Kathryn Bigelow accepts the Academy Award for Best Director from presenter Barbra Streisand during the 82nd Annual Academy Awards at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood, CA, on Sunday, March 7, 2010.
I didn’t think I’d ever be in the position of defending the Academy, but I find myself in that exact position after the internet, in typical fashion, lost its mind over the absence of any women in the Best Director race — specifically, one director. It’s presumed by many who write the headlines at major outlets that Greta Gerwig was somehow “snubbed” for Best Director. With this piece, I hope to explain why that was the wrong way to look at how the Oscar nominations came down.
Anyone not familiar with how the Oscar race actually works might feel shock, dismay, and despair over how Greta Gerwig could have been left off the list, but trust me, the Directors Branch is not the conspiratorial cabal it’s being made out to be. Really, though, this story has become like a game of telephone. You could call it “fake news” if you want. The falsehoods piled up until it exploded into collective outrage, as the mainstream press and the feedback loop of social media churn “It has to be sexism! There is no other explanation! When will women receive their due?!”
If you find yourself here because of the clickbait headline, when you read on you will understand why these headlines are misleading, though well-intentioned. Along the way, you might learn a thing or two about the Oscar race.
But first, some brief background about me, in case you didn’t know. I’m a woman who launched a website in 1999 with little more than a modem and a one-year-old baby daughter in tow. A lot of women did this back then; I was not, in those terms, unique. I was, however, unique in the business and industry I helped launch: Oscarwatching. That was the game of watching, covering, and seeking to analyze the Oscar race from the start of the year on through to the end. When I started, nobody else but Tom O’Neil at Gold Derby was doing it. Now, it seems everyone is doing it — all the major outlets, even the New York Times. I’ve been here 20 years, and (as my longtime readers know) in that time much of my coverage has been devoted to passionately advocating for women and artists of color for inclusion in the Oscar conversation. This has been a long battle, and the Academy has responded in unprecedented ways. They listen. They care. They really do.
Maybe you’ve seen me railing against this year’s “hot story” on Twitter, and maybe you’ve concluded I’m a bad person because of it. Maybe you think I am on the side of the sexists who want to keep women down. If that’s your impression, then let me point to the following pieces I’ve written about women and directing over the years.
I’ve been writing about women and the Oscars for a long time. But never in all of that time did I ever once make the argument that any woman should be recognized because she was a woman. Instead, I have always argued on merit. It is insulting to do anything else. Awards should be given to those who deserve it. We can’t talk about equality and then decide to give women bonus points. The moment we do that, the instant we say because we are women we should demand special consideration based on gender, then we concede that we aren’t equal after all.
Of course, systemic gender bias in the film industry exists, without a doubt. I’ve also written extensively about this issue. This problem has been identified again and again. There has been a surge in advocacy for women behind the camera, for more inclusion across the board. The industry has responded. The Academy has responded. Film critics have responded. It took a village to get us to where we are today. Never have I seen a year where so many women — so many women of color — have written and directed films. Comedies, dramas, blockbusters, animated films. Some have made $100 million, as Hustlers did (and Little Women will likely do in a couple of weeks). Some haven’t. Many of them are brilliant. The story of Harriet Tubman was told by Kasi Lemmons. Lena Waithe collaborated with Melina Matsoukas to make the breathtaking Queen & Slim, which features the single best-written female character of the year. There’s the internationally acclaimed Portrait of a Lady on Fire by Céline Sciamma. There was Mati Diop’s Atlantics. There was Lulu Wang’s The Farewell. There was Booksmart from Olivia Wilde. There was Alma Har’el’s Honey Boy. There was Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, after she made Can You Ever Forgive Me, one of the very best movies of 2018. And so forth.
But there was also one director who can be fairly described as a critics darling. Already popular as an actress and writer, Greta Gerwig was nominated for Best Director two years ago for writing and directing her solo debut Lady Bird. In some sense, she has come to epitomize the one great hope for women directors that have finally shattered that glass ceiling. At last: a female director men like!
But for all the praise, Gerwig simply isn’t in the same place this year that she was with Lady Bird, which had all the prerequisite bona fides heading into Oscar race. Her first film had Golden Globe wins in Best Picture (Comedy) and Best Actress (Comedy) and nominations for Best Screenplay and Supporting Actress, a Directors Guild nomination, and Screen Actors Guild nominations for ensemble cast, Best Actress, and Supporting Actress.
