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Virtual Oscars Roundtable: The Directors

Bigelow Filming The Hurt Locker

For our second round, we have a few different voices. The aim this time around was to address the added tension this year of a great many women really in the game for the first time. There have been one here, another there before. But rarely have we had so many real contenders for Best Picture that were helmed by women, especially where it doesn’t even seem to be about whether they are women or not.

Also in discussion here the role of the Oscars in our culture now. Do they still matter?

The participants are:

Damien Bona, Inside Oscar
Edward Douglas, Coming Soon

Scott Feinberg, And The Winner Is
Pete Hammond, The Envelope
Pete Howell, The Toronto Star
Craig Kennedy, Living in Cinema
Tom O’Neil, The Envelope
Kris Tapley,
Anne Thompson, Indiewire
Melissa Silverstein, Women & Hollywood
Susan Wloszczyna, USA Today

Q& A’s after the cut.

Since no woman has ever won Best Director because it seems impossible to imagine any woman being admired as much as any of these five directors at any time. The question is, what would it take for a woman to finally win one of these?

Damien Bona: The problem is not a systemic antipathy towards women filmmakers by the Academy, it’s that the percentage of pictures made by female directors continues to be so low. Thus, by definition, the percentage of films deigned to be Oscar-worthy by women will remain smaller than those made by men just because the overall their pool is smaller. As more and more women direct films, eventually one of them will win an Oscar, not because she’s a woman but because the Academy will think her work is the best. It’s the way people now vote for or against female politicians with little regard to their gender (unless one is silly enough to pay heed to Emily’s List). No one without advance knowledge would look at The Hurt Locker and say, “Oh, a woman made that film.” Now, I certainly don’t think that pointless little bore of a movie deserves Oscar recognition, but I am heartened by the fact that its admirers like it for what they deem its attributes, and not because Bigelow happens to be a woman. And, hell, if there hadn’t been a Schindler’s List that year, Jane Campion certainly might have won Best Director in 1993 (and some of us think that, even with a Schindler’s List, she deserved to win).

Edward Douglas: Clint Eastwood to get a sex change‚Ķwhich I’m not sure is possible at his age.

Scott Feinberg: I disagree with the premise of the question. Today, at least, the root cause of the dearth of Oscar nominations for women directors is the dearth of directing opportunities for women directors, not some sort of bias on the Academy’s part. (Indeed, the Academy has recognized increasing numbers of women in its screenplay categories in recent years, to give just one example of progress.) With the exceptions of Dorothy Arzner, Ida Lupino, and maybe one or two others, women simply were not given opportunities to direct major American films until the last 20 years or so, and even now the number is still low. That said, it appears to be growing, and this is certainly a breakthrough year for women directors, including Kathryn Bigelow (“The Hurt Locker”), Lone Scherfig (“An Education”), Nora Ephron (“Julie & Julia”), Jane Campion (“Bright Star”), Mira Nair (“Amelia”), Nancy Myers (“It’s Complicated”), Anne Fontaine (“Coco Before Chanel”), and Andrea Arnold (“Fish Tank”). So I don’t think it’s “impossible” for a woman to win; I think it’s just going to take the right kind of film. Sofia Coppola was probably close for “Lost in Translation” — indeed, the film was nominated for best picture and best actor, and she won best original screenplay. It’s really just a matter of time. Heck, don’t even count out Bigelow — she made a great film that is more a “guy movie” than a “chick-flick” — plus she’s very good-looking, which, fair or not, never hurt anyone’s chances.

Pete Hammond: She needs to make a movie that looks like it was directed by a man. Kathryn Bigelow has done that with “The Hurt Locker” and it will go a long way in breaking that glass ceiling in the mostly boys club of the directors branch.

Pete Howell: I think the Academy should do an education program promoting films made by women. It should host something in L.A., where most of the voters live,
and encourage people to turn out. I think if more people were aware of the disconnect between the growing number of films made by women and the 
rare instances of Academy recognition, good things would result. This year is interesting because three women (so far) have a solid shot at director noms: Kathryn Bigelow, Lone Scherfig and Jane Campion.

Lone Scherfig
Lone Scherfig

Craig Kennedy: Rhetorical question to which I don’t have the answer, but I think it’s more a matter of there being a critical mass of women with the right projects. This might be that year. Not only are there several strong films from women, I don’t think you can really fit any of them into the women’s picture ghetto. Much has been made (way too much if you ask me) of Bigelow’s handling of manly action-oriented The Hurt Locker, but it’s a Bigelow film through and through. The male/female distinction is outmoded. The hero of Lone Scherfig’s An Education is a woman of course and issues uniquely related to being a woman in that place at that time obviously give it an extra layer of resonance, but what struck me about it is how identifiable I found Jenny to my own life. Who at a certain point hasn’t felt smarter than everyone around them only to find in the end they weren’t quite as smart as they thought? Campion’s Bright Star is a delicate, literary romance, but again its appeal is universal. Finally there is Mira Nair’s Amelia – by the look of it, a classic biography of the kind that always seems to get awards attention.‚Ä®‚Ä®I’m going to say that not only will there be more than one female nominated for the best directing Oscar this year, one of them will win. In order of likelihood for the Oscar: Bigelow, Scherfig, Campion, Nair. Maybe next year boys.‚Ä®‚Ä® Wait, what was the question again?

