In the 85-year history of the Academy Awards, four woman have been nominated for the Best Director Oscar: Lina Wertmuller (1976's Seven Beauties), Jane Campion (1993's The Piano), Sofia Coppola (2003's Lost in Translation), and Kathryn Bigelow (2009's The Hurt Locker). Adding to the shocking statistic: Bigelow is the only one of the bunch who took home the prize.
Bigelow returned in 2012 to solidify herself as one of the most important cinematic voices working in Hollywood today — not just as a female director, but as a great director — with her procedural thriller Zero Dark Thirty. Since trickling into theaters in December (prepping it for its wide release this week), the tension-filled drama has caught the eye of audiences and critics alike. The buzz was as loud as can be, with the film, star Jessica Chastain, and Bigelow all commanding the awards season. When Bigelow picked up a nomination from the Director's Guild of America, Oscar prognosticators agreed that she was a shoe-in for the Academy Award race — and potentially, the one to beat. The director would continue to add to the short list of women who beat the Oscar odds and came out on top of the male dominated category.
But on Thursday morning, those hopes were dashed when the Academy's nominees swapped the DGA-nominated Bigelow, Ben Affleck (Argo), and Tom Hooper (Les Miserables) out for David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook), Michael Haneke (Amour), and Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild). Each year, the DGA and Academy tend to differ in one, maybe two choices. One would have to look back nearly 20 years to find a similar discrepancy. How did that happen?
There is a major difference between the voting bodies: the DGA sports nearly 14,500 members (including television directors and other production positions that qualify for the Guild), while the Best Director voting body for the Academy is comprised of 369 individuals. The numbers suggests that Bigelow, Hooper, and Affleck's DGA ranking was inflated by voters ineligible for the Oscars.
Bigelow coming up short after so many wins could stem from a number of factors, the biggest being the controversy that continues to plague the film. Zero Dark Thirty, which bluntly depicts the morally ambiguous actions of the United States in an effort to find and kill Osama bin Laden, has taken heat in the last month over allegations of utilizing confidential information and condoning the use of torture. Whether any of it is true is no longer relevant — within a short window, the film has become fully politicized. Voters who don't see eye to eye with Bigelow's point of view (or rather, the point of view they've determined she has), may have kept her out of the race.
The answer could also be found in 2010, when director David O. Russell found himself with a Best Director nomination for the uplifting family sports drama The Fighter. He didn't win, losing out to Hooper for The King's Speech, but the film was seen as a new leg of the filmmaker's career, an evolution from pitch black comedies to Oscar-friendly fare. He followed it with this year's Silver Linings Playbook, a movie that, thanks to the involvement of Academy hustler Harvey Weinstein, has emerged as a major player in the awards race after a quiet release and low initial box office gross. Both The Fighter and Playbook boast a lot of heart and attractive talent. Voting Russell into the Best Director ends up being a safe choice (a trend in Hollywood history). Bigelow may be too risky of a choice.
Voters may also be inclined to spread the wealth: just like boxed out DGA-nominee Hooper, Bigelow already has an Oscar to her name. Why give her another when the Academy can bestow its highest honor to a new name? It only helps the brand when a director wins an Oscar — studios add "Academy Award Winning" to their ads, only strengthening the "prestige factor" of the award (let's face it, the Oscars are an event/product in need of marketing like everything else). The been-there-done-that effect appears to be in play, fresh winners prioritized by voters over the pure quality of the film.
The omission of Kathryn Bigelow continues the Academy's — and Hollywood's — plight to make the director's role associated with men. Worse, they've also snubbed one of the most thrilling pieces of cinema released by a major studio this year. Bigelow isn't repeating herself with Zero Dark Thirty, a tense procedural lacking the emphasis of action that hooked awards voters for her 2008 Best Picture winner Hurt Locker. She displays a control of camera, lighting, sound, and her actors, finding a multi-faceted partner in Jessica Chastain — necessary, to keep up with everything Bigelow throws at the audience. Demanding the Academy simply include more woman in an Oscar category is a thin protest. But with Bigelow, it's the weight of the issue plus a triumphant piece of moviemaking.
Who will take home the Oscar for Best Director next February? A great director, no question. But without Bigelow, the entire race feels a little less relevant than it could — and should — have.
Follow Matt Patches on Twitter @misterpatches
[Photo Credit: Sony Pictures]
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