The game is the game. Everyone plays it. It started early this year with two films that everyone expected to be successes that weren’t: Booksmart and Late Night. A similar fate has plagued a few films that popped up here and there at the festivals in the recent years that seemed to be getting a pass, or reviews that felt lenient. The boost being given these efforts is at least partly driven by the push for gender parity in Hollywood.
The industry, critics, and now even Oscar bloggers have rolled up their sleeves to try to make this happen, as fast as possible. Studios hired women to direct or co-direct movies like Captain Marvel which made a lot of money. Happily, it wasn’t just white women being given new opportunities. There are brilliant women of color, like Melina Matsoukas, whose Queen and Slim has been largely ignored by critics, despite being the best film directed by a woman this year. And The Farewell. Now comes Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, which hasn’t yet been seen by the public but has earned a spot on the AFI’s Top Ten, and both Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott have named it one of their ten best of 2019.
As soon as the Golden Globes nominations were revealed, the furor broke out about the absence of significant women behind the camera in the major categories, though two films — The Farewell and Portrait of a Lady on Fire were nominated in the Foreign Language category, alongside Parasite, Pain and Glory and Les Miserables – not bad company, by the way – the HFPA is given no credit for that because everyone knows the Oscars are a power game – and if you don’t have power, you can’t play the game.
The thing is, though, in this climate it’s hard to know whether all of the films in this debate are genuinely as good as they’re made out to be, or if critics, film twitter, and the industry at large is simply trying to cure the problem of gender disparity for the sake of appearance, by including women among the best of the year’s very best, deserved or not.
“Pick a woman, any woman” seems to be the message. Because if that happens they are shielded from attacks. The Gothams went ass over elbow for Marriage Story, a film not only written and directed by a man but a film that sympathizes with the male character during a divorce (debatable, perhaps, but that’s how many see it). Why weren’t they attacked? Because buried within their wins was Mustang, which won for Breakthrough Director for Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre. The Farewell was beaten by Marriage Story but they didn’t get pounced on because all that mattered was that there was some representation so those involved could sleep at night that yes, Virginia, there is gender parity in Hollywood.
I have no doubt that the clickbait cycle so prevalent today will seek to put Oscar voters on notice in the 11th hour, urging them to choose one of these movies for good optics, to shield them from the kind of heat the Globes got burned with today. But from what I’ve been reading, the reaction I’ve been seeing makes me think that the only way to solve this is to have a separate category for women directors, something I have resisted for many years. Why?
Because if I were a woman filmmaker I wouldn’t want anyone to do me any favors. I would want to make a movie SO GOOD that its value was undeniable. Like Kathryn Bigelow’s Hurt Locker, like Jane Campion’s The Piano, like Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, like Ava DuVernay’s Selma.
But that isn’t what awards voters are being asked to do. Voters should focus on choosing the best films or the best directors or the best scripts. But none of that matters to Film Twitter – which then is the feeder trough for clickbait all over the web — this story will make it to the New York Times guaranteed.
Instead, it can feel like voters are under pressure to pick women, no matter if their movie might be just outside the top 5 or top 10. Many prominent voices refuse to accept the possibility that the 5 best movies of the year might be directed by men. Thus, they require a woman to be named, just to quiet the noise. ANY WOMAN. Doesn’t matter which woman.
That’s the game we’re being corralled into playing, and it sometimes seems that many critics groups are simply too afraid to be on the ropes, with all of twitter slamming them for their all-male choices.
Well, I’m here to propose that if any of the five Best Director Golden Globe nominees hadn’t been nominated today, the next in line would be:
Taika Waititi, Jojo Rabbit
James Mangold, Ford v Ferrari
Rian Johnson, Knives Out
Fernando Merielles, The Two Popes
Noah Baumbach, Marriage Story
And that’s all before we even get to:
Pedro Almodovar, Pain and Glory
Clint Eastwood, Richard Jewell
Josh and Benny Safdie, Uncut Gems
Even if you see these films as not cool enough, watch them. Sit down and watch them. These are masterful films in the hands of people who really know what their doing all the way through (I would quibble with Marriage Story myself but I know Film Twitter would never do such a thing).
Would I love if When They See Us had been nominated as one of the year’s outstanding television milestones? Of course. Did Ava DuVernay make one of the best films of the year? You bet. Other than that bizarre blind spot by Globes voters, the rest of the complaints I’ve heard all day make me wonder what the game is, how long we’re going to be playing it and what we hope the outcome will be.
It seems like in our overriding desire to level the playing field we’ve decided that there is no absolute measure of what’s good and what isn’t, and that’s been replaced by a sliding scale that adjusts to factor in equality, parity, and inclusion. I’m not sure I believe that’s what film awards should be about. I think once they take that attitude they mostly become meaningless.
The solution isn’t to pity-vote women in. The solution is to not give up on women. Men get many at bats after their movies are made, whether they succeed or not. Women tend to disappear. Look at what a hard time Jane Campion has had even making major movies now. And Kathryn Bigelow has been overly criticized for every movie she’s made since The Hurt Locker BY THESE SAME CRITICS who are bloviating today. Sofia Coppola was also taken down by the outrage machine for the last film she made and the ones that came after Lost in Translation didn’t really seem to land either.
Make more movies, fail harder, try and try again – just like those who DID make it into the race. Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino have been making movies a long time. You want to argue about Bong Joon-Ho’s masterpiece, Parasite? And Sam Mendes made a movie about WWI in one continuous take that is near perfect. Any women come close to any of that anywhere? Show me. And finally, the wagons are circling Todd Phillips because even though Joker won the Golden Lion in Venice, it wasn’t Film Twitter approved and thus, they tried and failed to kill it dead. So THAT is the one they feel is expendable. Did any film directed by a woman this year shake up culture like Joker did? I found the incredibly disturbing but thought provoking and guess what? It was DARING. Give women the chance to be that daring. Give them the chance to make bad movies and good movies and great movies.
You might say, well how can they do that if we don’t give them awards? I would say if you hand out awards to people who don’t necessarily deserve them that hurts their reputation in the long run, and thus, the reputation of all women. This should be a year that was celebrated by everyone. Hustlers became a $100 million hit. Booksmart and Late Night are revelations. I wish they’d made more money considering what they were trying to do. Little Women is a solid follow-up for Greta Gerwig who I hope continues to make more movies, to fail harder and grow as an artist. The Farewell is successful and funny and tells a great story about family. It’s good. But it doesn’t need a pity-vote. No woman director this year does.
The Globes nominated Ava DuVernay for Selma when the Academy didn’t, and Kathryn Bigelow for Zero Dark Thirty when the Academy didn’t. Globes voters go their own way, like it not. I don’t think it’s fair to expect they would mirror what the critics have done this year, which is to bend their choices towards a Utopian dream we wish we had instead of the continuing struggle that we do have.
I’d say if we’re going to go into full-blown advocacy mode we should create separate categories for women, maybe even separate awards shows, to ensure they all get recognized. After all, that is what people seem to be suggesting here. Make it like sports where men and women are separated. I don’t want that. But the message that should be taken away from yesterday is that pity-votes are bullshit and women should continue to keep making movies, asked back to the table, even if their films aren’t the top five of the year.
You want to do women a favor? You want them to grow and excel in film as directors? Then respect them with an honest critique of their movies. That way they will know when they win an award it will truly be because they deserve it and not because those who handed them an award did it to feel better about themselves and their industry.