Big-elow Deal

What must be more satisfying for Kathryn Bigelow – being the first woman EVER to win a Director’s Guild of America Award for Best Feature Film, or beating ex-husband James Cameron for the same accolade? The Hurt Locker helmer has just positioned herself as the frontrunner for this March’s Oscars, with the film also poised to take home the top prize as well (thank you, Producers Guild of America). Yet it seems odd that Bigelow, who could best be described as a genre filmmaker (Near Dark, Strange Days) who then found her way into the action arena when her cult classic Point Break became a surprise hit would end up taking home the industry’s top prize. It’s like Peter Jackson all over again.

Still, how this singular artist turned a tale of bomb defusing in Iraq into this year’s Academy favorite says more about the institution dealing out the trophies than the various female directors who had a chance at previous statuary gold. As of this date, no woman has ever won an Oscar for Best Director, and only three have been nominated – Lina Wertmuller in 1976 (for Seven Beauties), Jane Campion in 1993 (for The Piano) and most recently, Sofia Coppola in 2003 (for Lost in Translation). Of that group, Wertmüller got the rawest deal, losing to John Avildsen and Rocky (it also ‘knocked out’ Alan J. Pakula for All The President’s Men, Sidney Lumet for Network, and Ingmar Bergman for Face to Face).

Yet it’s odd that in a medium which has seen many stellar female filmmakers, so few have been even considered for the Academy’s top prize. Sure, there have been times when pundits assumed certain movies (Prince of Tides, Yentl) and their creator (Barbra Streisand) would become the heralded first (Babs even won a Golden Globe for her work on the 1983 musical) and outright snubs that defy explanation (Penny Marshall, whose work in Big and A League of their Own definitely deserved acknowledgment), but everyone assumed all would be well once the ‘right’ one came along. So what it is about Bigelow and Locker that makes 2010 so different? The answer may not be as complicated as initially considered.

You see, Hollywood is the worst kind of cyclical thug. It more or less sets the agenda for awards season, holding back movies until the last minute, selectively screening others, ignoring titles that came out the previous ten months to focus almost exclusively on the latest, bullying buzz-worthy effort. While The Hurt Locker has been out there since Sundance a year ago, it’s ascent into the ranks of award winning wonders has as much to do with talent (and it is indeed an intense, tripwire thriller with bravura directorial moves) as much as PC awareness. True, hundreds of critics have fallen for Bigelow’s work – yours truly included – but the fact remains that if this movie had been directed by Ken Bigelow instead of Kathryn, one imagines the rush to reward would be a little slower – maybe.

Let’s step back for a moment and admit something – no one is suggesting that the ONLY reason Bigelow will walk away with Oscar gold come 7 March, 2010 is that she is a woman. Listen close to the conversation, however, and you will hear all kinds of inferences that her gender isn’t hurting her chances either. After all, Tinseltown is all about ignoring their prejudiced past and randomly righting a history of wrongs. Certainly, struggling directors like Ida Lupino, Tamara Jenkins, and Gilliam Armstrong wished the studios could have wised up before now. Instead, in a man’s realm, the infrequent recognition of female talent is troubling.

Every year, the same old stories surface – “Not a strong pool for Best Actress”, “Few Females to Be Found in Academy’s Big Categories.” Across the board, from writing to editing, women make up a very small number of nominees and winners. Some have applied the ‘minority rule’ theory to the situation, stating that, in a business where a high percentage both creatively and in control are men (read: white men), it’s easy to see the lack of diversity. Even as feminism strove to bring equality in the workplace over the last four decades, and with more and more women working behind the scenes, you would think a wealth of female directors (and writers, and producers, and editors) would be walking away with those coveted gold statutes. Instead, it seems like every time you turn around, another unknown male is making Academy headway while a laundry list of established talents are being left out in the cold.

This isn’t meant to diminish Bigelow’s win. It’s a BIG, BIG deal. If she does walk away with a statue in March (and the DGA selection has only not matched the eventual Oscar winner on six other occasions), she makes the kind of history that, occasionally, marks radical change. It’s been a long while since something this significant has come to the Academy Awards, although there are dozens of indefensible wrongs that the organization still has to answer for (Asians? Hispanics? Foreign Films and Filmmakers? Documentaries?). And don’t be shocked if Bigelow doesn’t win. Avatar is still coming on strong (being the number one film worldwide for the last two months can’t be hurting its already high profile) and with ten Best Picture nominees, a dark horse could also emerge.

Still, huzzah to the DGA and Bigelow. It’s refreshing that someone whose career has avoided a stint in high brow legitimacy could walk away with the Academy’s biggest honor. From her novel and revisionist reinvention of the vampire myth (no Twilight bullshit in Near Dark, dearie) to the attempted epic that has several years on the Matrix, Bigelow has been at the top as well as down towards the K-19 Widowmaker bottom. The Hurt Locker is definitely one of 2009’s better efforts and deserves to be considered. Here’s hoping that, if history is indeed made a month from now, it will be the start of a trend, and not some one-shot filmmaker fluke.