12 months ago
The HFPA, 90-very-odd members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, didn’t get the memo: This year we have to play nice and include GIRLS!
Cue the Our Gang He-man Woman Haters Club clip:
The mercurial awards-giving cabal currently celebrating its 75th anniversary shut women out of the Best Director category in favor of five predominantly white men – Steven Spielberg (old faithful), Christopher Nolan (evergreen bridesmaid ‘deserves to win’), Guillermo Del Toro (wizard of wonder), Martin McDonagh (across-the-pond playwright kicks ass) and Ridley Scott (old faithful 2).
Yes, all these dudes can direct, some can even write – but they’ve had the opportunity to make enough movies to experience success as well as failure. One has to suffer through the preachy white-men-save-America Amistad to get to The Post, in Spielberg’s case – and in Scott’s: Exodus: God and Kings came after, say, Gladiator or Alien.
It’s time to share. Not only do women need to direct – they need the opportunity to fail.
It can be argued that the fault lies not in the laurel placers dispensing their wreaths but in the industry itself. The movie-making pipeline has discriminated against women in the past – so what do you expect from dinosaurs like the HFPA?
This year, however, with cultivation and support, at least six female directors emerged with films in contention. Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird), Patty Jenkins (Wonder Woman), Dee Rees (Mudbound), Sofia Coppola (Beguiled), Oscar-winner Kathryn Bigelow (Detroit) and Angelina Jolie (First They Killed My Father) all made notable films this year – and one or two of them might get Oscar nominations.
But, if we can read anything in the Oscar tea leaves from the Globe nominations, it’s that there won’t be a woman winning the Best Director Oscar. Nominated? Likely. Winning? Not so much because that requires a level of consensus and coalescing that doesn’t seem evident this early in the game.
Some of this has to do with the concept of an awards film – and, naturally, there are always exceptions to the rule. Wonder Woman director Jenkins stands beside nominee Nolan (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight) in the overall bias against popcorn comic book action films during awards season. Nolan is getting recognition for an awards staple: the quality war film of high seriousness (see Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan).
Gerwig rightly identified her primary stumbling block to The Hollywood Reporter: “It’s a female-centered film that is not important with a capital I that people could identify as ‘this is worthy.'”
Lady Bird, a bittersweet coming-of-age in Sacramento dramedy, lacks the narrowly defined importance factor that accompanies The Post and Dunkirk like white on rice. And there’s a secondary barrier apparent as well: as an actress, Gerwig has often played varieties of that phantom object of college-educated-male desire = the manic pixie dream girl. The idea that this adorable quirky blonde also has a real head on her shoulders overturns the stereotype in an uncomfortable way. Gerwig as director begs the question: What if all manic pixie dream girls really did have a unique three-dimensional perspective where they exist on an alternate and compelling plain of their own not just as a reflection in male eyes? Terrifying!
Jolie also faces a parallel bias, despite the seriousness dripping from First They Killed My Father, which testifies to the terrors experienced by Cambodian human rights activist Loung Ung under the Khmer Rouge. Jolie can’t outrun the hot bod that launched a career drenched in sexuality. Her dramas don’t align with the image of this gorgeous Girl, Interrupted – they’re personal films animated by a fervent desire to change the world and eradicate injustice. So, in Jolie’s case, the “Importance” factor works against her. In a context of male-dominated film criticism, the guys who saw her in her underwear (and less) have difficulty taking her as seriously as she takes herself.
Coppola and Bigelow have made very different films – the gauzy female-driven revisionist Civil War genre film Beguiled and the gritty and grinding pull-your-eyes-out-while-the-city-burns docudrama Detroit. What the two films have in common is that neither is the director’s best work. There’s not enough there ‘there’ in the former despite Coppola’s Best Director win at last year’s Cannes (that French festival has finally got on the girl bandwagon only a step ahead of the HFPA after years of criticism). And Bigelow’s film, despite its power and passion, has tonal and story-structure issues that keep it from being the great film it could have potentially been. It also got dragged down by the ‘who owns the story?’ controversy over whether this racially volatile drama should have been told by a white filmmaker at all. To which I say call me when you can explain how a period film like Ben Hur, just to pick a wild example, would be made given this logic. Perhaps I’m oversimplifying but do you need to be a Hobbit to make The Lord of the Rings?
Another filmmaker caught in the peculiar cultural cross-currents of the moment is Rees, the experienced writer-director (Pariah) who directed the luminous and thorny Southern ensemble drama Mudbound. The complex multiple narrations of the script, co-authored by Rees, leads to a dramatically nuanced and emotionally satisfying study in Southern pain and redemption circa WWII. But, in this case, Rees’ success at getting top dollar from distributor Netflix for $12.5M directly out of the Sundance Film Festival seems to have its costs come awards season. The streaming interloper is having trouble getting traction on a film that has the Importance factor and is rooted in inclusivity; from its subject matter to its director, cinematographer, composer and editor.
Overall, this relative flood of female directors has its upside – and kudos to Jenkins, Gerwig, Jolie, Rees, Bigelow and Coppola for collective decades of breaking barriers and building cinema. The HFPA and the Globes lagged behind the times this year but change is inevitable.
Is the proof that women are succeeding in Hollywood reflected primarily in the rise and recognition of female directors? I’m not entirely buying this fixed benchmark. Let’s recalibrate the narrative. We have the choice to define success as a more inclusive collaborative view of filmmaking rather than the narrower patriarchal vision of Daddy Knows Best – with daddy being the director, naturally. The opportunity for female-driven cinema is this: in the rush to get male stories on film, so many fantastic, juicy, compelling narratives have been overlooked. And audiences are hungering for them, as ready to embrace Wonder Woman as Lady Bird. So, on Rees and Gerwig, on Bigelow and Coppola, on Jenkins and Jolie – and welcome the influence of actress activists like Meryl Streep, Jessica Chastain, Kerry Washington, Rose McGowan, Viola Davis, Annette Benning, Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman and Julianne Moore to change the face of film forever.
We won’t be your stinking B-plot! A fading, flailing industry requires female passion and commitment to thrive. The time is now.