Film Fund-amentals: Kathryn Bigelow’s Big Night

The most notable event next Sunday at the Academy Awards will be when Kathryn Bigelow receives the Oscar for Best Director. At least she’d better win. She won the Directors Guild of America award, and it’s basically the same bunch voting for Best Director at the Academy (which is why it’s almost always the same winner), so she’s either winning the Oscar or something funny is going on.

Aside from the possibility that she will become the first woman ever to receive an Oscar for directing, Bigelow is only the fourth woman filmmaker to ever be nominated for this award. Officially, this is due to the previous lack of women directors in the industry. In reality, this is due to the lack of acceptance of women directors in Hollywood.

Women filmmakers have been around since almost the beginning of cinema, roughly starting with Alice Guy Blache at the end of the nineteenth century. But most of the early history of women filmmakers is hidden away within the largely unwritten history of independent cinema. For example, few people know the name Lois Weber, but her silent films were often better made than those of many of her Hollywood rivals (if you can ever find a copy, you might want to check out her 1921 production of The Blot).

Oh sure, in the 1930s Dorothy Arzner briefly crashed her way into the all-boys club (she is still best known for her 1933 movie Christopher Strong, though I personally prefer her 1940 production of Dance, Girl, Dance). But Arzner’s time in the director’s chair was relatively brief, and few other exceptions (e.g. The B movies of Ida Lupino) would appear until the 1970s. Within the Hollywood industry, women were qualified for screenwriting, editing, designing and assorted other “behind the scenes” occupations, but for crying out loud don’t let them try to run the place!

That was then, this is now (sort of). There have been some major changes (on occasion). But a recently released study from the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism finds that the Hollywood system is still a largely male-dominated club. Well, they actually kind of get to this the long way around by discovering that the more women who are involved behind the camera in a production, the more female characters are presented in front of the camera. Along the way, they notice that in a majority of movies, you have mostly male directors, writers, producers and (quelle surprise!) characters. In the study, they examined several variations in the number of female characters in a film, finding a basic difference of 28 percent to 39 percent based on various combinations of male/female screenwriters and producers. The big variation was in the category of directors, with women filmmakers averaging 44.6 percent female characters while male directors averaged only 29.3 percent. In other words, male directors like making movies about male characters while the female characters are hanging around to look pretty. OK, what this study discovers isn’t exactly a major piece of news, but it does confirm what we already suspected.

Oddly enough, the male director average found in this study is roughly the same in most of Kathryn Bigelow’s movies. Bigelow may be a girl, but her films are mostly about the boys. OK, she has maintained some ironic points in this game. Jamie Lee Curtis’ cop in Blue Steel goes from shaky female recruit to coldly determined avenger within 90 minutes as she and Ron Silver fight it out for control of the movie’s high-powered phallic symbol. In Strange Days, Ralph Fiennes plays an extremely fragile and emotionally scarred pusher who desperately needs the butt-kicking manly support of a leather-clad Angela Bassett. But mostly, Bigelow’s movies are about manly men (and some manly women) doing manly things in extremely brutal, manly ways. To be honest, one thing I never much liked about her films is the odd way they make me feel like a weak and whiny little girl.

Which may explain why Bigelow is about to become the first woman director to win the Oscar for her work. Back in 1994, when Jane Campion was nominated for Best Director for The Piano, it was pretty obvious that she didn’t stand a chance. Too many men viewed the film with overt hostility (I actually didn’t like it much either, but my objection had to do with paying good money to see Harvey Keitel naked). But Bigelow is meaner and tougher than any of the boys. Technically, she is a very gifted director (actually more talented than her better known ex-husband). But I have yet to see a Bigelow film without feeling the need afterwards for a really hot bath to remove the sordid feel of her excessive macho sensibility.

So Bigelow’s impending Oscar will be an important benchmark in Hollywood history even though it’s going to be a tad hollow. For every step forward, there are often two or three steps back. And no matter what happens this Sunday, women will still have a long hard fight for greater control in Hollywood.