Monday, March 8, 2010

It's About Damned Time!

“Avoid women directors. They ovulate. Do you have any idea what that does to a three month shoot?”
– Buddy Ackerman (Kevin Spacey) in Swimming with Sharks

“Remember, Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels.”
– Faith Whittlesey

Everybody’s summing up the Academy Awards right about now – who wore what, who spent the most time in the bathroom with whom at which parties, stuff like that. That’s certainly more interesting than discussing the show itself, which was the very definition of mediocrity. I used to anticipate the Academy Awards telecast with delight. Now I watch mostly out of blind, dumb habit – like a salmon swimming upstream, tearing itself up on the rocks so it can spawn and die even though it would rather be doing something else.

I was happy to learn that Steve Martin was hosting the show, but baffled as to why Alec Baldwin was hosting it with him. I happen to like Baldwin as an actor, but a host? Then I watched the show and understood why Martin needed the help – he’s really not that funny anymore. He seems rather ... tired. There was a time when I thought Martin was one of the most talented people in show business. But he seems to be suffering from Bob Hope Syndrome, a condition that causes a person of great talent to start coasting from middle age onward. He’s not the only one who has it, either – I realized that when Robin Williams came onstage and mumbled a few words without having one of his trademark seizures of stream-of-consciousness comedy or even trying to give the impression that he wanted to be there. But that’s not what I want to focus on right now. I want to focus on Kathryn Bigelow, who was the best reason to watch last night’s show.

I’ve been following and admiring Bigelow’s work since her ass-kicking 1987 vampire movie Near Dark. When I learned of the goofball high concept that made up 1991's Point Break – Keanu Reeves as an FBI agent (Wait, what?) who infiltrates a group of surfing bank robbers (Oh, now you’re just trying to annoy me, right?) with Gary Busey (Okay, you can stop now, I’m leaving.) – I thought it had to be a joke. But when I found out that Bigelow was at the helm, I was immediately interested. There aren’t many directors who could snag me into something that sounded that hopelessly silly, but she did because I knew she’d do something interesting with it. And I was right. It’s a movie I love and one I normally would not have bothered watching if not for her.

Hollywood heavyweights like Robert Redford, Paul Haggis, Meryl Streep, Reese Witherspoon, Tom Cruise and others have attempted to make important, here’s-what-it-all-means movies about our involvement in the Middle East over the past decade, and they have fallen flat on their faces. The few people who went to the theater to see those movies just took the opportunity to catch up on their sleep and critics typed their reviews with one hand while holding their noses with the other. Kathryn Bigelow comes along and makes a tiny little movie with no stars and little budget but a lot of nail-biting intensity and walks off with six Academy Awards, including Best Original Screenplay, Best Director and Best Picture. But that’s not the biggest part of this story.

Kathryn Bigelow is only the second American female director ever nominated for an Oscar! The first was Sophia Coppola for 2004's Lost in Translation. When you include Italy’s Lina Wertmuller and New Zealand’s Jane Campion, it turns out only four women directors have ever been nominated in the 82 years Hollywood has been dishing out Oscars. That’s not a typo and I’m not high – four.

Movies are a director’s medium. When you watch a movie, you are seeing the culmination of a director’s vision, decisions, and sensibilities. But what you most likely are not seeing is the culmination of the vision, decisions and sensibilities of a woman. I don’t know about you, but that bugs the hell out of me.

It is 2010. Gay people are on the verge of having the right to marry (despite the frantic efforts of superstitious bible-thumpers who spread the love of Jesus with the heels of their stomping boots). A woman came very close to receiving the Democratic nomination in the last presidential primary. The United States now has a black president. And only four women have ever been nominated for the Best Director Oscar. I don’t think I’m out of line when I say that this is a pretty fucked-up state of affairs, folks.

If you’re a movie buff, you can probably name five female directors. But can you name five female directors who were not actresses first? The most well-known women directors – for example, Penny Marshall, Barbra Streisand, Jodie Foster, Diane Keaton, Sophia Coppola – were first successful as actresses and became powerful enough to sit in the director’s chair. The fact that they began as actors does not in any way diminish their talent or work as directors, but I think it’s significant that they had to get there through a back door. That’s not to say there are no non-acting women directors out there, though.