It was reasonable to expect that Lady Bird would get into the Best Picture/Best Director race, and it did. But Little Women? It ticked none of the boxes Lady Bird did. No Globe nominations for Picture or Director, no SAG nominations at all, and no DGA nomination. Why? It could well be because this has been an exceptional year for films in the Best Picture race, and though many people sincerely love Little Women and it’s making good money, for many others it’s not in the top five, maybe not even in the top ten. But don’t count on the mainstream press to tell you that.
It should be said here that the Academy’s directors branch has always been a boys club. For decades its members were the men nominated for Oscars and the men who won them. Men get nominated over and over again, but women don’t. After all, how many women in the past were ever trusted to helm prestige films? Nearly none. The process for finding Best Director nominees is the same as it is in each of the branches: it is dependent on reaching a consensus, and the consensus views of an insular, largely male group will always make very difficult for any woman to break through. Even Kathryn Bigelow was shut out for Zero Dark Thirty, as was Ava DuVernay for Selma, even when their films were nominated for Best Picture. That was also true for Randa Haines for Children of a Lesser God, Barbara Streisand for The Prince of Tides, Penny Marshall for Awakenings, Lisa Cholodenko for The Kids Are All right, Debra Granik for Winter’s Bone, and Lone Scherfig for An Education.
A bit of history for women — here are the only five women ever nominated for Best Director at the Oscars:
1976 — Lina Wertmüller, Seven Beauties
1993 — Jane Campion, The Piano
2003 — Sofia Coppola, Lost in Translation
2009 — Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker (WON OSCAR)
2017 — Greta Gerwig, Lady Bird
And that’s it. That’s the whole list. Notice how the first two had to bypass Hollywood altogether. You might think (as anyone would) that the list is shameful. We could name dozens of films over the years directed by women that are better than Oscars nominees in the same years. Please do so in the comments. Ordinarily, I’d be right with you. But this year, I am not. It has always been nearly impossible to break into the Best Director race, but in a year like 2019, the bar is incredibly high. I’m here to tell you Little Women never even came close — nowhere near as close as some of these other women have. The misconception that Gerwig was passed over in favor of lesser male counterparts is patently untrue, and I hate to use the term, it’s “fake news.”
Here is how the Oscar race actually works:
Every year, many of us have the privilege of gathering at festivals to watch movies: bloggers, critics, publicists, studio heads, awards strategists, and other influential industry folk. It begins at Sundance (which happens right in the middle of the Oscar pageant for the previous year’s films), then moves to the Cannes Film Festival in May. By Labor Day, the two biggest end-of-summer film festivals are underway: Venice and Telluride. Then we move onto to Toronto in September. Then it’s the New York Film Festival, then the AFI jury convenes, and finally voting begins. First the critics announce their awards, then the Golden Globes bring on the glitz, while the industry hunkers down in earnest to do their due diligence in the guilds. Then the Oscar ballots go out.
Out of this first phase of the process, the films directed by women that popped for critics were Lulu Wang’s The Farewell and Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire. (Many savvy movie enthusiasts felt certain that France would put Lady on Fire in the mix, but instead the French committee went with the more muscular and visceral Les Misérables.)
The films that emerged in early Oscar conversations were:
The Farewell — Sundance Portrait of a Lady on Fire — Cannes Once Upon a Time in Hollywood — Cannes Parasite — Cannes (won PALME d’Or
) Joker — Venice (won Golden Lion) Marriage Story — Venice/Telluride Ford v Ferrari — Telluride Knives Out — Toronto A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood — Toronto
Jojo Rabbit — Toronto (won People’s Choice Award) The Irishman — New York Film Festival
Harriet — Toronto
Several significant late-breakers that hit the race bypassed the festivals and therefore had to play catch-up by year’s end:
Little Women 1917 Bombshell Just Mercy Queen & Slim
In between, were films released the old fashioned way — to theaters and audiences. Here are some of those by women:
Booksmart Late Night Blinded by the Light Hustlers
Here are a few hard truths to remember before we get into how to build an Oscar contender:
— This year, the schedule was pushed way up so that the Oscars, normally held at the end of February, instead will be held February 9. That has made for a brutally abbreviated season that has been so rushed that most Oscar voters did not have time to watch all of the films. We see evidence for this assumption in the fact that so many of the same films ended up in so many categories. It’s not uncommon for one or two movies to rack up 10 or 11 nominations, but it is rare that four can score such high tallies.
