The Women Who Were First by Grit and Grace

10In June 1928, Amelia Earhart became the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean. (By Smithsonian Institution, Great Images in NASA Description, via Wikimedia Commons)

When Meryl Streep took the stage at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on Tuesday to speak in favor of Hillary Clinton’s candidacy for president, she said: “What does it take to be the first female anything? It takes grit and it takes grace.” We agree.

We also thought that this moment in time, when we have the first female nominee for president from a major party, would be a good point to look back and remember some of the other women who were firsts across the centuries in the United States.

  • 1784 — Hannah Wilkinson Slater was granted a patent.
  • 1812 — Lucy Brewer joined the U.S. Marine Corps.
  • 1849 — Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman to earn a medical degree in the United States.
  • 1850 — Harriet Tubman was the first American woman to run an underground railroad, aiding slaves in their escapes.
  • 1853 — Antoinette Brown Blackwell was ordained as a minister by the Congregational Church.
  • 1866 — Mary Walker received the Congressional Medal of Honor.
  • 1870 — Esther Hobart Morris became the first female justice of the peace.
  • 1870 — Ada Kepley graduated from law school in America.
  • 1872 — Victoria Woodhull ran for president of the United States under the banner of the Equal Rights Party.
  • 1877 — Helen Magill White earned her Ph.D. degree, in Greek.
  • 1880 — Belva Lockwood argued a case before the U.S. Supreme Court.
  • 1887 — Susanna M. Salter was elected mayor of Argonia, Kan., becoming the first female mayor in the United States.
  • 1905 — May Sutton became the first American woman to win Wimbledon.
  • 1911 — Harriet Quimby was the first woman in America to receive an airplane pilot’s license.
  • 1916 — Jeannette Rankin was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.
  • 1917 — Loretta Perfectus Walsh enlisted in the U.S. Navy.
  • 1925 — Nellie Tayloe Ross was elected governor of Wyoming.
  • 1926 — Gertrude Ederle swam the English Channel.
  • 1928 — Amelia Earhart flew across the Atlantic Ocean.
  • 1928 — Genevieve R. Cline was appointed as a federal judge.
  • 1932 — Hattie Caraway elected to the U.S. Senate.
  • 1933 — Frances Perkins became the first female cabinet member when Franklin Roosevelt appointed her secretary of labor.
  • 1942 — Anna Leah Fox received the Purple Heart after being wounded at Pearl Harbor.
  • 1948 — Esther McGowin Blake joined the U.S. Air Force.
  • 1949 — Georgia Neese Clark became treasurer of the United States.
  • 1956 — Tenley Albright became the first American woman to win the Olympic gold medal in figure skating.
  • 1959 — Arlene Pieper completed the Pikes Peak Marathon in Colorado.
  • 1964 — Jerrie Mock flew solo around the world.
  • 1967 — Muriel Siebert got a seat on the New York Stock Exchange.
  • 1970 — Diane Crump became the first female jockey in the Kentucky Derby.
  • 1972 — Katharine Graham of The Washington Post became the first female CEO of a Fortune 500 company.
  • 1974 — Ella T. Grasso of Connecticut became the first woman to be elected a U.S. governor who was not the wife or widow of a governor.
  • 1976 — Emily Howell Warner became an American airline captain.
  • 1977 — Janet Guthrie competed in the Indianapolis 500.
  • 1978 — Janet Guthrie competed in the Daytona 500.
  • 1981 — Sandra Day O’Connor became an associate justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.
  • 1983 — Sally Ride became the first American woman to go into space.
  • 1984 — Geraldine Ferraro ran for vice president on a major-party platform.
  • 1987 — Aretha Franklin was inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame.
  • 1991 — Geraldine Morrow became president of the American Dental Association.
  • 1992 — Mona Van Duyn was named U.S. poet laureate.
  • 1993 — Janet Reno became attorney general of the United States.
  • 1995 — Roberta Cooper Ramo became president of the American Bar Association.
  • 1997 — Nancy Dickey became president of the American Medical Association.
  • 1997 — Hazel J. Harper became president of the National Dental Association.
  • 1997 — Madeleine Albright became the U.S. secretary of state.
  • 1998 — Julie Taymor won the Tony Award for best director of a musical.
  • 1999 — Carly Fiorina of Hewlett-Packard became the first woman to lead a fortune 50 company.
  • 2007 — Nancy Pelosi was elected speaker of the United States House of Representatives.
  • 2009 — Elinor Ostrom won the Nobel Prize in Economics, sharing the prize with Oliver E. Williamson.
  • 2010 — Kathryn Bigelow wins the Academy Award for best director for her film “The Hurt Locker.”
  • 2012 — Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Kelly Ayotte and Reps. Carol Shea-Porter and Ann McLane Kuster of New Hampshire are the first all-female congressional delegation in U.S. history.
  • 2013 — Danica Patrick gets the pole position in the Daytona 500.
  • 2013 — Mary Barra of General Motors becomes the first female chief executive of a major automaker.
  • 2014 — Janet Yellen is confirmed by the Senate as the first female chairman of the Federal Reserve.
  • 2014 — Katie Higgins joins the Navy’s Blue Angels squadron.
  • 2016 — Hillary Clinton is nominated by the Democratic Party to run for president of the United States.

