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Backlash Grows as Oscars Snub Women Directors Yet Again

BTS: Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) Director/Writer
Wilson Webb

Hollywood’s outcry is growing over Oscar nominations in the best director category, which again ignored women filmmakers on Monday. Instead of recognizing Greta Gerwig for “Little Women,” Lulu Wang for “The Farewell,” or Marielle Heller for “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences opted to honor five male directors.

Many entertainment industry observers were disappointed, because it comes in a year in which women made historic strides behind the camera, directing a record number of blockbusters and acclaimed hits and calling the shots on everything from “Captain Marvel” to “Hustlers.” Despite that progress, only one of the nine best picture contenders — “Little Women” — was directed by a woman. The film scored six nods in total, including best adapted screenplay for Gerwig.

Florence Pugh, a best supporting actress nominee for “Little Women,” called out the Academy in an effort to eventually foster change.

“I’m happy that everybody is upset. It’s great when you don’t need to point out the obvious,” Pugh told Variety of the all-male nominees. “As Greta has said before, it’s been a great year for female creators, and I hope this encourages a larger conversation. This is literally why Greta made the film — one about women living in a man’s world, related to money and success. This news only highlights the message of the film.”

Stacy L. Smith, the founder of University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, a group that tracks representation in front of and behind the camera, was blunt in her observations.

“I can categorize 2019 as the year that women were finally acknowledged for their directing in the entertainment industry, but they’re not allowed to be lauded for those achievements,” Smith told Variety Monday morning after nominations were announced. “It’s consistent with a broader rejection — a perception of a leader that doesn’t fit anything other than a very narrow prototype, which is typically in Hollywood a white male.”

While announcing this year’s contenders, Issa Rae offered sardonic commentary, saying after best director: “Congratulations to those men.” It was a sentiment shared by many in the industry, including Women in Film LA executive director Kirsten Schaffer.

“It’s disheartening that even as the number of women nominated for awards in documentary, short film, and technical categories increases, there have still only been five women considered for the best directing award in its 92 year history,” Schaffer said in a statement. “The Academy has made efforts to balance its voting bodies, but gender equality and diversity do not just happen. Without deep systemic change in the industry and a real commitment to equity in film finance, distribution, and marketing, this bleak trend will continue.”

Time’s Up, the advocacy group formed in light of the #MeToo movement, also added its voice to the conversation.

“This is why Time’s Up exists — to ensure women in entertainment and across industries get the opportunities and recognition they deserve. And we won’t stop fighting until they do,” the organization’s chief operating officer Rebecca Goldman said in a statement.

The shutout comes after the Golden Globes, Directors Guild and other awards also excluded women nominees. In the 92-year history of the Oscars, only five women have been nominated for best director: Lina Wertmüller in 1976 for “Seven Beauties,” Jane Campion in 1993 for “The Piano,” Sofia Coppola in 2003 for “Lost in Translation,” Kathryn Bigelow in 2009 for “The Hurt Locker” and Greta Gerwig in 2017 for Lady Bird.” Bigelow is the first and only woman winner in that category.

The Academy has made strides to broaden its voting body after the #OscarsSoWhite backlash in 2015 and 2016. But diversifying its ranks, it appears, has not been enough. Smith sees the shutout as a warning.

“As we’ve seen in culture, when institutions aren’t in step, they become not only increasingly irrelevant, but they lose their ability to have a voice,” Smith said. “And that’s what we’re seeing happen. People aren’t looking to this institution as a credible judge of talent or merit.”

Though they still remain Hollywood’s biggest honor, the Oscars have struggled with lower ratings over the past few years. The televised ceremony, often clocking in over three hours, will again go host-less this year.

“Young people don’t seem to be engaging with this awards process, or the awards shows in general,” Smith continued.

One Academy member, who spoke to Variety Monday under the condition of anonymity, said the washout came as little surprise.

“The Academy has a history of overlooking the contributions of actors of color and female directors, and this is a continuation of that,” the member said. “There are any number of folks who could have been nominated, and I wouldn’t have batted an eye. Most of them weren’t even considered to be possibilities, and it’s not because their performance wasn’t extraordinary.”

Part of the problem, the Academy member noted, is the tendency to recognize what feels familiar.

“There’s a bias even in what people choose to watch,” the person said. “As long as we acknowledge that there are those biases, something should probably be done to guard against them, because otherwise we’re awarding awards to the best performance within films that Academy members are predisposed to watching, not the best acting performance in a given year.”

There was some inclusive progress among the nominations. Gerwig’s screenwriting nomination marked her second in three years, a rare feat for any filmmaker. She’s also only the second women after Bigelow to have directed two best picture nominees, as well as the third ever to solely write, direct and produce a best picture nominee. Four of the five nominations for best documentary feature were either directed or co-directed by a woman. And an Academy press release noted that “a record 62 women were nominated, almost one third of this year’s nominees.”

Despite those accomplishments, Tom Rothman, chairman of Sony Pictures, the studio behind “Little Women,” called it a “shame” Gerwig wasn’t recognized for her directing.

“‘Little Women’ is nominated for best picture, so I guess it directed itself is all I can figure? It’s a miss because she’s one of the great young directors in our business,” Rothman said. “I’ve said this before, but I say again, I don’t think she’s a great female director — I think she’s a great director, full stop.”

With social media erupted over the lack of female directing nominees, the Oscars press notes made a point of noting that a record number of women across all categories were nominated. Those nominees included producers such as Amy Pascal (“Little Women”) and Emma Tillinger Koskoff (“Joker” and “The Irishman”), screenwriters such as Krysty Wilson-Cairns (“1917”), and editors such as Thelma Schoonmaker (“The Irishman”). Others hope that the growing outrage about the lack of attention for female filmmakers will put a spotlight on how much ground still needs to be made up.

“We clearly haven’t made any progress in the directors category,” said Tillinger Koskoff. “There were beautiful, important films directed by women. I’m hopeful it’s going to change, and however I can help support and champion these gifted female voices, I’m there to do it.”

Matt Donnelly and Adam B. Vary contributed to this report.