In the words of Barbra Streisand, the time has come. After weeks of hope and pundit guesswork, Kathryn Bigelow became the first female to win the Best Director Oscar last night, just in time for International Women's Day. In fact, The Hurt Locker did a whole lot more than just grab that one award. It grabbed six.
As anyone following the Oscar race knows -- this wasn't a clear-cut win, no matter how well the experts guessed. Everything was stacked against this film. Not only was The Hurt Locker another attempt for Bigelow to break into the boy's club of testosterone-filled action drama, but it was also a low-budget, $11 million celebrity-free indie attempting to hold its own in the face of the "Iraq War Curse." It was released over the summer to little fanfare from the super-successful Summit, and its box office take came nowhere close to its critical acclaim; it's the lowest-grossing Best Picture winner of all time, in fact, and the yin to James Cameron's wildly successful, highest-grossing yang. On top of that, it recently weathered questions of authenticity, and the fact that one of the film's producers became the first to be banned from the ceremony.
Nevertheless, Kathryn Bigelow is the first woman to win a Best Director Oscar. It's hard to believe that she is only the fourth woman to even earn a nomination, following in the footsteps of Lina Wertmüller for Seven Beauties in 1975, Jane Campion for The Piano in 1993, and Sofia Coppola for Lost in Translation in 2003. It only took 82 years to get here.
Like usual, Bigelow did not want to make this win about her sex. When she won the award, she commented on the honor, her fellow filmmakers, and her own collaborators. There was no mention of her history-making win. Backstage, however, she couldn't skirt around the issue any longer, and addressed the inevitable question. As The Wrap reports: "It was all anybody wanted to discuss backstage with The Hurt Locker crew: Kathryn Bigelow, first woman to win an Oscar for directing. One reporter said Bigelow had been reluctant to call herself a female director, asking, 'Are you ready to say that now at this historic moment?' Bigelow replied, 'First of all, I hope I'm the first of many. And of course I'd love to just think of myself as a filmmaker, and I wait for the day when the modifier can be a moot point.'"
It's quite understandable that Bigelow is remiss to include her sex in the discussion of her achievements. She's spent her entire career making "man" films, choosing to follow her own interests rather than the stereotypical roads well traveled. Like any artist, she wants to be recognized for her work without a qualifier. However, with all due respect to Bigelow, and to those who applaud her refusal to talk about her work in terms of her sex (like our own Jessica Barnes), it's a damn shame she didn't mention the achievement in her acceptance speech, and to make it even a small part of her cinematic discourse. Let me be clear -- I don't expect Bigelow to become the spokesperson for women's achievements in Hollywood. That would, surely, cloak her impressive win. However, we must remember -- she's the first, and it took 82 years to get here. 82 frakking years.
Everything she says in interviews and behind the scenes, when she's directly asked, most of that will reach only the most interested eyes -- the people who follow the film world, those who are interested in her and her career. The casual viewer has no idea how monumental this is, unless they happen to hit the Internet for research. There's just enough women in the popular Hollywood consciousness to make this win seem less noteworthy if you don't know the history and numbers. Last night was the perfect opportunity to alert the common public to the imbalance. It wouldn't have taken much -- just a simple mention that she's the first woman to win after 8 decades of awards ceremonies, matched with an expression of hope that this marks a change for female filmmakers.
If you believe that it's not necessary, just take a look at any of the articles and commentary provided by those who don't follow the business closely. In a post for EW, Lisa Schwartzbaum quoted a TV producer who said: "You know, like, on the one hand, I've read figures that say women make up only a small percentage of Hollywood. But then, on the other hand, you know, like Nancy Meyers? Nora Ephron? Good, right?"
The excitement is understandable -- 2009 was a pretty stellar year as far as women in Hollywood were concerned. For the first time, there were a myriad of female directors inciting buzz, a blockbuster film led by the power of an actress, and notable features full of strong and engaging female characters. But it is essential that we remain balanced about these achievements and not let our happiness distort the reality. It's all too easy to excuse away the fight that still remains, and for these achievements to work against women, becoming a mask that covers reality. The casual observer will see the chatter around directors like Bigelow and Lone Scherfig, the success of Sandra Bullock and The Blind Side, the powerhouse that is Twilight, and falsely assume that things are coming up roses for women in Hollywood. There's no reason for them to recognize and realize the imbalance unless they start flocking to film sites and the power of IMDb.
When popular opinion thinks that everything is great, and assumes that things are better than they actually are (I mean, would anyone believe the male-female percentages would be so imbalanced if it wasn't the truth?), that just makes it all the harder to keep the fight alive. Now the fight isn't just against the struggles in the industry, but making the public believe that there is a struggle to begin with.
Bigelow's win is a wonderful achievement for women in the industry, and I hope -- from the bottom of my heart -- that this is only the start to a long and continual success for women in Hollywood. I hope that the numbers of those behind the scenes starts inching closer to 50-50, and that society begins to realize that women have a wide variety of interests and passions, and that it is no longer a notable surprise when a woman receives a Best Director nomination.
But we must remember that there is still a long battle ahead. This is a great step that only marks change in the industry if women continue to stay in the spotlight with critical and box office success. This could, very easily, become a fluke in Hollywood's boys' club. As it stands, 2010 doesn't seem to have the same femme-centric punch as 2009.
Melissa Silverstein wrote over at Women and Hollywood : "I hope that moms and dads around the world take the picture of Kathryn Bigelow and talk to their daughters and sons about the fact that this is a big deal for our world because it had never happened and maybe those young girls will believe that they too can win an Oscar, and maybe those boys will grow up believing that women are their equals in each and every profession." Indeed, we need to celebrate this success, not just with exuberance, but also with a rational mind. We must celebrate this win while teaching its importance, and doing what we can to make this more than just a rare and banner year for women.
Bigelow might not want to be seen as a "female" director, but that's what she is, and she's the first in Hollywood's long history to break into the boy's club. If we don't make this a part of discourse, if she doesn't note her success as a woman, we can never expect it to really change, and for society on a whole to help facilitate a brighter, balanced future.