Oscar Nominations: A Good Year for Women—On Screen, at Least

January 11, 2013 by  
Filed under Movies, The Arts

010913_OscarsLogoABCYesterday morning, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences pulled its annual dirty little trick on Hollywood. Anyone who is anyone in the industry had to be up (and in some cases, like poor little beautiful, talented young Emma Stone), pressed and dressed, and ready for their close-up . . .  by 5:30 a.m., Hollywood time.

The Oscar nominations were broadcast live, and those of us on the East Coast (already well into our day at a more civilized hour) could hear the results at the same time as the celebrities. The hosts, Seth Macfarlane and the aforementioned “lovely and talented” Stone, were fresh and engaging, with clever quips and a lot of good-natured inside jokes about the Awards and the Awards process.

The biggest disappointment was that, despite critical acclaim (and much controversy), the film Zero Dark Thirty did not achieve a Best Director nomination for Kathryn Bigelow. It was nominated for Best Picture, but Bigelow, the only female Best Director winner in Academy history, was passed over.

This is nothing new.

As a winner, Bigelow is the sole member of an extraordinarily exclusive club. Even as a nominee, she can count only three others: Lina Wertmuller for Seven Beauties (1976), Jane Campion for The Piano (1993), and Sofia Coppola for Lost in Translation (2003). Not a whole lot of room for women at the top, apparently. Hollywood likes to think of a movie’s director as “da man.” Literally.

Meanwhile, this year follows an equally disturbing trend. Over the years, several movies have been recognized as Best Picture candidates without Best Director recognition for their female directors. These include Children of a Lesser God (1986), directed by Randa Haines; Awakenings (1990), directed by Penny Marshall; The Prince of Tides (1991,) directed by Barbra Streisand; Little Miss Sunshine (2006), directed by Valerie Faris (and Jonathan Dayton); An Education (2009,) directed by Lone Scherfig; The Kids Are All Right (2010), directed by Lisa Cholodenko; and Winter’s Bone (2010), directed by Debra Granik.

Ms. Bigelow is surely disappointed, but she is in damn fine company.

In all fairness, this year other—decidedly male—directors have been snubbed as well. Quentin Tarantino and Ben Affleck were passed over, although their films (Django Unchained and Argo, respectively) were given the nod for Best Picture.

Given that there are nine Best Picture nominees  but only five for Best Director, this has to happen. It’s just that it would be nice to see the scales tip toward the women once in a while.

The good news for female audiences of a certain age lay in the Best Supporting Actress category, where two actresses over the age of 60 were named, and the average age of the nominees is nearly 50. They include Amy Adams (38) for The Master; Sally Field (66) for Lincoln; Helen Hunt (49) for The Sessions, and Jacki Weaver (65) for Silver Linings Playbook. The youngest is Oscar-favorite Anne Hathaway (30), but she should get extra credit for aging at least ten years—between starving herself, shearing her hair, and contracting consumption—onscreen in Les Mis.

