There are so many articles lately about how difficult it is for women to get ahead in Hollywood. The subject invariably turns to directing. Why can’t women get ahead? Why can’t they get jobs? Why, in 86 years of Oscar history, have there only been three women nominated for director whose film were also nominated for Best Picture? There have been a total of eleven films directed by women to be nominated for Best Picture (even if their directors were not nominated, which is most often the case). Compare that to 500 or so directed by men. You think there’s a problem with Oscar? There might be a problem with Oscar but there is a bigger problem with the film industry, and with our film culture — how we have come to define what is a good movie, what is a great movie and what is a masterpiece.
In building this infographic about women directors in Hollywood I plowed through an enormous amount of information about women in film. I wanted to know how many women directed films every year, what happened to the famous directors I grew up hearing about, whether it really was just the Academy that shut women out or whether there was a deeper truth in there, maybe even a truth we women really didn’t want to face. But in my research I discovered that it wasn’t just that women only made “relationship movies” and it wasn’t only that the industry rejected them at every turn. In fact, what I found, was a willing community that will support women when the right women, or rather the right films, come along. The critics threw their support behind the big three: Jane Campion for The Piano, Sofia Coppola for Lost in Translation and Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker.
It turned out that what made the difference with those three women WAS the critics’ response to their work. It really did come down to that. Since the awards race is built on perception, perception starts with critics. What I found was that when the critics are dominated by the male aesthetic, so too will the awards race be dominated by that aesthetic. If the critics were more willing to redefine what exactly constituted a great film in their minds that would change the dynamic for awards voters and eventually level the playing field.
Ah, so here is where it gets sticky. One can no longer ask whether women are recognized for their work in the film business. One has to ask a harder question: what is the male aesthetic and why does it dominate film criticism? Take a movie like Jane Campion’s Bright Star. If you look on Metacritic you’ll see the best reviews the film got were from women: Carrie Rickey, Lisa Schwarzbaum, Stephanie Zacharek, with Kenneth Turan and AO Scott also in the mix. Some women also gave the film a bad score as well, along with men, sealing the inevitable fate of each film: shut out of the critics awards, thus, shut out of the Oscar race. But if more women were in film criticism, might not Bright Star have gotten more support?
That’s how it works, you see. Even if ten years from now Bright Star is discovered to be the greatest film of its time it won’t impact that year it would have been up for awards. Awards drive the power in Hollywood. They drive perception in Hollywood and it is a club reserved, almost exclusively, for men.
What none of us wants to talk about is why the critics generally do not like the female aesthetic. Many point to The Hurt Locker as a film that a man might have directed. Bigelow’s highest aspiration would have then had to be: I want to make a movie so good people will think a man directed it. That’s how little room we have for appreciating what the female aesthetic might be — and I can tell you, this runs through Bigelow’s entire film career. Not just The Hurt Locker, but almost every film she’s ever made, even the ones the critics panned, like Blue Steel, Strange Days and Point Break. Yes, she made a war movie. Yes, she had a male cast, but her visual storytelling was entirely from a female point of view. Having a background as a painter made her pay more attention to how things look, which is generally how you tell the difference between men and women. The finest male directors are renowned for caring more about how the shots look. Women directors, by and large, unless they have a background in painting or photography, have tended not to focus as much on visuals. Women are complex thinkers — we see the underlying layers of an issue while men can tend to address the top layer of an issue — this is one of the key differences between us.
Does that mean all men see things that way? Hell no. There are plenty of directors who rely completely on their (male) cinematographers to make them seem more visual than they really are. Get a good cinematographer and your work is half done. Yet somehow, this is how the male/female distinction has been divided up. Try it for yourself. Think about the female directors you know. How many of them are known for their visual style? Now think about the great male directors you know. How many of them are known for their visual style? You see what I mean?
This leads me back to the critics and this idea of why is it they mostly hate films directed by women. Actually, hate is too strong a word. They are “disappointed” by the work women do, and most of the time, the majority of the time, do not regard it as high art. For instance, why was Lost in Translation the only Sofia Coppola film the critics, and the industry, liked? Why was Jane Campion’s The Piano the only one? Awards voters followed the critics on both counts so we have to keep our attention, for now, focused on the critics. What was it about Lost in Translation that was so much better than Marie Antoinette, Somewhere, and The Bling Ring? Why did The Piano capture their fancy but not An Angel at my Table or the wonderful Holy Smoke, or Portait of a Lady or Bright Star?