Nora Ephron began as a writer and received Oscar nominations for her screenplays Silkwood, When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle. She began producing as well, and her directorial debut in 1992 was This is My Life. She’s made seven movies since then, including last year’s Oscar-nominated hit Julie & Julia. And like any good director, she’s not flop-proof – she directed the 2005 stinker Bewitched.

Nancy Meyers is another writer/producer-turned-director with some very successful movies to her credit. She was nominated for an Oscar her first time out of the gate for writing Private Benjamin in 1981. She became a director in 1998 with the remake of Disney’s The Parent Trap, which she followed with four succesful romantic comedies – What Women Want, Something’s Gotta Give, The Holiday and last year’s It’s Complicated.

Julie Taymor started out in television, then wrote, produced and directed her first feature film, Titus, in 1999. That was followed by Frida in 2002 and the stunning Across the Universe in 2007. This year will see the release of The Tempest, which she wrote, produced and directed.

Karyn Kusama is an up-and-coming director who wrote and directed the critically acclaimed 2000 movie Girlfight, followed it up with Aeon Flux in 2005, and directed last year’s horror film Jennifer’s Body. She’s currently at work on a new project.

The women listed above came off the top of my head. But you know what? I had to think a little while to come up with those four – and I still couldn’t come up with a fifth. I confined myself to American directors. There are others, of course, from all over the world -- but there are far too few. I thought of Ephron, Meyers, Taymor and Kusama because they’ve made some pretty commercial, well-known movies. But still ... I could only come up with four. And I’m a movie geek. What’s wrong with this picture?

Is it because women just don’t have what it takes to direct movies? If you answered yes to that question, please go away now and never darken my blog again. Of course women have what it takes to direct movies! They have talent and drive and creative energy to burn. The four women listed above are not freaks of nature, they are not exceptions to some rule. It’s just that they have somehow been fortunate enough to buck the system and kick down the door of this appalling men’s club called Hollywood. And that is the crime here – Hollywood, in this day and age, is still a men’s club.

Hollywood (all of California, for that matter) has a reputation for being ahead of the curve in liberal social changes. But that, I’m afraid, is a myth. For all of its left-wing politics and promiscuous, drug-taking celebutards, Hollywood is squirmingly conservative. Movies have become prudish again. Do you remember things like sex and nudity in movies made for and about grown-ups? Well, those days are over. For now, anyway. In Hollywood, people still conceal their homosexuality in order to protect their jobs. Can you believe that? But it’s true. The same town that gave us Paul Lynde also gave us Rock Hudson. And only four women – FOUR! – have been nominated for the Best Director Oscar in 82 fucking years.

Last night, Kathryn Bigelow took a sledgehammer to the status quo and shattered it into pieces. Let’s hope we see more women’s names under the credit “Directed by” from now on. Let’s hope more women are allowed to direct movies and that their talents are acknowledged during Oscar season in the future. Let’s hope the pieces of that status quo that Bigelow shattered don’t merge together and reassemble like some kind of undying monster in a horror movie.


  1. Great Blog, Ray! I share your hope that this is the start of a fast-growing trend.

  2. (Just noticed that the URL for my site, posted above, is wrong. Sorry about that. If you'd like a look at my website, this comment will work.)

    I wonder if anyone else is going to take Hollywood to task for this glaring under-representation of women directors? Is this happening because producers and production companies don't trust women directors to bring a movie through? I can't believe there's anything to back this up. Here's hoping this award might lead to a more open discussion in Hollywood about why it hasn't happened more often.

  3. That is depressing. Reminds me of being at a horror convention, and being asked if "this was where all the wives were sitting."
    Thank goodness I was already drinking.

  4. Kerry KilpatrickMarch 8, 2010 at 5:58 PM

    Again, marvelous Ray. I was also so glad to see the Academy finally giving recognition to the horror genre, even pointing out that it is the most popular genre in movies. The clips of now famous actors was great, but I would have personally chosen some different clips from the classics. I was impressed that they included a clip from Evil Dead II

  5. I must admit I have very little hope. I have seen Hollywood move in a retrogade motion in the last twenty years, terrified of women, completely obsessed with men and their father issues and so contemptuous of (and fearful of) femininity when it was not in service of smug, condescending women-as-shoppers/brides/shoe-fetishists.

