The Outstanding Female Directors Awards Shows Keep Ignoring
Four women should be major Best Director contenders this year—‘Lady Bird’s’ Greta Gerwig chief among them—yet awards show after awards show is entirely male. Time’s up, dudes.
A thunderstorm of reckoning struck the Golden Globe Awards Sunday night, but no lightning bolt of truth-to-power stunned the audience into silence with same charge as Natalie Portman’s ad-libbed introduction of the “all male nominees” for Best Director. It was a blunt, powerful shaming of the organization for continuing what’s been a widespread institutional failing of every awards show, essentially forever: the dismissal of the talent of female directors.
If the microphone wasn’t rigged to a stand, Portman might have dropped it, leaving the fumbling reactions of the night’s nominees, flailing to determine a proper reaction among the ballroom’s gasps, to speak for themselves.
At Sunday night’s ceremony, Lady Bird won one of the two Best Picture awards, its lead actress won one of the two Best Actress trophies, and the screenplay was nominated as well. Yet Greta Gerwig was missing from the Best Director category, as if she wasn’t the one at the helm of its excellence.
At the end of the night, Barbra Streisand took the stage and informed the audience that she is the only woman to ever win Best Director in Golden Globes history. “That was 1984 [for Yentl], that was 34 years ago. Folks, time’s up!” she said, echoing the refrain of the night—Time’s Up—inspired by the recently launched initiative to fight sexual misconduct across the country and crusade for gender equity and parity. “We need more women directors and more women to be nominated for best director. These are so many films out there that are so good directed by women.”
Later that night, she tweeted, “In my humble opinion, I was very disappointed that director Dee Rees and her powerful film @mudboundmovie wasn’t even nominated,” referring to the female director of the critically hailed Netflix epic, Mudbound.
It’s not just the Globes, though. The British Academy of Film and Television announced its BAFTA nominations Tuesday and, once again, the list was all male. The Directors Guild will announce its nominations Thursday. The odds that the list will be similarly testosterone-heavy are looking more and more likely.
Streisand enumerated the Globes’ piss-poor track record of honoring women before anyone even had to Google it. Only four women have ever been nominated for Best Director at the Oscars.
Bigelow remains the only woman to win the award, and no woman has been nominated since—not Ava DuVernay for the searing Best Picture nominee Selma, not Lisa Cholodenko of Best Picture nominee The Kids Are All Right, not BAFTA nominee Lynne Ramsay for We Need to Talk About Kevin, and not even Bigelow for Zero Dark Thirty, despite the film earning five nominations including Best Original Screenplay and Best Picture.
The aggravated response is, in spirit, similar to the #OscarsSoWhite outcry, when the outrage wasn’t because critics thought there should be some affirmative-action showcase of performative diversity. It was because worthy contenders were completely overlooked, discounted, and often ignored as viable options because of institutional bias against stories told by creators and artists of color.
Female directors made up just 7 percent of all directors of the top 250 films in 2016, and when there are fewer entries in a competition there is obviously going to be lower representation in awards categories. But this is a case of entries worthy of representation being discounted and ignored despite boasting both the artistic merit and inclusion in other categories that would make a male counterpart a shoo-in for Best Director consideration.
And while nothing should demand awards inclusion besides merit—and there are certainly female directors this year who merit recognition—it’s impossible to extricate any awards conversation from the broader cultural debates surrounding it. In this case, that’s the industry- and society-wide rallying cry for female equality, justice, and opportunity. Given the volume at which these issues are being trumpeted, it would be a bad look to exclude female directors regardless. But it’s made worse by the fact that the women who are being excluded are worthy nominees not getting the recognition they deserve.
With that in mind, we thought we’d pay them the paltry-in-comparison respect of recognizing them here.
Greta Gerwig, Lady Bird
Lady Bird made headlines when it broke the record for most 100 percent fresh reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. But that kind of blazing superlative masks the film’s real asset, which is the assured intimacy with which Gerwig crafted the semi-autobiographical coming of age story. Along the way, she captures the grandiosity and smallness that defines adolescence, creating, according to New York’s review, the “nearly perfect” movie: “Gerwig has a gift for skipping along the surface of her teenage alter ego’s life and then going deep—quickly, without fuss—before skipping forward again, evoking the tempo of a life lived whimsically but over an emotional abyss.”