On the other hand, it was a banner year for women of all ages. This year marked not only the industry’s oldest Best Actress contender, but also its youngest. Emmanuelle Riva was recognized for her moving portrayal of an elderly stroke victim in Amour. Riva will celebrate her 86th birthday on the day the Oscars are awarded (I can think of a very nice present for her, can’t you?). And diminutive Quvenzhané Wallis was recognized for Beasts of the Southern Wild at the tender (if rather explosive) age of 9. She was only 5 when she auditioned at a local library, beating out 4,000 other children for the incredible role of Hushpuppy. Other nominees include Jessica Chastain (35) for Zero Dark Thirty; Jennifer Lawrence (23) for Silver Linings Playbook, and Naomi Watts (44) for Impossible.

The 85th Academy Awards will air on February 24. We’ll be live blogging throughout the event—from red-carpet snarking through to the Best Picture at the bitter end. See you there.

The Wednesday Five: Sylvia Blogs, Why Hollywood Men Prefer War, and Giving Up Life As a Blonde

March 9, 2011 by  
Filed under Newsmakers

Our spring-is-coming highlights include a list of snazzy-but-appropriate workout gear, a meditation on life after blonde, and a final post-Oscar howl about misogyny in the film industry.

  • At Amid Privilege, Sky Peale is Giving Up Blonde, Or…. and trying to decide what kind of post-blonde to be. Now that she’s grown past her youthful blonde stage, Peale finds multiple role models in her blog-peers: “I may go gray, like Ms. Givens of Trend Wisely, Donna of Rock the Silver, and Madame La Streep……. Join the ranks of Alice Bradley at finslippy, and Anne Kreamer, who wrote Going Gray. Rock the Silver is, of course, a blog often about going gray.” We suspect she’ll rule, no matter what she chooses.
  • “In our culture, there is… just a weird anxiety around women.” Last week, as we were all shaking off our Oscar hangover,  Melissa Silverstein found these refreshingly frank words from this NPR chat with The Kids Are Alright director Lisa Cholodenko. Without rancor, Cholodenko suggests why Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker might have had an easier time in the award: “It’s just easier to uphold, like, male heroes and men things. And that’s just kind of how it is. I think we’re getting better, but I think it’s just deeply rooted…Because when you talk about the Kathryn Bigelow film, I mean, I think something that was tremendous was that she really did get into male psychology and sort of the male experience in such an authentic way.”
  • Last fall, we caught up on the travails of Indian author and activist Arundhati Roy. Last month, however Guernica tracked her down and ran this detailed, wide-ranging interview with the intriguing title “The Un-Victim.” Her life, says Roy, doesn’t really include a typical day: ” I don’t have a regular day (or night!). It has been so for years, and has nothing to do with the sedition tamasha [spectacle]. I’m not sure how I feel about this—but that’s how it is. I move around a lot. I don’t always sleep in the same place. I live a very unsettled but not un-calm life. But sometimes I feel as though I lack a skin—something that separates me from the world I live in. That absence of skin is dangerous.”
  • OK, spring has made us all swear we’ll work out. But we know we should be careful about workout clothes. Luckily, Fab Over Fifty’s Linda Cohen has come up with workout wardrobe suggestions, answering concerns like “I need workout pants that are comfortable, but aren’t ratty college sweatpants” and ” I need a yoga pant that won’t highlight my lumps and bumps during downward dog.” Click over for selections and prices that won’t break the bank.
  • We all knew about Nicole Hollander’s Bad Girl Chats, but did you know that her character Sylvia has her own blog? Asked for her favorite books, she at first demurs: “It’s true I get everything I need from television. Do you have a pen? Here’s my list. Mystery (Inspector Lewis, Sargeant Hathaway, the new Sherlock Holmes); International Mystery: Wallander in English, Wallander in Swedish. The Mentalist,  Justified, The Good Wife…” but goes on to explore the latest gender-gap news, this one in literature and pointing to a Laura Miller piece in Salon: “ It suggests that women are underrepresented in the literary world because men don’t care what they write about. Is this true?”  Sylvia asks, however, that our comments on the subject go to Nicole’s site and not her blog: “I hear she likes to read them …. I, however, am too busy watching television.”

