Female Directors Still Underdogs for Oscar Attention

Ava DuVernay Intelligent Life
Michael Buckner/Variety/REX/Shutterstock

If the Oscar nominees for 2016 are anything like the past six years, or 78 of the 82 years before that, there will be no women up for best director.

Only four female helmers have had the honor (Lina Wertmüller in 1976, Jane Campion in 1993, Sofia Coppola in 2003, and Kathryn Bigelow, nominated in 2009 and 2012 and won for 2009’s “The Hurt Locker”), which is not enough to fill up the category in any given year. If the pundits are right, don’t expect a fifth to join their ranks come January.

That doesn’t mean the year was lacking in worthy films directed by women, they’re just not the type of films typically in the directing branch’s wheelhouse. In fact, two acclaimed works by female helmers are considered frontrunners in the documentary and foreign-language categories: “13th,” Ava DuVernay’s powerful indictment of the justice system, and “Toni Erdmann,” Maren Ade’s Cannes sensation and Fipresci prize-winning story of an estranged father and daughter.

While docu directors are eligible in the Acad’s directing category, none have broken in, making DuVernay’s odds slim to none. (It can’t help that she was snubbed for her superlative “Selma” work, unless voters have serious regrets about that.)

At least there’s a precedent for Ade — after all, Wertmüller was nominated for a foreign- language film — but when the directing branch includes a foreign-language nominee, it’s usually either an established master (Michael Haneke or Ang Lee) or a sentimental favorite (Roberto Benigni or Michael Radford).

There are also favorable arguments to be made for Andrea Arnold (her epic “American Honey” won the jury prize at Cannes), Kelly Fremon Craig (who delivered a dazzling debut of emotional honesty with “The Edge of Seventeen”), Kelly Reichardt (her meditative “Certain Women” landed a Gotham nom for best picture), and Mira Nair (who steered old-fashioned crowd-pleaser “Queen of Katwe” with a sturdy hand), among others. But again, none of those films are “Oscar bait” in the classic sense.

Of course, it doesn’t mean that voters can’t buck trends and make history by shining a spotlight on any of these worthy films, and their directors. Only time will tell.

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