This Saturday, on the beach in Santa Monica, Calif., inside a tent filled with glamorous people drinking, something aberrant could go down.
A woman could win a directing award.
At the Independent Spirit Awards, which are held every year on Oscars eve, three of the five nominees for best director are women: Debra Granik for “Leave No Trace,” Tamara Jenkins for “Private Life” and Lynne Ramsay for “You Were Never Really Here.”
This is a record for the Indie Spirits, and especially notable because none of the other major — and very few of the minor — awards-giving bodies nominated a female director for a feature film this year. Not the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which doles out the Golden Globes; or the Broadcast Film Critics Association, which hands out the Critics’ Choice Awards; or the Baftas, the British equivalent of the Oscars or the Directors Guild; and, lastly, not the motion picture academy.
In the Oscars’ 91-year history, only five women have received best director nominations, and just one has triumphed — Kathryn Bigelow, for “The Hurt Locker,” in 2010. The significance of Bigelow’s achievement cannot be overstated, yet it has had a curious distorting effect on the perceptions some show business people have about the number of female directors working on major films.
Until recently, whenever I asked Hollywood insiders — and not just male ones — why they thought so few female directors ascended the industry ranks, let alone won awards, they usually replied, often triumphantly, “There’s Kathryn Bigelow!” It was as if her win made up for the rafts of women who have been systemically kept out the directors’ chair, and awards contention, for nearly a century.
I encountered similar reactions from academy old-timers during the #OscarsSoWhite controversy a few years back. More than one longtime member patiently explained to me that academy voters did not have a problem with or history of racial exclusion in the least. Hadn’t they awarded an Oscar to Sidney Poitier?
Well, yes. Yes, they had. In 1964.
The outlook has become brighter for female directors. In 2017, Patty Jenkins broke multiple box office records with “Wonder Woman,” and last year Greta Gerwig became the first woman of the decade to land an Oscar directing nomination, for “Lady Bird.” And thanks to the more intense scrutiny on studios and pressure from organizations like Time’s Up, hiring female directors is slowly becoming something of a badge of honor. At Sundance, after the actress Tessa Thompson announced her commitment to work with a female director in the next 18 months, more than 100 producers and actors, as well as seven studios, echoed her promise. They called it the 4 Percent Challenge, after the finding by the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative that just 4 percent of the top 1,200 films of the last decade were directed by a woman.
Researchers in this field have long said that shifting the default assumption that directors are men is crucial. A few years ago, in a study for the Sundance Institute and Women in Film Los Angeles, dozens of film industry buyers and sellers were asked to name female directors that would be on the consideration lists for movie projects. They listed an average of three names; most listed zero names. That is changing, thanks to the successes of Jenkins, Gerwig and Ava DuVernay, and newer names like Chloé Zhao, who directed the critically cherished indie “The Rider,” and Marielle Heller, who directed Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant to Oscar nominations in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” despite being locked out of the nominations herself.
Change can also be gauged by looking at the ways many journalists described female directors, in particular Bigelow, just a decade ago. While there were notable exceptions, including The Times’ Manohla Dargis, who wrote a profile extolling Bigelow’s talent, a lot of writers could not seem to get their heads around the facts that she was attractive and directed action films.
In the run-up to her Oscar win, Bigelow received an unprecedented amount of media coverage, according to Martha Lauzen, the executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film and a professor at San Diego State University. Lauzen found that most articles about Bigelow mentioned her age, her brief marriage to the director James Cameron — a Daily News scribe called Bigelow Cameron’s “shrinking violet of a former wife” — and, invariably, her appearance. Per the Washington Post: “She has big eyes and big hair, and is the sort of woman who looks good in restaurants, on the fantail of a yacht or on the cover of a magazine.”
Right. That sort of woman.
The Independent Spirits Awards celebrate films made for $20 million or less; female directors far and away work with much lower budgets than their male counterparts, and it is refreshing to seem them honored in that space. Of the two male nominees in the directing category, one is Barry Jenkins, who is black, and directed “If Beale Street Could Talk,” and the other is Paul Schrader, who is 72 and directed “First Reformed.” A directing category that defies the trappings of sexism, racism and ageism. That’s independence indeed.