Post-Oscar Video Pick: Some Moments Worth Keeping

March 1, 2011 by  
Filed under Movies

Well,  our feelings Sunday night were  widely shared. “Worst. Broadcast. Ever,” wrote Roger Ebert, while  we weren’t alone in our speculations about one co-hosts’s mental state: Gawker asked openly, “Was James Franco Stoned When He Hosted the Oscars?” Meanwhile, Melissa at Women&Hollywood was as disappointed in the night as she and we expected. “The Oscars followed the usual path and having male winner after male winner, especially in the creative and the high profile awards.” She added the same point our Dr. Pat did on Sunday: “You got a sense that the Oscar folks … seemed to want to make a big deal of Kathryn Bigelow giving out the best director Oscar so she got a special introduction from Hilary Swank. Gee whiz we know that last year a woman won and this year we have no female nominees but …. It just made the disparity more glaring.”

The similar dearth of artists of color even nominated this year, made the Academy’s In Memoriam tribute to Lena Horne evoke mixed feelings. But Halle Berry‘s presentation was class itself, worth sharing and honoring.

And we’re still thinking about Sandra Bullock’s grace on the red carpet, knowing that everyone watching was aware what kind of a year she has had. Watch her, below, speak with signature grace about what her new baby thought of her breathtaking designer gown.

2011 Oscar Nominations – Two Steps Forward, One Step Back?

January 30, 2011 by  
Filed under Movies

I was recently reminded that progress rarely travels in a straight line. Indeed, Gloria Steinem has noted that progress and backlash tend to travel together.  She suggested that we learn to embrace backlash, as it affirms that we’ve made some significant progress.

This year’s Oscar nominations may not represent a deliberate backlash, per se.  But for those of us who noticed and welcomed the diversity of recent years, it is disheartening.  Not only are women conspicuously absent from the Best Director nominations (despite the inclusion of two films directed and written by women in the Best Picture category), but the entire awards evening threatens to be a celebration of white people making movies with, for, and about white people.

Last year, feminist Hollywood watchers rejoiced as Kathryn Bigelow won the Academy Award for Best Director for The Hurt Locker, an historic first for a woman director. The same evening, the industry celebrated Precious, a powerful film about a distinctly disenfranchised young woman: poor, black, illiterate, pregnant. And within the last decade, we’ve seen actors of color win Best Actress (Halle Berry for Monster’s Ball) and Best Actor (Denzel Washington for Training Day, Jamie Foxx for Ray, and Forest Whitaker for The Last King of Scotland).

This week’s Oscar nominations seem to be announcing that Hollywood is back to old-fashioned business as usual. I don’t think the issue is prejudice in the Academy’s award nomination process. Rather, it’s a more systemic problem with regard to the movies and directors that are greenlighted and bankrolled by Hollywood’s movie machine. That machine is about making money as much as – arguably more than – making movies. And clearly there remains a perception that movies about white men (with or without superhero costumes) blowing things up equal box office gold. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Throw enough star power, special effects, and promotional budget against a property and it can’t help but attract attention. And that makes it harder for smaller movies – many proposed by women, African-American, Latino, or Asian-American filmmakers – to be made. And so it goes.

I don’t mean to sound bitter and humorless. I really do love the movies, and I appreciate the people who make them.  There are some wonderful films nominated this year, and some powerful performances being recognized.

For the second year in a row, the Best Picture category includes ten rather than five nominated films. I have mixed feelings about this trend. It reminds me of a debate I’m often engaged in as a mother. Should everyone get a medal? Should all the soccer teams walk away with a trophy? Or do we need to get a little tougher and say, “There are winners and losers. Deal with it.”