Dee Rees, Mudbound
The endorsement of Barbra Streisand is major, but it’s also the tip of the iceberg of praise heaped on this film, which was better reviewed than most presumed Oscar frontrunners, including The Post, Phantom Thread, The Shape of Water, Three Billboards, and Darkest Hour, with Rees’ difficult, masterfully executed directing singled out each time. Yet the men directing each of those films are considered major Best Director players; Rees is not. She tells an epic story about race, the South, World War II, and a changing nation, through the familiarity of family without sacrificing any of its scope. That the film is distributed by Netflix might be hurting Rees’ changes, but all things equal that shouldn’t matter. Of course, things aren’t.
Patty Jenkins, Wonder Woman
Nevermind that Wonder Woman finished the calendar year of 2017 as the year’s top-grossing film. Actually, do pay attention, because it certainly speaks to the chord it so forcefully struck inour culture. The task was Herculean: helming the first standalone female superhero film, salvaging the critical dumpster that is the DC Extended Universe, and leading the genre into a future that is more cinematic, and an audience that is more discerning. There was a vigor to each battle scene, a necessary humor to the tone, and a dignity given to the character of Wonder Woman, resisting the urge to exploit her sexuality without losing any of the feminine identity the film would need to be as successful as it was.
Angelina Jolie, First They Killed My Father
Jolie’s fourth feature as a director has widely been considered her strongest outing yet, with its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival ushering whispers that could—and should—have landed the Oscar-winning actress her first directing nomination. Critic Matt Zoller Seitz went so far as to tweet this week, “The Oscar for Best Director should have Angelina Jolie’s name on it, but FIRST THEY KILLED MY FATHER barely even registered. What a shame. It's brilliantly made and never steps wrong once.” The film is competing in the Foreign Language categories, earning BAFTA and Globe nods there, but confusingly, it has not made the Oscars shortlist. It’s unclear if competing as a Foreign Language entry has been hindering Jolie’s chances, or if, as in Rees’ situation, a dismissal of streaming service content is also to blame.
And that’s just one reasoned list of women who, given the way the year in cinema and awards season have shaken out, should have been, if not nominees for these awards already, more realistic contenders. It doesn’t even include the likes of a powerhouse like Kathryn Bigelow, whose Detroit split critics; Eliza Hittman, who won the Sundance Best Director prize for her stirring indie, Beach Rats; Sofia Coppola, whose The Beguiled was a critically praised indie hit over the summer; Angela Robertson and Maggie Betts, whose Professor Marston and the Wonder Women and Novitiate were criminally underrated; and Valerie Faris, who co-directed the well-liked Billie Jean King-Bobby Riggs two-hander Battle of the Sexes with frequent collaborator Jonathan Dayton.
Will things change next year?
Already next year we can expect DuVernay to be a major contender with what already looks like a visual triumph and, we predict, a crowd-pleasing hit with A Wrinkle in Time. Relative newcomer Claire McCarthy will direct a re-imagined take on Hamlet from the perspective of Ophelia starring Daisy Ridley that is getting some traction. Kirsten Dunst will try her hand at directing with an adaptation of The Bell Jar. And prolific cinematographer and breakout TV director Reed Morano (The Handmaid’s Tale, Beyoncé’s Lemonade) will debut her second feature film at Sundance, I Think We’re Alone Now.
At such an early juncture in the year, we’re sure we’re only cracking the surface of contenders that will emerge, yet it’s still disheartening that when you peruse lists of next year’s most anticipated films and especially those wildly premature rundowns of next year’s awards contenders—like this one on iMDB—there are only three women listed. Instead it’s dominated by the usual suspects, the directors you normally see pop up in awards conversations and whose track records are highly decorated. Isn’t it time that those suspects include women?