Silverstein: I think the fact that we are even having a conversation about the best director award including a woman – or even the possibility of multiple women- is a HUGE step forward.¬† I think that for a woman to actually make the step beyond the nomination to an actual win will take serious momentum from men and women young and old. That’s why I think Kathryn Bigelow probably has the best chance. The movie was well reviewed, has been going since summer and Bigelow is getting noticed as a director, not a woman director because she has directed a film that seems to not be a typical “woman directed” film.‚Ä®‚Ä®I think that Bigelow has really changed the conversation about women directors with The Hurt Locker and the irony is that she has not deviated from the type of movie she has directed in the past. This one is just far superior on many levels.

Kris Tapley: I think it’s as simple as a film directed by a woman capturing the collective heart of the Academy. It’s possible. Certainly An Education and, to a lesser extent, The Hurt Locker proves that it is.

Anne Thompson: f the women who are vying for this nomination, Kathryn Bigelow and Jane Campion fit the bill. Bigelow is more of an insider. And The Hurt Locker is more of a winner at this stage–and gets credit for having overcome the Iraq curse–than Bright Star, which has stumbled in initial release. Campion is the respected outsider, from Australia. She has a great deal of credibility. No one can doubt the quality of the Bright Star production. But it does play better to women than men, and men dominate the director’s branch. Bright Star could come back strong with critics’ ten best lists and year-end voting. ‚Ä®‚Ä®Assuming these two women get nominated, do they have what it takes to win? Both films are small-scale. Neither film has epic scale and scope. And The Hurt Locker needs to build up some year-end momentum and come back into voters minds and hearts. Finally, The Hurt Locker is so rigorously masculine, with action and tension to spare, that it might do the trick. ‚Ä®‚Ä®Lone Scherfig’s An Education has a shot at a best picture nomination, especially with the ten slots, but it will be tough for her to win a nomination as director 1) because the field is so competitive, 2) she is a newcomer, 3) a woman and 4) an outsider, from Denmark. As assured and excellent as the movie is, I suspect Nick Hornby will get credit for adapted screenplay and Carey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard and Alfred Molina will get credit for their performances. Scherfig could be left out. ‚Ä®‚Ä®We still haven’t yet seen what Mssrs. Eastwood, Marshall, Jackson et al. have to offer. On the face of it Invictus, Nine and The Lovely Bones are bigger, more expensive films. ‚Ä®‚Ä®I need to see It’s Complicated before I can judge Nancy Meyers’ chances of a nomination. What I see from the materials speaks to a very commercial holiday release that is probably too comedic to impress Academy voters.

Jane Campion
Jane Campion

Susan Wloszczyna: This has actually been an amazingly fruitful year for women directors. Julie & Julia, The Hurt Locker, An Education, Bright Star, perhaps It’s Complicated. Though The Proposal isn’t perfect, Anne Fletcher knew what to do with a middle-aged Sandra Bullock in a way that many men couldn’t even fathom. I think it isn’t a case of admiration as much as having the opportunity to be trusted with the freedom as well as the budget to do what one needs to do to realize a vision. None of these films save for It’s Complicated probably have much of a budget but one gets a sense that the filmmakers were allowed to see their ideas through to the end with little interference. And some one was willing to back them.‚Ä®‚Ä®This year might therefore provide a good test case. I predict as many as three of the best pic slots could be filled with films directed by women. And I would guess at least one or two could make it into the best director race despite there not being a corresponding number of opportunities. Will they win? Maybe not. But it would be a welcome change and a hint of advancement.

2. Much has been made of the trivial nature of paying any sort of serious attention to the Oscars at all.¬† It is easy to dismiss them as a silly group of people who have bad taste, for the most part, and who vote only for what they like with no regard to film history or cultural importance. On the other hand, when President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize win was announced, the only other award anyone could come up with to compare it to was the Oscar.¬† Do you think the Oscars still matter?