Surely, expanding the list was a business decision; I doubt the Academy did so to avoid hurt feelings. But it brings up some interesting issues. What is the prospect for a movie nominated for Best Picture but not Best Director? (Not very good, I’m afraid.) On the positive side, it has broadened the field and improved the odds for nominations of smaller or independent films. Two examples this year include Winter’s Bone and The Kids Are All Right – both directed by women.

The complete list of Best Picture nominations also includes Black Swan, The Fighter, Inception, The King’s Speech, 127 Hours, The Social Network, Toy Story 3, and True Grit. It is a remarkable list of movie genres, if not a model of diversity in terms of moviemakers. We’ve covered animation, Westerns, and triumph of the human spirit, as well as horror, history, and high tech. Well done.

Notably absent from the Best Director category are Lisa Cholodenko for The Kids Are All Right and Debra Granik for Winter’s Bone. These talented and visionary women may, however, be awarded for their original and adapted screenplays respectively. Despite Kathryn Bigelow’s beating the odds last year, the Best Director category continues to elude Hollywood’s top women.

In the acting categories, Annette Bening was nominated but her The Kids Are All Right costar Julianne Moore was not. Helen Mirren was passed over for The Tempest. Another surprising omission was Mila Kunis for her role as Natalie Portman’s sensuous alter ego in Black Swan. Newcomers and critics’ darlings Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone) and Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit) made the cut, but it’s doubtful they will win. At ages 20 and 14, they will have many more opportunities. Two contenders for Best Supporting Actress, Melissa Leo (The Fighter) and Jacki Weaver (Animal Kingdom) attest to the Academy’s appreciation for fine performances from “working actors,” as opposed to “movie stars.”

The 83rd annual Academy Awards ceremony will take place on February 27. Co-hosted by Anne Hathaway and James Franco, it will no doubt provide us with entertainment, glamour, and plenty of water cooler buzz for the next day. But it will not be an historic event; there will not be any exceptions. This is unfortunate, but not the core of the problem for Hollywood’s marginalized women and minority filmmakers.

Exceptions tend to muddy the waters. If a person complains about the lack of diversity at the Oscars or in any situation, exceptions enable the establishment to discount their discontent: “You can’t say that women aren’t recognized for Best Director – look at Kathryn Bigelow.”

When Hattie McDaniel became the first African-American actress to win the statuette for Gone With the Wind, it took another 24 years before another actor of color was recognized (Sidney Poitier for Lilies of the Field). And it was over 50 years before we saw another black actress winner, Whoopi Goldberg for Ghost.

Let’s hope that Granik, Cholodenko, and thousands of other women directors don’t have to wait that long.

The DGA Awards: Still a Thick Glass Ceiling Over That Hollywood Sign

January 24, 2011 by  
Filed under Movies, Newsmakers

This year, the University of Southern California’s renowned School of Cinematic Arts, alma mater of legendary directors George Lucas, Robert Zemeckis and dozens of others, has exactly as many women enrolled as men.

 Perhaps someone should let these aspiring female filmmakers know that they are trying to get into a very exclusive – and exclusionary – men’s club.

The recent announcement of nominees for the Directors Guild of America Awards underscores how little has changed in Hollywood. DGA Nominees for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Feature Film include Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan), David Fincher (The Social Network), Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech), Christopher Nolan (Inception), and David Russell (The Fighter).

The list represents some variety of genres – psychosexual thriller, big budget action, three period dramas based on true stories.  But all of these movies have something obvious in common.  They were all directed by men.

This is particularly disappointing, because last year marked real progress for women directors.  Kathryn Bigelow not only became the first woman to win the DGA Feature Film Director prize, she went on to win Best Director (another first) and Best Picture at the Academy Awards. And The Hurt Locker wasn’t the only Best Picture nominee to be directed by an over-40 woman, either. 

