] Tarantino in his career that he is very charming to critics. From the beginning, he's been sweet-talking critics, they love him."
"I don't think Kathryn should be in any way blamed for the fact that she has nice cheekbones."
Nicole LaPorte is the senior West Coast correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former film reporter for Variety, she has also written for The New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times Magazine, The New York Times, The New York Observer, and W.