Oscars: Where Have All The Women Directors Gone?

We examine how despite occasional exceptions to the rule, the Oscars still ignore women directors and their films for top awards.

The collection of controversies surrounding the 2019 Academy Awards ceremony is like a perpetual revolving door, never getting us any closer to the crux of the situation and never changing the key players. Will Kevin Hart host, or won’t he? Will the award for Best Cinematography screen on air or will it not? Who will defend the anti-Semitic slur here, the homophobic joke there? The laundry list is endless and the particulars just as dirty. But the Oscars are not immune to controversy.

In February 2016, I wrote about #OscarsSoWhite, a conversation that at the time was culturally charged and prescient (albeit long, long overdue). In October of 2017 #MeToo proliferated all over the internet, instigating the formation of organizations like TimesUp and the ostracization of Hollywood legends like Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and Brett Ratner. Big Little Lies swept the Emmys with an all-female lead cast, and Oprah orated an inspiring speech at the Golden Globes that promised a new day was on the horizon. Things, on paper, proverbially, looked good. But when perusing the list of Oscar nominees for Best Picture and Best Director this year, one can’t help but feel a little lackluster: I’m not ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille.

What does a gal have to do to get the Academy’s (sustained) attention? Last year, Greta Gerwig’s astounding financial and commercial success with Lady Bird seemed to intimate that the Academy was opening its eyes to the credibility and celebration of female directors. This year offers no such hope. To be sure, Alfonso Cuarón and Yorgos Lanthimos are particularly deserving of their Best Director nominations, and Black Panther, The Favourite, and Roma are awards-worthy films. However, one must wonder why no female directors were nominated this past year, especially after a year when so many strong female voices were brought to the fore.

Lynne Ramsey’s You Were Never Really Here seems an obvious frontrunner with Joaquin Phoenix giving arguably the best performance of his career as Joe, a man who rescues missing girls. Phoenix twitches with brutality, ready to resort to violence at the drop of a hammer. The sound design of the film is richly textured as if to intimate the aurally cluttered headspace of Joe who suffers from PTSD. When the violence erupts, it is in bursts, contained, controlled, but irrevocable, deadly. Marielle Heller’s darkly delightful dramedy Can You Ever Forgive Me?, starring a drab but wily Melissa McCarthy and the ever-charming Richard E. Grant seemed another ceremonially contender. From the performances, to the script, to the mise-en-scene full of corduroy and cat hair, this film is like snifter that you linger over, never ready for it to end.

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Chloé Zhao’s The Rider (2018), while understated, brims with longing for a life that feels physically and financially tenuous: cowboys at rodeos, busting their bodies beyond their boundaries for a rush of adrenaline, and for their connection to the horses. It’s a film evocative of the minimalist, realist style of directors like Kelly Reichardt whose characters convey everything through inflections of motion rather than verbal banter. And Sara Colangelo’s The Kindergarten Teacher (2018) and Tamara Jenkins’s Private Life (2018) had two of the strongest female performances of the year from and Maggie Gyllenhaal Kathryn Hahn, two actresses who continue to challenge themselves in the roles they select and the possibilities of what a female centered film can be. Gyllenhaal particularly has evolved leaps and bounds since she first sparked our attention as Lee in Secretary (2002), a clumsy character whose susurrus drawl of “sex” and “a scoop of mash potatoes” made us sit up at attention as if after a consensual, spunky spank.

In multiple interviews, Gyllenhaal has described her new character of Lisa as a product of “the consequences of what happens when you starve a vibrant woman’s mind.” Appetite and ardor are often the subject or subtext of many narratives centered on the female experience. When recently rewatching Julia Ducournau’s Raw (2016), I couldn’t help but see Justine’s insatiable desire for meat as a subversive affirmation for a woman unrestrained and unconfined by her hunger.

So often we see women on the silver screen in various stages of being denied something: a meal, a child, a job, a book, a partnership, autonomy, agency, etc. In another interview, with Sundance, Gyllenhaal added that “as women we do get kind of used to seeing a movie or a television show and you’re like, ‘Okay 30 percent of this speaks to me’… and we’re used to fitting ourselves into that 30 percent.” But to consistently deny women their humanity, their livelihoods, their lives is not just a narrative tic in Hollywood: it’s a systematic epidemic.

The aforementioned films from 2018 directed by women are not just about filling in the other 70 percent of female-bodied experience, but also about narratives that complicate and challenge our preconceived notions of masculinity. The men in The Rider and You Were Never Really Here are multi-faceted, emotive, attentive and alert to the environments surrounding them, rather than merely bullheaded or blundering. As bell hooks writes in Feminism is For Everybody: Passionate Politics, “In return for all the goodies men receive from patriarchy, they are required to dominate women, to exploit and oppress us, using violence if they must to keep patriarchy intact. Most men find it difficult to be patriarchs. Most men are disturbed by hatred and fear of women, by male violence against women, even the men who perpetuate this violence.” And while hooks’ quote here is not to undermine or negate the very real and, at times, graphic portrayals of violence, sex, sorrow, or of longing in films directed by women, it is to ask why critically and commercially acclaimed filmmakers like Kathryn Bigelow or Ava DuVernay still must clamor tooth and nail to get a seat at the table.

At some point, the revolving door must stop spinning. The conversations about visibility, representation, equity, and diversity have me going in a circle where time does not move forward, and systematic structures do not change or improve. Why is it that Bryan Singer can garner accolades for a film like Bohemian Rhapsody that, admittedly, brought in the gold at the box office, but still received lukewarm reviews?

Indeed, why do we financially and symbolically reward a man like Singer who is not only rumored to be difficult on set (dare we say hysterical?), but also accused of sexual assault by numerous men? Women have empirically proven that they are box office heavyweights behind the camera, such as Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman. And women like Dee Rees can craft historically nuanced dramas like Mudbound, whereupon they receive a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination but turn up emptyhanded when it comes to Best Director and Best Picture. How is it that Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to receive an Academy Award for Best Director for The Hurt Locker in 2008? And how is it that if the Academy throws Adam McKay and Spike Lee a consolation prize with their respective nominations for Best Director this year, that the Academy can’t afford Bigelow the same courtesy for Zero Dark Thirty or Detroit?

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read more: Oscars 2019 Predictions and Analysis

Which brings me back to one of this year’s overlooked films: Private Life. Hahn’s performance showcases a whole body in use. Cue the delightful scene of her chastising her husband for even considering censoring a painting of a woman’s vagina when their social worker visits. “I think we should at least move it so it’s not so…central,” Richard muses. Director Jenkins comedically imbues the scene with self-reflexivity as she films Rachel and Richard in a long shot with Rachel’s own vagina (slightly-off) center in the frame. Legs apart, hirsute, clutching a scrub brush and cleaner, Rachel definitively defends her decision to leave the painting hanging, bemoaning those who would be so uptight as to deny them a child due to a painting of a vagina. This scene formally and narratively illustrates the conversations we’re currently having where women are still regulated to the sidelines when it comes to Best Picture and Best Director nominations. It’s enough to drive a gal goofy. Eventually these dog days must be over, when women can be front and center, delighting in a vagina dialogue, not a male monologue.