It would be one thing if the inequity was only apparent in the DGA Awards (or the Academy Awards, for that matter). Unfortunately, it runs much deeper than that.  Directors often win for big-budget epics. Directors are also often recognized for a body of work as well as a single title. Women directors are at a distinct disadvantage in both of these areas. They receive far less budget to work with and it takes them much longer to get a project through the system; consequently, their resumes are considerably shorter.

Even Bigelow – while truly deserving of her laurels – didn’t represent a win for the average woman director. Her movie, a tense drama focusing on an elite bomb squad in Iraq, isn’t your typical woman’s movie. She did wonders with a moderate budget ($12 million, compared to some $90 million for Black Hawk Down eight years earlier). And with Hollywood gossip always a factor, there are those who may have used a vote for her as a vote against her ex-husband and his Avatar.

One woman I would have liked to see honored this year by the DGA (and who I hope will still make the Oscars list) is Debra Granik for Winter’s Bone.  Her movie is more typical than Bigelow’s, although hardly a “chick flick.” It’s a remarkable, slow-burning drama. It has desperate, gritty characters and a brave young heroine willing to risk her life, quite literally, to protect her two younger siblings. The story is haunting; the performances outstanding. It sheds light on an impoverished underbelly of this country that has been virtually invisible in the media until now.

To date, Winter’s Bone has won major awards at Cannes and Sundance (Grand Jury Prizes at both), many smaller film festival awards, and has appeared on countless critics’ lists of the best films of 2010. By anyone’s estimation, Debra Granik has had great success with Winter’s Bone. Yet she had to fight to get the movie made and finally did so for just $2 million. No mean feat. If her sets look real, it’s because they are the actual Ozark homes of her supporting cast.

Granik is an exceptional director and her story is, like Bigelow’s, an exception rather than the rule. But one can hope that she will have more (and bigger budget) opportunities after this breakout success. And that other women directors will walk in with greater credibility for their interesting ideas. The problem really isn’t the DGA. If women are to be nominated for – and win – more directing awards, they have to get more opportunities to direct. If Hollywood can’t see this yet, perhaps they will in time for the young women studying film at USC to play an equal role in their industry.

Oscars live blog is coming! But first, go vote in our poll.

March 5, 2010 by  
Filed under Movies

What will this year's red carpet look like?OK,  tell us you haven’t been following the Oscars, at least a little. We sure have, whether noting the many over-40 nominees and following the Hurt-Locker/Avatar frontrunner battle, praising the Academy for its diverse selection of nominated actresses, or highlighting the backlash against Kathryn Bigelow. We can’t wait until the Sunday night show, which will be preceded by Barbara Walters’ farewell Oscar special and hosted by two of our over-40 male faves, Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin.

It’s true what they say: The Academy Awards are a hoary, overblown, ridiculous ceremony that says little about the art of film. And we’re looking forward to every minute. (Many around the world are fans, too:  At this time 20 years ago I was in Egypt, and all the taxi drivers wanted to talk about was who would win the Oscars.)

If you feel the same way, even a little, we invite you to join us in WVFC’s “Women Over 40” Oscars celebration. First, if you haven’t yet voted in our Oscar poll, please do! Mo’Nique came out blazing as an early favorite, but as of this writing, Kathryn Bigelow is inching past Meryl Streep, and Sandra Bullock has just pulled ahead of Mo’Nique for third place.  And what about Helen Mirren? Your vote could make it a true wild-card race.

Then, whether you’re watching or just checking headlines, we hope you’ll post a quick comment for our Oscar live blog. It’s been more than a year since we called for a live blog at WVFC: that was on the day of the inauguration of Barack Obama as president.  Before that, we’d tried it out during the last Presidential debate in October 2008. We’re looking forward to this lighter-themed edition. Comments can be simple and direct–“God, that dress!” or “I’m in tears at that clip”–or more complex, if you like. And if you won’t be on the Web but can send an email, do that and we’ll post it.

After all, how often do over-40 women rule an entire broadcast–and it’s not about politics or weight loss? WVFC blogging starts with Barbara Walters at 7 p.m. Eastern time.

