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A Transformative Oscar Moment?


Women & Hollywood’s blogger here assesses the implications of a historic win for Kathryn Bigelow.

In less than one week, March 7 to be exact, the Hollywood awards season will be over, and chances are very good that for the first time a woman—Kathryn Bigelow—will have won the best director Oscar for The Hurt Locker. Three other women (Lina Wertmuller, Jane Campion and Sofia Coppola) have been nominated in the 82 years that the Academy has held its awards, but with due respect to them and their films, none of them had a shot.

This year is different. Based on earlier awards by critics and more recently by the Directors Guild (a first for a woman director) and the British academy (BAFTA)—as well as conversations with several Oscar watchers—the consensus is that Bigelow is at the front of the pack to win the award. Last week, Time magazine got into the act titling its story "The Front Runner." Forgive me for not sounding the trumpets in advance but we all have seen female front runners fade. While there are many reasons to believe that Bigelow will win, there is something in the back of my head that screams caution remembering the Gloria Steinem piece from the 2008 election season "Women are Never Front-Runners."

While Hollywood's gender politics are small potatoes compared to our national struggle with gender, they are a microcosm—albeit a better dressed one—for many different issues we struggle with on a daily basis. Yes, Hollywood has a chance to make history, and long time Oscar watcher Anne Thompson of Thompson on Hollywood believes that Academy members will take this as an "opportunity to right this wrong, to do the right thing and be high minded as they like to be." But the reality is even if Bigelow wins, women directors still have a long, long way to go.

Already 2009 is perceived by some as Hollywood's "year of the woman" because a) two films with female leads—New Moon and The Proposal—made it into the top ten grossing films, and b) many high profile female directors released films, including Nora Ephron, Nancy Meyers, Mira Nair, Jane Campion, Anne Fletcher, Lone Scherfig (whose film An Education is nominated for best picture) and of course, Kathryn Bigelow. But just like 1992 was no watershed "year of the woman" in politics—as Anne Kornblut points out in her new book Notes from the Cracked Ceiling—statistically speaking, in 2009, the proportion of women directing top-grossing films actually regressed two points to 7 percent, the same level as 1987.

Kathryn Bigelow, her career, her film, and yes her gender have come together this year to form the perfect storm that could conceivably vault her to the top. The facts of her ascension are as bizarre as a movie script. Where else but in Hollywood could a woman-directed war movie made on a shoestring budget conceivably beat out a film (Avatar) that pushed Hollywood's technological barrier and broke all box office records? On top of that, the competition happens to be directed by someone Bigelow was married to for a couple of years a couple of decades ago.

Gender is one of the issues that undid Hillary Clinton, but it could be, as Thompson suggests, one of the main reasons why Bigelow wins. "They (Academy voters) will in fact vote for Kathryn Bigelow for best director because she is a woman. There is no other way to look at it. I know this is true,” says Thompson, adding, “It is not a bad thing." Her win will not be devoid of controversy. Kathryn Bigelow has charted an atypical career for a female director. She doesn't direct "chick flicks," never has, and most probably never will. She works outside the gender box that so many women get stuck in.

In spite of the deep and abiding desire to see a woman break through this particular glass ceiling, the real possibility that the first Oscar award winning woman director will win for making a war film is almost a kick in the gut to many who make the types of films that most interest female ticket buyers. Bigelow works in a male paradigm and is being rewarded for that. Sasha Stone of Awards Daily said: "… the Academy and the industry are the ones to fault here for paying attention to a film directed by a woman because it is about men. The only thing that's new about it is that a woman was able to make a film every bit as good as a man would have." The honest truth is that women's experiences and lives don't rate at the same level with men's, and Bigelow is just another reminder of that fact.

One of the big reasons why The Hurt Locker has vaulted to the top is precisely because men love this film. In an email, awards watcher Pete Hammond wrote: "No matter how crass this sounds, (the film) actually looks like it was directed by a man. We don’t often see gritty war movies with female directors." There is almost a sense of awe mixed with condescension that a woman could have directed such a movie. Blogger Scott Feinberg, of And The Winner Is, said: "She took on a genre—the war film—that is considered a guy's genre and made a better film for less money than virtually anyone else." Even though The Hurt Locker is about male experiences and war, it is not your typical war movie. It explores the minds of the characters as intensely as the multitude of bomb explosions. And maybe, just maybe, the reason why this movie has gained critical success is precisely because it is directed by a woman.

Not surprisingly, the men seem to love Bigelow the person. It's not that women don't love her too. Anne Thompson reported that when she won the BAFTA award the women at a luncheon watching the ceremony were whooping with excitement. It's just that the men like her—a lot. They like the way she looks, the way she talks, and of course that she made a movie that blows things up. Daily Beast writer Nicole LaPorte, who wrote "Oscar's Sexist Plot Against Kathryn Bigelow," said: "There is huge good will towards Kathryn not only because it will be a huge milestone but because she is so perfect. She's been working so hard, doing this for 20 plus years, she's beautiful, she's articulate, smart and however superficial some of those things are, they do matter." Thompson adds: "She is very feminine, shy, ingratiating and well liked. All of these factors, whether we want to admit it or not, come into play here."

Gender has come into relief in a very public way this Oscar season because of inclusion rather than exclusion. The visual of seeing Bigelow on the Oscar circuit and on TV and having a woman's name and picture up on the screen when the five directing nominees are announced matters greatly. Young girls (and boys) across the country and the world will see that yes, a woman can be recognized as one of the best in a field that has for 82 years been so male dominated. One working director told Scott Feinberg that he hasn't been to the ceremony in years but he is going this year and is bringing his daughter because they both want to be a part of history. The gender implications of this nomination are complicated, but that will not take away from the excitement and joy if another glass ceiling comes crashing down around us.

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