After a tightly embargoed screening of Steven Spielberg’s The Post last night, Gold Derby’s Tom O’Neil said that he could not remember a year where there were so many female-driven films in the Best Picture race. While we still are looking at Dunkirk, Darkest Hour, Get Out, Call Me By Your Name being major players in the race, there is no doubt that we’re looking at films like The Post, Lady Bird, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, I, Tonya, and The Florida Project as equally dominating in the conversation for Best Picture. Can any of them win? It’s hard to say right now, but it is an unprecedented thing to happen, especially after the same year the first woman to run for president at the top of a major party’s ticket (and then was systematically taken down by the left and the right). It is a historical year for women nonetheless, for better and for worse.
The latest Wrinkle in Time trailer made me stop for a minute to appreciate Ava DuVernay and marvel at how far she’s come in the years I’ve been watching her career. Patty Jenkins directed Wonder Woman, a film that surpassed expectations and became one of the best films of the year and one of the highest grossing. Look how many women directed films this year heading into the Oscar race: Kathryn Bigelow‘s searing portrait of racial injustice and murder at the Algiers Motel in Detroit, Sofia Coppola‘s suffocated, beautiful The Beguiled about wayward women in the south, Valerie Faris (co-directing with Jonathan Dayton) bringing the badass life of Billie Jean King to the big screen in Battle of the Sexes, Angelina Jolie making one of the best films about Cambodia’s past with First They Killed My Father, Dee Rees’ magnificent Mudbound, a Faulkner-esque portrait of the Jim Crow South in Mississippi, and Greta Gerwig‘s pitch perfect coming-of-age comedy, Lady Bird, about a frustrated middle class kid trying to find some meaning in life.
And that’s just behind the camera. With Frances McDormand headlining Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Sally Hawkins the criminal mastermind in the glorious love story The Shape of Water, Margot Robbie’s vulnerable, ferocious turn as Tonya Harding, little Brooklynn Prince finding her own fairy tale amidst the poverty that lies behind the fantasy of the American dream in The Florida Project, and Jessica Chastain delivering yet another knockout performance in Molly’s Game. Then there’s Jennifer Lawrence portraying an unforgettable personification of Mother Earth in mother!, Judi Dench, who is always great and still great in Victoria and Abdul, and Hong Chau as the heart and soul and the future of humanity in Downsizing. It is unprecedented indeed. But prepare yourselves, it still might not end that way when all is said and done. The Oscar race has a way of paring it back down to the essentials that guide this race.
There have been years where there were films with female leads in the Best Picture race, like 2010 with Black Swan, The Kids Are All Right, True Grit, and Winter’s Bone. The year before that, there was The Blind Side, An Education, and Precious.
In 2009 and 2010 the Academy had ten nomination slots for Best Picture. Beginning in 2011 and up to now, they only have five. That shrunk down the possibilities across the board: no animated film has gotten a Best Picture nomination since, and very few films that are about women or by women have squeaked through. Given only five nomination slots for Best Picture, the voters show their passionate favorites and those, generally speaking, reflect back to them the selves they want to see. Usually those are movies about good people (generally men) doing good things, or love stories like Silver Linings Playbook and La La Land. Rare has it been that solely female-driven films have driven the Best Picture race, not since 2004 when Million Dollar Baby won Best Picture and Best Actress.
In fact, you’d probably be shocked to learn (if you don’t read this site very often) that no film has won Best Picture since 2004 that even had a lead actress NOMINATED in it, let alone one that won. We thought last year’s La La Land might finally end that streak but it did not. If Mad Max: Fury Road’s George Miller had won Best Director (which he should have done), you would have seen another in the recent streak of visionary directors making films with women at the center or in strong roles winning – Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity and Damien Chazelle’s La La Land being two of them.
Last night’s screening of The Post had a q&a afterwards with co-writer Liz Hannah and one of the main producers Amy Pascal. Hannah will be among the many women up for Oscar consideration in the writing categories, along with Greta Gerwig, Dee Rees, and Angelina Jolie. That is already a lot more than we usually see in the category.
I can’t wait to write about The Post. But I can’t yet. I can just say that the filmmakers talked quite a bit about how timely the film was in terms of what we’re living through with Donald Trump in the post 2016 era. The Pentagon Papers were not only a turning point for Americans with regard to the Vietnam War, but also a turning point for Richard Nixon, whose paranoia grew to the point where he began taping everyone, started banning reporters, and used other authoritative anti-democratic tactics that would eventually lead to his downfall with Watergate. But it all really started here with Daniel Ellsberg. The war was never Nixon’s burden to carry alone b ut he certainly can be held to account for the massive escalations that killed hundreds of thousands. He also sabotaged peace talks with LBJ, who could have made a deal to end the war before Nixon was elected. That’s why he’ll always “own” Vietnam, even though it started way before with previous administrations.
Still, even the Pentagon Papers did not end Nixon’s presidency. The war protests were seen as chaos in the streets, and Nixon was easily re-elected in a landslide in 1972. The point of the film The Post is to highlight this era but also to show the range of the feminist movement and how it impacted the Post’s publisher at the time, Katherine Graham. The film tells both of these stories at once although I can’t tell you much more than that.
Having a great year for women, just like having a great year for black film or LGBT film usually means just that: it comes and then it goes. This year feels wildly diverse and wide open. We might even see a woman finally get a Best Directing nomination. There has not been one since 2009 when Kathryn Bigelow won Best Director, eight years ago.