Unconscionable. Unbelievable. Unsurprising. Once again, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has failed to nominate even a single woman in its best director category. It is the 86th time in the Academy’s 91-year history of awarding Oscars that the membership has seen fit to nominate an exclusively male slate.
Women’s absence is remarkable not because they remain dramatically underemployed as directors — accounting for just 8% of helmers working on the 250 top films of 2018 — but rather, because in spite of the numbers, more than a few women directed films that were widely hailed as among the best of the year. On his dream ballot of Oscar nods, Los Angeles Times critic Justin Chang included Tamara Jenkins (“Private Life”), Lucrecia Martel (“Zama”) and Chloé Zhao (“The Rider”). The Independent Spirit Awards recognized Debra Granik (“Leave No Trace”), Lynne Ramsay (“You Were Never Really Here”) and Jenkins in their best director nods.
Being excluded from the race to be crowned king — or queen — of Hollywood directors has short- and long-term consequences. The first, and most obvious, is that these filmmakers miss out on the avalanche of publicity in the run-up to, and following, the Oscars. Few women have enjoyed this level of supercharged hype. Among the exceptions is the sole female winner of the best director trophy, Kathryn Bigelow. In the weeks leading up to the 2010 ceremony, Bigelow — who had been working for decades as an independent and highly regarded director — enjoyed unprecedented exposure. Article after article noted her considerable and impressive filmography, her skill as a filmmaker and her determination to maintain control over her work.
Bigelow continues to benefit from her win and increased visibility almost a decade later. Just last year, Rolex included her among an otherwise all-male lineup of directors for its Masters of Cinema advertising campaign. In the glossy, high-profile ads, James Cameron, Martin Scorsese, Alejandro G. Iñárritu and Bigelow commented on their own and each other’s work. Cameron noted their collective “devotion to excellence” and “unique and visionary perspective on the world,” while Scorsese described Iñárritu as being “at the vanguard of modern cinema.” Referring to the other filmmakers, Bigelow stated, “They are extraordinary talents who have influenced me my entire career and will continue to influence me.” The ads promoted and further elevated the status of these directors, showcasing them as icons of filmmaking.
The Academy can no longer shrug off its role in helping to construct our culture’s pantheon of great directors. No matter how many inclusion grants the organization sponsors, if its nominations process fails to include deserving women in the best director category — surely one of the most coveted prizes in its arsenal — the Academy is reinforcing the status quo in the industry. The Oscar is not some value-neutral award at the end of the food chain of film production. Rather, it sits squarely in the middle of the mythmaking machinery that helps build careers in the short term, and reputations, legacies and history in the long term. Kathryn Bigelow will always be remembered for winning the Oscar for best director. The honor is a permanent part of her record as a director and part of the larger historical record of women in Hollywood. The current and future generations of filmmakers will study her films and aspire to emulate her work and career. It’s time for the Academy to recognize its continuing role in helping to suppress the visibility of women film directors, and its responsibility to change the procedures that have resulted in its dismal track record.
Dr. Martha M. Lauzen is the executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film and a professor at San Diego State University.