See you on Sunday!

The Bigelow Backlash: Should She Win?

March 3, 2010 by  
Filed under Movies

As Kathryn Bigelow and her fellow Best Director nominees roll through the final week before Sunday’s Oscar broadcast, the pleasantly speculative question in many minds—Will she win?—is in some quarters overshadowed by another, darker query: Should she win?

In the past few weeks, Bigelow has become something of a feminist football (if that’s not a contradiction in terms), tossed around by those who, on the one hand, see a Best Director win as a much-needed advancement for women in the film industry, and those who consider her too one-of-the-boys to represent women in Hollywood (admittedly not a gig she’s been angling for). Others wish gender weren’t quite such an issue. Calling it “the question that no one dares ask,” The Daily Beast’s Nicole LaPorte asks anyway: “If she wins, will it be because she’s a woman?” Still others, male and female, wish everyone would stop talking about her legs already. And her ex.

That’s not likely to happen, given the last-minute landmines that have been exploding around The Hurt Locker. The gender issue isn’t going away, either, and it’s taking some interesting twists. Earlier this winter, Indiewire writer Matthew Hammett Knott asked, “Is Kathryn Bigelow a Female Director?” (Then promptly answered, “What a stupid question.”) And just last week, Martha P. Nochimson kicked things up with a Salon article titled “Kathryn Bigelow: Feminist pioneer or tough guy in drag?” Tackling the director for out-macho-ing the competition, Nochimson called her a transvestite “masquerading as the baddest boy on the block to win the respect of an academy still so hobbled by gender-specific tunnel vision that it has trouble admiring anything but filmmaking soaked in a reduced notion of masculinity.”

It’s hard to argue with the notion that the film industry favors a masculine filmmaking style, or that it will keep right on favoring it until box office grosses persuade it otherwise. (Which, with The Proposal, Julie and Julia, Twilight Saga: New Moon, Dear John, The Blind Side, and last month’s Valentine’s Day—all strong female-audience draws—the grosses have started to do.) The question is: What does that mean, or should it mean, for Kathryn Bigelow?

The answer, one would hope, is: Nothing. It’s true, Bigelow is a problematic poster girl for Women Directors Everywhere. But then, why should she have to be? She has a distinctive directorial style and makes a certain type of film very well. So did John Ford, and no one complained about him—in fact, he was a four-time Oscar winner. Should Bigelow be judged on different terms?

The heart of the matter is this: We haven’t yet had enough women directors in the industry mainstream, or major movies by women directors, to even begin to comprehend the full range of women’s expressive power in film. Or to help us define what—if anything—gives a film a uniquely female perspective. (Absence of explosives? I doubt it.)

In industry terms, Bigelow’s gender may be the least of Hollywood’s interest in The Hurt Locker. Iraq war movies have a way of flopping at the box office, and Bigelow’s film isn’t really an exception—even with solid reviews and astronomical Oscar buzz, it’s earned less than $20 million to date worldwide. But a few days after the awards broadcast, Hollywood will be taking a $100 million gamble on another one: Green Zone, made by the star-and-director team behind the Bourne Supremacy franchise, which opens nationwide on March 12. With that kind of investment riding on it, Green Zone will be looking to catch whatever slipstream Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker can create.

For New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis, “Something like a woman winning best director for directing an action movie and not a romantic comedy is symbolically important.” Speaking with Jezebel’s Irin Carmon last December, Dargis said, “Whether it then leads to a lot of women doing things outside of the pathetic comfort zone of romantic comedy—and I say that as someone who loves romantic comedy—we’ll see.”

Let’s hope we do, and soon. But first: The envelope, please.

Oscars 2010: The Year of the Over-40 Woman?

February 16, 2010 by  
Filed under Movies

The nominations have been announced and analyzed, and the awards-night hysteria has yet to shift into overdrive. Which makes this a great moment to salute this year’s over-40 female Oscar contenders.

