Mary Kuryla is a visiting professor of screenwriting at Loyola Marymount University’s School of Film and Television. Holly Willis is a professor at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts.
If the trend continues as it has for the last couple of decades, it should take seven or eight more years for a woman to earn an Academy Award nomination for best director.
Seriously: Since 1977, when Italian director Lina Wertmuller earned a nod for her antic masterpiece “Seven Beauties,” only four other women have been nominated for the category, with roughly an eight-year gap between each. (Only one, Kathryn Bigelow, won for “Hurt Locker” in 2010.) Indeed, this year’s glaring absence of women directors among the nominees was particularly striking, given the critical success of women-directed films such as Karyn Kusama’s “Destroyer” and Lynne Ramsay’s “You Were Never Really Here.”
In 2019 — well over 100 years after the birth of cinema — it is hard to believe that we are still asking, “Where are the women?” That question is, in itself, problematic, as art theorist Linda Nochlin wrote in 1971: asking why there haven’t been great women artists suggests that women are doing something wrong, without attending to the fact that the entire business of art-making is male-dominated.
With cinema, that includes film school admissions, screenplay acquisitions, financing, 18-hour days and 24-day shoots, a dense old boys’ network of producers and distributors. And, of course, it includes the most prestigious of institutions: the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which, even as it attempts to address the disparity, is still overwhelmingly male and white.
In other words, the question is not about women and their talent; it is about an entire system — a system that seems entirely anachronistic.
“The Oscars are one of the more conservative institutions, and I don’t expect to see it leading the way for women,” says director Jane Campion, explaining the Academy’s lack of attention to women in a year in which the #MeToo movement made it difficult for anyone to ignore the uneven power dynamics related to gender in Hollywood.
Campion is one of the five women who have earned the best director nomination (for “The Piano” in 1994) since the awards were inaugurated in 1929, and she’s right: The Academy Awards have not kept pace with a younger generation that increasingly demands gender parity. While women’s raw stories make their way from social media into film scripts, the Academy seems staunchly committed to the male auteur when it comes to the cinema.
However, the Academy is not the only institution at fault for perpetuating gender inequality. Take the 2018 American Film Institute Awards, which recognize “the year’s outstanding achievement in the art of the moving image.” Selected by a group of scholars, filmmakers and film critics, the list includes 10 films, all directed by men.
“That stung,” says director Tamara Jenkins, whose third feature, “Private Life,” premiered at the New York Film Festival last October.
It’s not as if women aren’t making movies. Although women directed only 8 percent of the top 250 domestic-grossing films in 2018, women’s movies last year were bold, unapologetic and authoritative — including Susanne Bier’s “Bird Box,” Ava DuVernay’s “A Wrinkle in Time,” Sara Colangelo’s “The Kindergarten Teacher” and Jennifer Fox’s “The Tale.” They spanned multiple genres and budgets, and featured radically diverse themes, from washed-up imperialism (Lucrecia Martel’s critically acclaimed “Zama”) to the female literary forger (as portrayed by Melissa McCarthy in Marielle Heller’s “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”).
In short, women are making movies, and critics are raving about them, but established Hollywood institutions just can’t stop fixating on men and their stories — or, as in a number of this year’s nominated films, men and their stories about women.
A case study
Jenkins has the right to feel frustrated. Her film “Private Life,” starring Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti, has been lauded by critics and cited as a film worthy of a best director nomination. It’s a story about infertility, a topic as ancient as the Bible and Greek myths. But Yorgos Lanthimos’s “The Favourite,” which explores Queen Anne’s multiple failed pregnancies as a form of infertility, garnered 10 Oscar nominations; it is tied with Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma” for the most this year.
Jenkins describes her own experience trying to get pregnant as source material for her film. “I was steeped in that world of infertility, and I became an anthropologist to that world,” she says. But even in acknowledging the autobiographical component, the filmmaker refuses to be circumscribed by it: “When a man writes an autobiographical film, they’re not consumed by that question. Autobiographical is seen as less serious when a woman does it.”
Jenkins’s film is, ultimately, a story about a marriage; both the husband and wife are reproductively challenged. But is a quieter film about a couple’s quest to have a baby destined to be seen only as a woman’s film?
In response to that question, Jenkins says:
“As much talk as there is about gender parity, it’s still in the talking phase,” she adds.
