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.