— The industry precursors mostly decide the Oscar race. If your film doesn’t make an appearance there, then it’s likely you’ve missed the boat and you’re not getting in, save for one or two annual exceptions.
— In a normal year, few films are as great as those we’ve been blessed with this year. Ordinarily, there is more wiggle room. But this year, all the top movies are really strong.
— An anonymous consensus vote is unaffected by whatever “utopian diorama” Film Twitter decides to cook up. Since a powerful faction of Film Twitter are critics, we do see their dreams come true within their own awards groups. Critics have the platform and audience that allows them to tinker with insulated outcomes, to discuss and champion their pet favorites (and seek to destroy their imagined evil enemies). They have the luxury to pick and choose precisely what “represents” their tastes best. And since they’re in close communication, agendas can be devised. But when we get to the guild phase of the race — a large consensus of hundreds if not thousands of voters — micromanaging outcomes is not really possible. Voters simply pick what they like, just as they do in an election, and then basic mathematics takes over.
— Over the past four or five years, the Academy has actively sought to invite thousands of new members to try to even rectify the demographic imbalance a little bit. Fully 25% of Oscar voters are people who didn’t get a ballot five years ago. This push has shifted the landscape, but not by much. Why? Partly because a member still has be invited to join the club, and the club is naturally selective. Moreover, the rather crude assumption that people of color will automatically vote for films by and about people of color (as opposed to films they thought were the best) is misguided. I once belonged to an all-women film critics group and in 2012 they picked Argo over Zero Dark Thirty — because, lo and behold, before we are women we are human beings. Imagine that.
— The way the Oscar race works is that only a few films are seen by most voters and many of those have already been pre-selected as the best of the year. By the time the stacks of 50 or 60 screeners have all arrived at the gates of Oscar voter estates, the task of accessing the vast scope of global cinema has already been subverted and homogenizes any notion of individual tastes. Many of the films I championed this year were completely ignored by the Academy and the guilds, including Dolemite Is My Name and the stunning Queen & Slim. Remember, some of the most perceptive voters are those with the most active careers, so they too must rely on riding the wave of what a consensus decides. Bottom line: if a film hasn’t hit any of the major guilds or prominent voting bodies by the time the Oscar nominations are announced, there is no reason to assume it will get in.
Do miracles sometimes happen? Yes. Films like Beasts of the Southern Wild and Amour can make an impact in Cannes with the right people, then seem to falter by not hitting any of the major groups, but ultimately be resurrected in the Best Picture/Best Director race. It happens, but it’s rare.
What can hurt a contender most is when it’s expected to show up somewhere and it doesn’t. Little Women did not show up at the Golden Globes for Best Picture or Best Director or even Best Screenplay (this from the same group that gave Lady Bird four nominations and two top victories). That falter for Little Women set in motion the first falsehood of the Little Women narrative: that the Globes voters shut out women because they were sexists. If that were true, then how to explain the disparity between their fondness for Lady Bird and their sudden “hatred” of Gerwig? Were all the Lady Bird fans in the HFPA assassinated by drone strikes?
It doesn’t take much research to find out that the HFPA are about 50% female voters. Always has been. When the New York Times posted its op-ed on the second falsehood in the Little Women narrative, that men were refusing to see the film, I even wrote to their editors to clarify this fact about the HFPA. The New York Times did not bother correcting that story. They were happy with the clickbait headline, which was making the rounds and causing op-eds to sprout up at other outlets like The Washington Post.
And the New York Times had gone all in for Greta Gerwig and Little Women in a way they really didn’t for any other female director:
But it simply isn’t true. It was another game of telephone. Again, please believe me. I know that men were seeing Little Women because all the men who saw it and loved have taken turns slapping me because I don’t. Critics especially were advocating for it — male critics. Trust me, they came at me like a team of white knights on their trusty steeds on Twitter defending the honor of Lady Gerwig. It was depressing to see that Trump has discredited the term “fake news” by using it to describe anything printed by mainstream press. I have always resisted that blanket absurdity. But this story that men were “afraid” to buy tickers to Little Women? That is fake news.