Could it be that Lost in Translation and The Piano were both male fantasy films? Having a doe-eyed Scarlett Johansson hanging on every word Bill Murray said — or Harvey Keitel finally fucking Holly Hunter so well it brought her back to life? So where does The Hurt Locker fit in? Ask any critic and they will tell you that those were just the better movies. They might also slip in the comment, as most did when the Sight & Sound poll was revealed, after 70 years of poll taking, not a single film directed by a woman: women didn’t make movies in the early days of Hollywood, which is when most of those movies were made.
Well, okay. But what about the entire history of film critics awards mostly ignoring women? In fact, the New York Film Critics and the National Society of Film Critics have only recognized female directors a few times in their history. The NYFCC gave Best Director to a woman four times since 1935. Twice to Kathryn Bigelow, once to Sofia Coppola and once to Jane Campion. The National Society of Film Critics gave Best Director to a woman one time since 1966 — to Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker.
It isn’t that women haven’t been making films. They have been. They have been struggling to get films made for decades. Many of them have been given the scraps from Hollywood just to keep working — the really shitty sequels or comedies no A-lister male would touch. The benefit women don’t get is to be made into myths. I always wonder what would have happened if a woman directed In the Bedroom, for instance, or Beasts of the Southern Wild. Or if a man had directed American Psycho, Boys Don’t Cry, Gas, Food and Lodging, We Need to Talk About Kevin, etc. I think we know the answer. We can pretend it isn’t so but I think we all know it is so: men are made into myths, held up as the greatest new thing while women, well, aren’t. Except for a few times here and there.
And those who do rise in the ranks for their sheer and utter balls are sooner or later cut down, either by men OR sometimes by women. Diablo Cody is a great example of someone who just got too big for her britches. How dare she really try to go that far out as she did with the underrated (I’m sorry, but it is) Jennifer’s Body. But look at the career of Lizzie Borden, or now, Lynne Ramsay — being “out there” for a woman is often “crazy bitch” territory. Being “out there” for a man is wild genius.
Women, it seems, are more appreciated when they say very little about sexism in Hollywood — both Sofia Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow are very smartly tight-lipped. Men like that better than the alleged harpies who supposedly complain all the time. Well, at least Jane Campion has never stopped bitching about the sexism in the film industry.
But here’s the good news. The world of film criticism is changing by the second. While I constantly bemoan the old guard of film critics being ousted — a lot of the new guard are aware of the state of things for women. What women haven’t had all of these years is advocacy. Since I’ve been online and aimed my own coverage more at advocacy, I’ve noticed subtle changes here and there. Many of the very loud voice out there keep the subject on women filmmakers — Badass Digest’s Devin Faraci for instance, or Hollywood-Elsewhere’s Jeff Wells. Wells specifically champions the work of female filmmakers on his site. Wells is a controversial person to name here so he is so often labelled a sexist by the often hateful posts about women on his site – worse, is the den of misogyny in his comments section) but I also must acknowledge that he is one of the few who goes out of his way to support women filmmakers. He has also been generous to me for years, which is more than I can say for others in our industry. Mark Harris has been a champion for women and so has Anthony Breznican at EW. David Poland at Movie City News does this as well. And many female movie writers have their eye on this topic as well, like Thelma Adams, Carrie Rickey, Anne Thompson, Susan Wloszczyna, Katey Rich, and most especially Melissa Silverstein at Women and Hollywood, who is tirelessly waging a war against the clear oppression we see around us every day.
My point in making these infographics was to show how much film criticism is involved in how the work by women is perceived. We have two choices to make: hope that ambitious female filmmakers adopt the male aesthetic better, or perhaps start broadening our definition of cinematic art to include the female aesthetic. I’m hopeful for the future with the voices I hear online. More women are turning to directing and I hope more women will turn to writing about film, championing those women and opening a dimension of what Jane Campion called the “feminine vision.”
Your infographic…you can download the whole big thing here. Or else click each image below.