By now, everyone not living on Neptune knows that there’s a woman—a beautiful, 58-year-old woman—in the race for Best Director. And, in a delicious burst of irony, that she’s squaring off against her ex. It’s a plot line straight out of the classic Oscar playbook—critically acclaimed movie underdog going toe to toe against the high-grossing, critically acclaimed, and in this case technologically groundbreaking front-runner, with the marital back-story amping the frisson. On Oscar night, Kathryn Bigelow might just end up brushing past James Cameron on her way to collect a Best Director award for The Hurt Locker, leaving him to console himself with Avatar’s stratospheric global box-office take.

It could happen. And there are plenty of people—including a number of Academy voters—who hope it does. But let’s get real. In the history of the Oscars, Bigelow is only the fourth woman to earn a Best Director nomination, and her predecessors all went home empty-handed. (The last was Sofia Coppola in 2004 for Lost in Translation.) Still, this year’s doubling of the Best Picture pool from five nominees to ten yielded two films directed by women, both in their 50s—Bigelow’s Hurt Locker and An Education by Danish director Lone Scherfig—an Academy Awards first.

It’s not a bad Oscar year for acting, either. Three of the five Best Actress nominees—Sandra Bullock, Helen Mirren, and Meryl Streep—are 45 or older, and one of them could easily win. The same goes for Mo’Nique, who’s widely thought to have a lock on Best Supporting Actress.

It’s perversely gratifying to realize that there are films by over-40 women that didn’t even make it into the nominations, or not very far: gratifying that it now takes more than one hand to count women directors in the film industry, and perverse because, well, why weren’t their films more widely nominated? To name a few: Jane Campion’s Bright Star (nothing more than Best Costume? C’mon)… Nora Ephron’s Julie & Julia (which may yet win one for Meryl)…Anne Fontaine’s Coco Before Chanel (also shut out beyond Best Costume)…and Nancy Meyers’s It’s Complicated. And then there’s Betty Thomas’s Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel—debatable as Oscar material, perhaps, but it did pull in more than $400 million worldwide, almost twice the figure for the original Alvin movie.

So yes, it was a good year for women over 40 in the film industry. And come Oscar night we’ll be rooting for our favorites along with the rest of the world. But the real celebration will come when a great year for older women in Hollywood isn’t the exception, but simply business as usual.

Kathryn Bigelow’s War

July 4, 2009 by  
Filed under Movies, Newsmakers

laura_baudo_sillerman_2Think you’re not a sexist? Want to know for certain? When the film The Hurt Locker opens in your town (it’s in limited release in Los Angeles and New York now, opens in 17 more cities on July 10 and goes nationwide July 24), go see it. See if you don’t say, when it’s over: “I don’t believe a woman directed this movie.”

At the Seattle International Film Festival.

At the Seattle International Film Festival.

And then imagine that she’s a 58-year-old woman, not someone reared in the can-do-anything world of post-feminist film school education.

The Hurt Locker is a story about what war does to men and also a story of how men form wars. It’s the story of an elite Army Explosive Ordinance Device team — and of one technician in particular. It’s about courage and the absence of fear and about how “everybody is a coward about something.”

The Hurt Locker feels more like a documentary than a scripted film. It feels as though the woman who directed it walked around inside the heads of the men whose story she tells. It is stunning, difficult and muscular.

hurt-lockerThe film is haunting and insists that attention be paid to what being in Baghdad means — what it means to the men who are fighting there (and, by extension, the enlisted women, though none are in evidence on screen), and what it means to us as a nation.

A 58-year-old woman made this movie. Someone banked on her to get the suspense, the horror, the gore and the testosterone right. Lots of people listened to her while she was directing and, for that reason, we have a document of war that really must be seen for the truth there, both about what happens in the fields of battle and on the mind’s battlefields. (For more on Kathryn Bigelow, check out this Q&A at Slate/

It’s a movie that should be shown to anyone who hopes to make movies and to anyone who hopes to understand what makes a good movie. It’s an achievement that stands as testament to what humans can do — both in the story and in the telling of it. It’s quite simply an amazing accomplishment.