    Seeing the Avery/Gaiman/Zemeckis Beowulf really cemented it for me: while the 11th century monks who wrote the poem down could see women as not central and yet important, respected and useful to the narrative, the 21st century filmmakers could not see women as anything but sexual or emotional outlets for the male characters. Women don't exist except in their relation to men. What is this, a Stephen King novel? Nah, it's just Hollywood.

    I lived in Los Angeles. I know it's not a liberal bastion that the Rebiblicans paint it as; it's a factory town where everybody tries to do what everyone else is already doing. Change comes by accident. Let's hope for more accidents.

    The horror montage would have been better with more horror films.

    This is why I don't watch the Oscars. Clips the day after and live tweets were bad enough.

  6. Oh and that reminds me, re: Spruill's comments on "trusting" female directors. Nah, of course not -- for the very stereotypes appearing in the Sharks quote. Anyone who's seen a Hollywood director (or actor) throw a hissy fit over some negligible detail, knows that "hormonal" reactions are not the province of women. But they'll keep shoveling mountains of cash down the drain that is M. Night Shyamalan. Yeah, good plan.

  7. Well, Ray, I quite agree about women being directors and about Hollywood being full of it. I have certainly developed my female sensibilities though I am a man (perhaps a little too much-it would be easier if I were gay!).

    But Bigelow didn't deserve the friggin Oscars. I saw Hurt Locker, and it was a dud. An unexploded piece of ordnance. The photography was good, the editing great, the sound mixing excellent, and the directing pretty good. But there was no there, there!

    As poetry, it was weak. There were hints of meaning which once issued, evaporated in a drifting mist. If she wanted to make war look like a thing not to do, that premise calls for a political statement and not a character study. The film made soldiers look stupid; they would join up, learn the trade a bit, and go off to Iraq where nothing made any difference or any sense. There was no statement made by the film other than "see, this makes no sense!" Ok, that's valid, but hardly powerful, and nothing at all new. The movie did not advance film-making, nor did it tell a new story, nor did it go to the point of attacking the cause of wars: aggression and politics.

    As a woman, Bigelow represented women's values (intelligence, compassion, sensitivity, awareness, communication) about as much as Hillary Clinton did. Hillary turned into a female political version of a man, and I was disappointed, because I was hoping a woman would turn this aggressive paradigm on its ear.

    I am not a movie buff, and am nowhere near the cognoscente that Ray and some of you folks are. I do not at all understand how Avatar didn't sweep everything up to and including the floor the starry ones sat upon. There obviously are some heavy politics, or some issue Hollywood has with Avatar that I am completely unaware of.

    I loved Avatar. It struck so many triggers and keynotes in me that it was a profound experience. This may be due in part to my emotional labile-ness, or my stupidity, ignorance, or even naivete. probably the latter.

    I bought the soundtrack and find that the music pulls me right into the emotional spaces I experienced from the movie. It reminds me of when I was very little, and I would listen to classical music while closing my eyes, getting vivid pictures in my mind from the music. James Horner's music is astounding. I did not see Titanic; though I've certainly heard "My Heart Will Go On" (and on and on-enough Celine already!). I know there are strong similarities in the motifs from the theme songs. But nit having been privy to the music from Titanic, I judge the Avatar sountrack on its own merit, and it spanked the filmscore that won. From a cartoon, even? I don't know what the Academy was trying to say, but they said something loud and clear, and in doing so have lost my respect.

    I do not often go to movies, because there are rarely movies out that move the culture forward, and there is plenty of porn on the internet. But Avatar is a sociological event; it speaks to so many domains of being that it should not have been so ignored.

    As if Hollywood is the arbiter of social justice, progressive politics, or intelligent, expansive conversation. And art? Barely, if at all present anymore.

