We don’t need another Oscars think piece. I know this. You know this. We all know this. But what else is a woman to do when she is not a filmmaker and not an executive, but just an ordinary writer with no real power beyond the sentences she can string together? I love film — I have always loved film. As a kid growing up in the nineties, The Lion King changed me. Jurassic Park inspired me. I write because I believe in a good story, well told. So, let us begin with a story.
The first Academy Awards ceremony was held at The Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel as a private dinner event on May 19, 1929. The first woman to receive an Oscar that wasn’t for acting was Frances Marion, who won Best Writing (Original Screenplay) for The Big House in 1931. And the first woman even nominated for directing? Lina Wertmüller for Seven Beauties in 1977. There have only been five women nominated in this category since Wertmüller. To this day, Katheryn Bigelow remains the only one who won (for The Hurt Locker in 2010).
The year Seven Beauties was released, not one of the top ten grossing films in the United States was directed by a woman. And the year The Hurt Locker came out? Same answer. Zero. This year — with all male nominees in the directing category — two of the top grossing films were directed by women (as part of man and woman directing teams). This is not to say that profitability and quality are always the same thing, but if more of the high grossing films are being directed by women it would be fair to believe more of the “prestige” films so beloved by award ceremonies are also being directed by woman.
2019 was a great year for women behind the camera — and not just white women. All women. Lulu Wang moved us with The Farewell. Lorene Scafaria dazzled with the exceptional Hustlers. Marielle Heller made a rare feel-good movie about Mr. Rogers with A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. Melina Matsoukas stunned with Queen & Slim. Greta Gerwig managed to bring us the quintessential adaptation we never knew we needed with Little Women. And these are just some of the films adored by critics and audiences. Women made other great films in 2019 too. Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Booksmart. Clemency. For Sama. The list goes on.
Now, I don’t mean to get petty and check at the numbers, but…well…let’s check the numbers. Because this isn’t adding up, right? Look at Rotten Tomatoes, for example.
Here are the 2020 directing nominees for The Academy Awards.
Okay. So. What are the numbers for all those films made by women?
By these numbers, Joker and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood have nothing on at least three of the pictures directed by women. If your response to this is that taste is arbitrary, you are correct. It is. To this, I say again: six women have been nominated for directing in the ninety-three-year history of The Academy Awards. Six.
WARNING: This is the part where I’m supposed to deep dive, delving into how and why culture does what it does and the nuances of this, that, and the other thing. But the explanation is simple enough: sexism. We all know it. We all see it. Most of the films directed by women this year were about women and while girls are raised to see stories through the eyes of male characters, boys are not raised to see stories through the eyes of female characters. And so it goes.
Believe it or not, this is not a man-hating manifesto on the brilliance of female filmmakers (or maybe it is, but that is not the point). I’m angry because I’m passionate. I love The Academy Awards — not for the fashion or the glamour, but because I enjoy celebrating filmmaking and the tradition of filmmaking. But there is an ugly tradition here too — one steeped in exclusion. Based on gender. And race. And orientation. It is a mark of shame upon what should and could be a proud and inspirational institution.
Men in film need to step it up. Women have been supporting their cinematic visions for nearly a century. Women deserve the same support.