Bona: When Mason Wiley and I set out to write Inside Oscar 25 years ago, it wasn’t because we thought the Oscars were the end-all in terms of defining quality films. Quite the opposite. We were fascinated by the Academy Awards because of the way they’ve reflected popular culture in any given year. For instance, while The Greatest Show On Earth winning Best Picture is objectively indefensible, its win at the 1952 Oscars made perfect sense given the political and cultural climate of the time. And that’s what makes looking at the Oscars so interesting.¬† But anyone who takes seriously a prize that went to Marty in the year of Night of the Hunter, Kiss Me Deadly, Rebel Without A Cause and It’s Always Fair Weather (and the fact that none of them actually stood a chance only emphasizes the silliness of the Oscars), or to Ben-Hur rather than Imitation Of Life, Some Like It Hot and North By Northwest has severe deficiencies in cinematic appreciation.¬† And what can you say about an award that has gone to Delbert Mann, John G. Avildsen, George Roy Hill and Mel Gibson, but not Alfred Hitchcock or Howard Hawks or Hal Ashby or Otto Preminger, with Nicholas Ray, Douglas Sirk, Paul Mazursky and Blake Edwards never even being nominated.

But the Oscars remain important as a cultural touchstone, a reflection of what’s going on both in Hollywood and America at large. Academy members tend to be politically liberal and artistically conservative, and the fact that a mediocrity like Crash could beat the critically-beloved Brokeback Mountain indicated that if Hollywood embraced risibly melodramatic kumbaya racial pablum rather than sexy gay cowboys, then homophobia is a more deep-seated problem in this country than many of us realized.

Milos Forman once said, “The Academy Awards are a wonderful game. But if you take then seriously, you are in trouble.” He was spot on. It’s great fun to analyze and predict the Oscars, but one should never lose sight of the fact that we’re talking about the collective taste of (mostly) rich middlebrows, few of whom have little claim to artistic credentials. Though I was aware of it previously, the night that A Beautiful Mind was deemed the best thing released during the calendar year really hit home the fact that these people are not to be in any way taken seriously for their taste or judgment. Your opinions and mine are just as valid (correction more valid, and I doubt that my two favorite pictures from last year, Paranoid Park and Flight of the Red Balloon were in the top 50 of Oscar contenders.) And so one should analyze the Oscars as one does a pennant race. Look at the players, the possibilities, the potential surprises,the track records. But for God’s sake, don’t think the Oscars have any real meaning as a signifier of artistic excellence. ‚Ä®‚Ä®Despite all that, yes the Oscars still matter.

In short, the Oscars are important because they are an ingrained part of popular culture. And people do take them seriously,¬† And they’re fun. And they add millions to a film’s grosses. They’re just not important beyond that.

Douglas: Absolutely they matter… they matter to the filmmakers and actors and technical people who are being honored by their peers first and foremost. It is an honor even to get nominated especially considering how many movies are produced and released every year. They also act as a symbol of the times because what is going on in cinema reflects society as a whole and one can see the differences in Hollywood as a society from their selections over the years and how they’ve changed.

Feinberg: Of course the Oscars still matter, and they always will. Along with presidential debates, the Super Bowl, and perhaps “American Idol,” they are one of the last remaining “television events” that can still bring together a large segment of the nation and the world. Like most people, I don’t always agree with the entire list of Oscar nominees and winners — but I, for one, am glad that there’s still an awards show that at least strives to celebrate not only the most popular movies (People’s Choice Awards, etc.) or stars (Golden Globes, etc.), but truly the best.‚Ä®‚Ä®PS: I’m glad that President Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize, not least of all because it serves as a big middle-finger to the haters who only a week earlier said the world “rejected” him by denying Chicago the Olympics (and who seize every opportunity to denigrate him). He is the president of all Americans and all Americans should be proud that he received this great honor — which, mind you, he did not seek.

Hammond: Of course they do. It’s a brand name for excellence around the world. People who win them die with the line “Academy Award winning….” as the lead to their obit. You can’t kill the Oscars even if you try.It’s ingrained in our pop cultural DNA.

Howell: The Oscars still matter, just like an Olympic medal and a Pulitzer prize still matter. They are historical benchmarks that society uses to determine excellence, not matter how‚Ä®imperfect they may be. I’m starting to wonder about the Nobels, though, which seem to be handed out like Crackerjack prizes. The Oscars telecast may be another story. This year’s overhaul was a step in the right direction, as long as the Academy doesn’t stray too far from the “and the winner is…” basics.

Kennedy: I’m a reformed Oscar basher myself. Pick a snooty anti-Oscar pose and I’ve probably struck it at one time or another. I got over it though. Sure, Oscar’s idea of the best is rarely my own idea of the best, but it turns out Oscar doesn’t care what I or any other non-voter thinks. As long as people pay attention, Oscar matters. That’s really all there is to it. The purpose is to draw attention to Hollywood and while it might not work in the masses it once did (what does?), it’s still one of the biggest things going. It’s the one time of year when people who don’t obsess about movies for a living or a hobby are abuzz and in the know about them. Attention is focused on 5 movies – or 10 this year I guess…another reason I’m not a fan of the 10 noms: lack of focus). They may or may not be the best, but it’s a great time to say: “Hey, you liked A, B and C? You should check out X, Y or Z.” People are engaged and thinking and talking about movies. As a movie lover, what’s not to like about that?