    I'm expecting my come-uppance, so go for it. What is it I am just so unaware of, that Hurt Locker should win? It surely can't be just to include women (which I do not argue with at all).

  8. You won't get comeuppance for having an opinion, Noah. Not from me, anyway. I'm sorry to say I haven't seen AVATAR yet. I will soon, because I want to see it on the big screen, but I haven't yet because I tend to stay away from any movie that I'm told I absolutely MUST SEE until the frenzy has died down. There are reasons AVATAR didn't win that have nothing to do with its quality, and I'll get to that in a minute.

    I disagree with you about THE HURT LOCKER. There is nothing new under the sun. If Oscars were given only to movies that do something new or advance filmmaking, then they'd have to stop giving them. There have been plenty of A-list movies about our current involvement in the Middle East that have been very message-heavy, and every one of them has landed with a resounding thud. THE HURT LOCKER is a lean, muscular movie that shows you something, makes you experience it, and then leaves you with the lingering emotions. I think it succeeds at that very effectively.

    Kathryn Bigelow does not make message movies with social or political significance. She makes action movies. While the movie industry in general is a men's club, the action genre is a men's club at the bottom of an ocean of testosterone. And Bigelow has proven, again and again, that she can make action films as good as or better than the guys. (Personally, that tickles me to no end.) Just because she's a woman does not obligate her to make movies that are ... oh, I don't know, womanly? Chick flicks? Stuffy historical dramas? The fact that she's a woman is significant only because she's working in an industry that has pretty effectively locked women out.

    THE HURT LOCKER is an action movie about something that is very current, something that's been a part of our lives for the past decade, whether we've paid any attention to it or not. Unlike some past wars, this one has been kept from us visually. There have been no nightly reports from the battlefield as there were in Vietnam (the Powers That Be learned how that sort of thing can bite them in the ass when they're busy trying to hold a war). It's been a largely invisible war. Bigelow flew us over the action and dropped us right into the middle of it. And it worked.

    (Continued ... )

  9. (Continued ... )

    I don't think a message is necessary for a movie to be good or even great. A movie can be a great movie simply because it is so beautifully made, or simply because it so exquisitely succeeds in doing what it set out to do -- whether it set out to deliver an important message or just tell a small, personal little story. This movie was beautifully made and grabbed us by the nerves. It was also about a hot topic. And it was directed by a woman in a genre absolutely dominated by men. That's the kind of thing the Academy likes.

    Although the word "Best" is thrown around a lot at Oscar time -- Best Actor, Best Director, Best Picture -- it really has little to do with that. It's a political popularity contest in a lot of ways. And like it or not, there are certain kinds of movies that never win, no matter how good they are.

    STAR WARS was an enormous blockbuster. It brought people to the movies who hadn't walked into a theater in ages. It brought people back to see the same movie over and over again. It featured state-of-the-art special effects. It changed the way movies were made, the way they were released, the way the movie industry thought about what it does. Everything about that movie was big and popular. It was, to use a phrase James Cameron has bludgeoned into a bloody pulp, it was a "game-changer." And the Best Picture Oscar that year went to Woody Allen's tiny little romantic comedy ANNIE HALL. Because the Academy does not take science fiction movies seriously, no matter how good, big, popular or game-changery. The same goes for horror films, although that genre has made a few inroads. Ruth Gordon won for her performance in ROSEMARY'S BABY. SILENCE OF THE LAMBS -- not exactly horror by the standards of many, but certainly horrific -- swept the Oscars, and nobody's chin hit the floor harder than mine when that happened. But science fiction movies are pretty much limited to special effects and makeup awards. They just don't win the big awards and never have. I never for a moment considered AVATAR a possible Best Picture winner. Every time someone predicted it would win, I chuckled. Had it won, I would have fainted dead away. Like STAR WARS, it was big, popular, and it has ushered in a new movie craze -- 3-D. (We'll have to wait and see how long that lasts.)

    Frankly, given the Academy's history, AVATAR didn't stand a chance.

  10. Thanks Ray, for being gentle with me (I know your abilities). And for educating me about the Oscars. I get it. I just don't like it.