The third and final lie about Little Women happened after the Oscar nominations were announced, and it’s the one that has prompted me to write what I’m writing today. Here are some things to know:
— Many critics did everyone a disservice by not being completely honest about Little Women. By and large, they went overboard for it, giving it a 95% score on Rotten Tomatoes with only a few brave voices of dissent endeavoring to describe what the film is and what it isn’t. Yes, it’s beautiful, lush, alive, and funny in places. But for many it is also a structural disaster. Unless a viewer is familiar with the story, the rearranged timeline often causes confusion, and many will have trouble keeping their bearings. Even for those of us who accepted the task of putting the puzzle together, we had to wonder what purpose it served. You heard no qualms about this from major film critics because they were swept up in the idea that Gerwig was back and no one wanted to dampen that enthusiasm. When critics addressed it at all, they would explain away the approach with a variety of rationales that fail to convince a lot of us (that said, congratulations to all the fans of Little Women who had fun solving the Rubik’s Cube. Now solve the mystery of why you’re so furious at anyone who wishes the plotline had been more straightforward.)
— Those who love the film aren’t bothered by the ornate structural affectation. They love it anyway. Obviously, at least 350 Oscar voters loved it too. But the very real issue is clearly not something that a large number of voters were willing to overlook when they weighed a convoluted film on the one hand against 10 or 12 other other films that flowed seamlessly across the screen with such propulsive narrative thrust. In fact, it’s hard not to suspect that the reason a lot of voters named Little Women on their ballots was because they felt it was their duty, because Gerwig is a woman. Would a Best Director nomination bestowed on those terms even be fair to Gerwig? Nope. (I didn’t invent the hashtag #VoteforWomen. I prefer to reserve that sort of blinkered loyalty to #VoteBlueNoMatterWho)
— All of the other films whose creators made it into the Best Director race have won other major awards:
1917 — the Golden Globe for Best Picture (Drama)
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood — the Golden Globe for Best Picture (Musical/Comedy)
The Irishman — The National Board of Review and the New York Film Critics
Joker — the Venice Golden Lion
Parasite — the Palme d’Or, the Golden Globe for Foreign Language Film, the Los Angeles Film Critics, and the National Society of Film Critics.
Little Women didn’t win a single major award until the story about sexism began churning. At that point, the Boston Film Critics finally spit out a Best Picture prize for the movie and the National Society rallied to give Gerwig a Best Director spot.
By now, you might be wondering: Of all the movies directed by women year, why is Little Women the one to be anointed by a fanbase that we will graciously describe as “avid.” Why this director? Has Gerwig truly accomplished such a superlative “directorial achievement” that she totally eclipses Sciama and Matsoukas? Why, of all of the films in the race did the critics rally around this one?
I think there are two factors. The first is Gerwig herself is charismatic and lovable, and well-known since she infused Lady Bird with details of her own youth, as she has done in other movies she’s starred in like Frances Ha. Her persona was well-established and that easily transferred to her image as a female writer-director, of which there are far too few. The second is that after so many talented women got neglected by the Oscars last year, it became clear that the critics had divided their acclaim and, thus, none of the women could build a consensus. Perhaps this year, critics figured if they put all of their chips behind Gerwig, she had a shot. But again, the movie is the movie and that will only take you so far.
When the nominations came down, after all of the hype built up expectations, after so many Oscar pundits believed that hype would translate to nominations — in the aftershock of seeing that Gerwig didn’t make it in (even though there was no precedent for her to be nominated this year), the only explanation, the low hanging fruit had to be sexism.
The chauvinism story has spread like wildfire and it will continue throughout the rest of the season. Outlets need “a hot take” to come out of the Oscar nominations. It could never simply be that five or ten men made five or ten dazzling, brilliant works of cinema. Where’s the outrage trigger in that?
What we see being created here with this artificial sexism narrative is proof that the crude toxic contagion of Trump has forced a lot of people to embrace an equally crude antidote: too many people prefer to see the world as what they want it to be, rather than what it is. Author Stephen King said on Twitter that — SHOCKER — he votes for what he admires based on merit. And he was attacked for that. My god, can you imagine if anyone said “No, I only voted for you because you were black or a woman.” I can’t conceive of anything more horrifying or insulting. Even worse is that women and people of color can’t ever establish a legit reputation if this is the low-bar criteria that gives them entrée.
I expected more, frankly, from the New York Times, the Washington Post, TIME — I expected them, at the very least, to investigate the story rather than leapfrog off of the outrage machine that all too often lately is driving actual news. But worse, now the nominees themselves are shamed and discredited because they got in and Gerwig didn’t.