Despite her frustration, Jenkins notes, “It’s not about awards. Filmmakers make movies because they want to be seen and talked about.” Still, it’s hard not to fixate on the very tangible implications a major nomination — not to mention an award — has on subsequent directing opportunities and salaries. “When the little movie doesn’t get nominated, it doesn’t get talked about,” Jenkins says.
Where women directors are turning instead
For Jennifer Kent, who directed “The Babadook” (2014) and whose second feature, “The Nightingale,” was picked up at this year’s Sundance Film Festival by IFC Films and will open this summer, it’s “a little dangerous” to make films “with a view to awards.”
“It can shape your decisions as a filmmaker, and I try to keep things as pure as possible,” she says.
But, she adds, it’s “very hard to break out with an independent film without festivals.” Kent says that she’s proud to have shown her two films at Sundance:
Lulu Wang, who premiered her film “The Farewell” at Sundance this year, also celebrates the festival’s broad thinking when it comes to identity. “Our film features an all-Asian cast and is 75 percent subtitled for Chinese language, yet it was in U.S. competition at Sundance,” she says.
“The courage to call this an American story, which it absolutely is because I’m American, is significant.”
Sundance’s programming range acknowledges the proliferation of previously underrepresented filmmakers. Hannah Pearl Utt, who brought her directorial debut, “Before You Know It,” to Sundance this year, says the “exceptional work” coming from diverse filmmakers was “undeniable.” “I believe it’s just a matter of time before that’s consistently reflected in what’s being recognized,” she says.
Indeed, Sundance’s expansive attitude is further reflected in its awards. For example, the Sundance Festival jury bestowed the U.S. Grand Jury Prize in the dramatic competition on Chinonye Chukwu, a Nigerian-born woman, for “Clemency,” a film set on death row, starring Alfre Woodard as a warden who shepherds inmates to their deaths.
As Sundance highlighted on its site, of the 23 awarded films this year, 13, or 56.5 percent, were directed by one or more women; eight, or 34.8 percent, were directed by one or more people of color. “It was fantastically cheering to see woman after woman taking the stage to receive prizes at festival end,” says Campion, who served on Sundance’s World Cinema Dramatic Jury this year.
Moving beyond the ‘talking phase’
The Independent Spirit Awards this year also recognized the work of women by nominating not only Jenkins (for “Private Life”), but Ramsay (“You Were Never Really Here”) and Debra Granik (“Leave No Trace”), in the best director category — along with just two male nominees.
These women’s three radically different films boast distinct stories, characters and visual design. Indeed, seeing several women among the nominees opens a space for imagining a more expansive cinema, one that can accommodate high-budget blockbusters as well as intimate character-driven stories and genre pieces. The pressure on individual women to represent an entire category of experience and story is, at the moment, restrictive.
“You can feel that you have to represent a character that’s idealized because they must represent all women,” Jenkins says.
Kent agrees that her task as a director is to expand the bounds of a female character’s likability — to make them “true and complex,” as she puts it. Ultimately, female directors are able to tell stories that they’ve inhabited, ones that Kent says “reflect our world back to us.”
But the real question is: How to move beyond the “talking phase” that Jenkins mentions, in order to create change? Utt pushes the blame further upstream, saying she’s “most interested in what financiers, distributors and critics are doing to promote the work of underrepresented storytellers.”
Wang suggests that things may already be changing at the point of production as bad behavior on-set becomes less tolerated. Describing her contribution to a recent panel about collaboration between producers and directors, Wang points to the role of emotional intelligence in identifying personal triggers well before a film heads to production. “I’m glad we’re having conversations about ending the toxicity on-set: These talks are very important. If you’re not allowed to yell and scream, you need to find other ways to communicate.”
Campion, too, is hopeful.“There is a massive and exciting change happening that can’t help but drip slowly into the more conservative world of feature films and the Oscar race,” she says, citing series television such as “Killing Eve,” for which Phoebe Waller-Bridge won an Emmy for outstanding writing, and for which Sandra Oh made history for winning a Golden Globe for best lead actress.
But for directors like Campion, who have been making critically acclaimed films for decades, that change “can’t of course come fast enough.”
Editor’s note: This piece originally misstated the number of awarded films at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.