    From Why do so many people hate James Cameron? (from Wiki):

    "Cameron has been labeled by one collaborator, author Orson Scott Card, as selfish and cruel. When asked about working with Cameron on the novelization of The Abyss, Card said the experience was

    hell on wheels. He was very nice to me, because I could afford to walk away. But he made everyone around him miserable, and his unkindness did nothing to improve the film in any way. Nor did it motivate people to work faster or better. And unless he changes his way of working with people, I hope he never directs anything of mine.[65]

    After working with Cameron on the set of Titanic, Kate Winslet decided she would not work with Cameron again unless she earned "a lot of money." She admitted Cameron was a nice man, but felt he had too much of a temper.[66] In an editorial, the British newspaper The Independent said that Cameron "is a nightmare to work with. Studios have come to fear his habit of straying way over schedule and over budget. He is notorious on set for his uncompromising and dictatorial manner, as well as his flaming temper."[66]

    Sam Worthington, the latest lead actor to work with Cameron, stated on the Jay Leno Show that Cameron had very high expectations from everyone, and would often use a nail gun to nail the film crew's cell phones to a wall above an exit door in retaliation to unwanted ringing during production.[67] During the promotion for Avatar, Cameron stated on Jimmy Kimmel Live! that although he doubts anyone would describe him as a mellow person, he is at least mellower than he was before.[68]

    Other actors, such as Bill Paxton and Sigourney Weaver, have praised Cameron's perfectionist work ethic. Weaver said of Cameron: "He really does want us to risk our lives and limbs for the shot, but he doesn't mind risking his own."[69]"

    It would appear that Cameron is not well-liked in Hollywood. And it appears you are right on the money in your assessment about what gets best picture/director Oscars. But I was right about one naivete!

    Truth is Ray, I am not an action movie buff. I like some; Star Wars used to be my all-time favorite movie. But I like sci-fi, esp with a message. My genre is dystopian movies and novels. War movies bore me and piss me off-I always leave the theater wondering why us humans are so freaking stupid that we're STILL going around killing each other.

    I like romances, comedies, and anything with robots, sex, and/or a message. A few aliens now and then are ok, and vampires are cool. They're loaded with romance. Well, Dracula was.

    I do see what you mean about what constitutes a good movie, and I'll just have to forego some of them. But I'm sure as hell seeing Avatar some more!

  11. I'm glad you wrote this piece. It's true, it's a complete anachronism that only 1 woman has ever won best director. I haven't seen the Hurt Locker but I don't think Bigelow is as good a choice for the first woman winner as Jane Campion would have been
    Jane Campion has a track record of interesting, beautifully photographed and brilliantly written movies such as an Angel at my table prior to The Piano. She should have won but....she wasn't an American was she?
    So Bigelow won it. I'm glad but it's a bit like the first black actress to win is Halle Berry who basically isn't that good. Loads of better black actresses but she was the acceptably pretty one.
    But I'll qualify that comment because I haven't seen The Hurt Locker. That surf movie wasn't that great.
    Maybe she won because she makes action movies. Maybe she won because the academy, who are mostly actors, got frightened of Avatar's success and wanted to piss Cameron, her ex husband off.
    Avatar, btw, had a great first half but then turned into a crappy action pic for morons.
    Yes adult movies are rarely made by Hollywood nowadays.

  12. "...a crappy action pic for morons."

    --guess I'll have to reject that Mensa app I know is in the mail!

    As a bus driver, my experience of audience response to Avatar is interesting. Almost a predictor of intelligence. Some of my passengers who have seen it only saw a special-effects movie. Some saw a war movie, some a political statement, some an environmental message. Jim Cameron himself demurs when asked if he really planned so much subtext. I don't think he did, but I do think he left a lot to our imaginations after raising a lot of possibilities. I don't know much (anything) about directing a movie, but after many viewings I see a lot of places where the acting was kind of hokey, but Cameron left those shots in, and I think doing so was courageous and creative and enhanced the movie.

    As I expected, many of my passengers saw different Avatars when they went to the theater. We all see only what we are willing to see. Or, perhaps msmarmite lover is right!

    Ok, enough of Avatar.