This is what happens when critics deliver an “Emperor’s New Clothes” reaction to a movie anyone with eyes can plainly see has problems. Doesn’t mean the dissenters thought it was a bad movie, but such a mixed reaction is usually enough to put a movie in the lower tier, on par with films like Hustlers, Knives Out, Bombshell — these are films that have great things about them but for one reason or another, that isn’t enough. In order for a director to be Oscar nominated, ideally they have to be as good as or better than the other five nominees. You can read about the very real issues in dozens of Rotten Tomatoes user reviews, which make no bones about it:
— “Liked the adaptation in general, the great acting ensemble, disliked the constant and sometimes diificult to follow flasjbacks and flash fprwards.”
— “Very confusing to watch, was not in sequential order of the story”
— “Movie was difficult to follow it jumped from present to past to much”
— “Too confusing. Had a hard time following the timeline.”
— “The movie jumped around a lot in time periods, making it a bit confusing to follow. Well acted however”
— “Jumped times too much.”
— “The constant back and forth time flashes were too confusing.”
— “Did not like this screen play. It went back and forth between the present and past to the extent that it caused not a little confusion. Do we really have to try and figure out in what tense things are happening?”
— “I’m automatically attached to the 1994 version of Little Women because of Winona Ryder but in general…fantastic version of the movie. The new 2019 one that’s in theaters…well let me tell you. We have the character Amy being played by a TWENTY FOUR YEAR OLD ACTRESS….where in the book and 1994 version she is supposed to be TWELVE YEARS OLD. HOW DOES SOMEONE LOOK PAST THAT. I literally was sitting there laughing at this 24 year old women on the big screen, talk and act like a 12 year old little girl,”
— “There should be a law against ruining the classics. My husband went with me and didn’t know the story. He still doesn’t. This movie jumped all of the place, completely neglected to develop the characters, and was confusing (very hard to follow what time period we were in). So many of the scenes consisted of Marmee and the girls talking over one another in an effort to convince us that they were a close knit family, but this just left me with a splitting headache.”
— “Very disappointing. I loved book, read it many times. I found the first half of the movie very slow and boring. Then the constant flashbacks made things very confusing. How could a Great story be so ruined.”
— “Jumped around in time too much. Way too long. Loved previous versions and the book, this one did not do story justice. Almost left the theater 1/2 way through. Acting was over the top.”
Yes, many of the user reviews for Little Women are effusive with praise and it did end up with a 92% overall audience score at Rotten Tomatoes and an A- Cinemascore. I’m not trying to say that many people didn’t love it. But many others didn’t, and apparently a lot of them have Globe ballots, SAG ballots, BAFTA ballots, DGA ballots, and Oscar ballots. I wish there had been a more balanced examination of what didn’t work about the movie along with what did. We did not get that from most critics.
But I can promise you, directors who have reached the pinnacle of their profession in the Directors Branch don’t need to have critics explain the craft. They are not going to overlook what many of them will see as a misstep, an ambitious vision that didn’t quite come together. They might appreciate it in some fashion (as the Academy at large did when they gave it a Best Picture slot), but many won’t. Not when it’s competing with the likes of Parasite and 1917 and The Irishman and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and Joker and Jojo Rabbit, etc.
The story coming out of this year’s Oscar race should be based on the actual reality of the process, on the context of the films and directors in the mix, not a blunt sulky version of the truth that makes those who cover this race take a position so they feel less guilty about the results (and less likely to be attacked by angry readers).
Me, I’m choosing to look at all the other spectacular possibilities this year afforded for women and to welcome what looks to me like genuine gender parity. Equality doesn’t mean we need throw awards at films that don’t quite deserve it for the sake of appearances, but the roster of dazzling achievement by women directors this year does mean that they (and the film industry) are finally arriving at a point where women are afforded the opportunity to create acclaimed and prestigious movies every year at the same rate that men have always been given. And that, my friends, is something to celebrate.
And I’ll leave the last word to Gerwig herself who was interviewed YET AGAIN in the New York Times after the nominations:
So you want to see the work acknowledged on the largest stage possible, and there is so much beautiful work done by female writers, producers, directors, creators. But in terms of it all moving in the right direction, that’s all we can do: continue to make the work, make the work, make the work.
And when asked if she thinks the Academy is lagging behind, she said:
There have been great strides and we’ve got to keep going: keep writing, keep making, keep doing. It’s all there.