Silverstein: I think the Oscars matter because it is a way for regular moviegoers to relate to the industry. As a culture we love awards and competitions (ie all the reality shows) and when a movie wins or is even nominated that matters to busy people who are trying to figure out what movie to spend their money and time on. Remember the average person sees very few movies a year. They want to see something worthwhile.

Tapley: They matter as a pop culture reference point, I think, not an artistic beacon.

Thompson: The Oscars matter. The Oscar itself is an icon that represents quality all over the world. And the Academy voters are 5800 professionals who sincerely vote for what they consider to be the best each year. Are they all rigorous, see every movie and vote with their hearts? Perhaps not. But most of them do.

Wloszczyna: They matter because despite the expanded best picture category, it is still incredibly hard to win one since only a handful are given out each year compared to the Grammys or Emmys. Plus, they are voted on by your peers, not an oddball group of foreign journalists like the Golden Globes. Yes, sometimes the voters get it wrong, but often they get it incredibly right. Plus probably better than other entertainment honors, their are a fairly reliable gauge of where our national mindset was at during that era. Until they expand every category, they still do matter.

3. The directors can only name five. Who has the best shot? Choose up to five. Jason Reitman
Spike Jonze

Kathryn Bigelow

Tom Ford

Joel and Ethan Coen
Lee Daniels

Michael Haneke
Steven Soderbergh

Neil Blomkamp

Quentin Tarantino

Jane Campion
Lone Scherfig

Bona: I hate to wimp out, but it’s still way too early to make credible predictions. October front-runners often fall by the wayside come January. One has to wait for critics awards to get a better gauge. But I do suspect that Kathryn Bigelow and Jason Reitman will still be in the mix come February.

Douglas: Jason Reitman, Joel and Ethan Coen, Lee Daniels, Quentin Tarantino, Lone Scherfig‚Ä® (I’d alternately replace Tarantino with Bigelow which would make it the first year with two female representatives helping the odds, though I think Reitman will win based on having seen all the movies)

Feinberg: Even though we haven’t yet seen “Invictus,” the clear favorite is Clint Eastwood — he is a living legend; he is immensely popular; he has consistently demonstrated an ability to make great films that appeal to Oscar voters; he is going to be eligible for a film about an important and moving subject that he made with other major talents who will sing his praises; he has a major studio that will be supporting his campaign; and this might be his last go-around. Yes, he didn’t go anywhere with “Changeling” and “Gran Torino” last year, but the last two times he teamed up with Morgan Freeman (“Unforgiven” and “Million Dollar Baby”) he won both best picture and best director, so I wouldn’t bet against him. It seems likely that the rest of the field will be filled out by Jason Reitman (“Up in the Air”), Rob Marshall (“Nine”), Lee Daniels (“Precious”), and Kathryn Bigelow (“The Hurt Locker”), but James Cameron (“Avatar”) and Peter Jackson (“The Lovely Bones”) — both past past winners coming back from long absences — are obviously big wild-cards.

Hammond: Kathryn Bigelow, Clint Eastwood, Rob Marshall, Jason Reitman, Quentin Tarantino or Lee Daniels

Howell: Jason Reitman, Kathryn Bigelow, Lone Scherfig, Jane Campion and Tom Ford.

Kennedy: Bigelow, Reitman, Coens, Scherfig, Jonze (I know I mentioned Campion above as a possible winner, but I’m hedging my bet here)

O’Neil: The five nominees for best director will be James Cameron (“Avatar”), Lee Daniels (“Precious”), Clint Eastwood (“Invictus”), Peter Jackson (“The Lovely Bones”) and Rob Marshall (“Nine”). “Avatar” and “Nine” are both grandly ambitious productions that will probably be appreciated by fellow directors for their scope. “Precious” is this year’s “Slumdog Millionaire,”‚Ä®so Daniels goes along for the ride. Jackson and Clint get automatic nominations just because, well, they’re Jackson and Clint.‚Ä®‚Ä®Sad to say, but it looks like women will be slapped down again this year by the ole boyz in the directors’ branch. Only thing that can change that is “Amelia” flying higher than current expectations.

Tapley: Jason Reitman, Kathryn Bigelow and Lee Daniels have the best shot of those listed here, I think.

Thompson: Kathryn Bigelow, Joel and Ethan Coen, Peter Jackson, Clint Eastwood, Jason Reitman

Wloszczyna: Of this group, Jason Reitman, Kathryn Bigelow, Lee Daniels and Lone Scherfig