Film & Television

Celebrating 2021’s Best Directors: Awards Season Begins

We’re in the home stretch of 2021 and awards season has officially/unofficially started with this month’s announcement of Golden Globe nominees. Long considered not just a precursor but a barometer for Oscar nominations, the Golden Globes have had some PR challenges lately that effectively diminished their golden glow.

According to their own website, the Golden Globe Awards “are accolades bestowed by the 93 members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA) beginning in January 1944, recognizing excellence in film and television, both domestic and foreign.” 2021, however, was not a good year for them. In February, the Los Angeles Times published an exposé, based on interviews with 50 people, court documents, and financial filings, that skewered the organization for being insular, corrupt, and racist. Three months later, NBC dropped its plans to broadcast the next awards show (which would be this year’s, planned for Winter 2022). Scarlett Johansson urged her fellow celebrities to distance themselves from the HFPA and Tom Cruise returned the three awards he’d won for Jerry Maguire, Magnolia and Born on the Fourth of July. New York magazine’s recently referred to the Golden Globes as “a zombie awards show.”

However, in recent years, the Golden Globes have also earned a reputation for being heavy on red carpet-caliber celebrities — recognizing both television and film, and breaking each into categories of drama and comedy/musical, there are exponentially more actors nominated — and a bit of a booze-fest. They’re not as serious as the Academy Awards, but they’re so much more fun! 

All that said, last year’s Golden Globe nominees for Best Director included three women (Chloé Zhao, Regina King, and Emerald Fennell), while the academy awards included only two (Zhao and Fennell). Zhao won both honors for Nomadland, making her the second woman to take home either one. (Barbra Streisand won the Golden Globe in 1983 for Yentl; Kathryn Bigelow won the Oscar in 2010 for The Hurt Locker.)

The new batch of Globe nominees includes two female directors: Maggie Gyllenhaal for her celebrated first film The Lost Daughter and Jane Campion for The Power of the Dog, nearly 30 years after her nomination for 1994’s The Piano. Campion, who was also nominated for the Best Director Oscar, ended up accepting the Academy Award for Best Screenplay, as well as Cannes’ prestigious Palme d’Or.

Thirty years is a long time — especially in Hollywood where youth is unabashedly worshipped and rewarded (or surgically recreated). Since The Piano, Campion has directed less than a half dozen titles, including Henry James’s classic The Portrait of a Lady with Nicole Kidman and Barbara Hershey, and biopic romance of poet John Keats Bright Star with Abbie Cornish. She also created, wrote, and directed multiple seasons of television’s The Top of the Lake with Elisabeth Moss.

The Power of the Dog has been on Hollywood’s radar for many years; at one point, Paul Newman had optioned it. But, it was the original 1967 novel by Thomas Savage that hooked Campion. As she explained to The Guardian, “I was actually thinking of retiring before I did this film, but then I thought, ‘Oh man, this is gonna be a big one.’ I’d read the book and loved it and afterwards I just kept thinking about it. When I made a move to find out who had the rights, that’s when I knew it had got me. I needed to do it.”

A western set in 1920s Montana, The Power of the Dog is reminiscent of Brokeback Mountain in its focus on homoerotic relationships in the most macho of settings. As in Campion’s own The Piano, a central character is a cultured woman making her way in a desolate frontier. And, there’s also a very slow-burning revenge plot that reminded me of The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea (1976). Campion directs an A-list cast headed by Kirsten Dunst and Benedict Cumberbatch with a breakout performance by Kodi Smit-McPhee, all three of whom are nominated. A sweeping, ambitious film, The Power of the Dog inspired Oscars buzz even before it led the Golden Globes race with seven nominations.

Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter has also impressed critics and earned two Globe nominations: for Gyllenhaal’s work behind the camera and for lead actress Olivia Colman, who already has three Golden Globes and an Oscar. It has been hailed as a stunning screenwriting and directorial debut. Based on a novel by Elena Ferrante, the movie focuses on a midlife woman who becomes obsessed with a young mother — and with haunting memories and repressed guilt over her own motherhood — while on vacation.

Colman and Dunst are joined by an impressive (and long) list of other Globe nominated movie actresses, including Jessica Chastain (The Eyes of Tammy Faye), Nicole Kidman (Being the Riccardos), Marion Cotillard (Annette), Jennifer Lawrence (Don’t Look Up), Emma Stone

(Cruella), and newcomers Alana Haim (Licorice Pizza), and Rachel Zegler (West Side Story). Two exceptionally dark horses are Lady Gaga for House of Gucci and Kristen Stewart for Spencer, both of whom have more than proven their acting chops this year. Supporting actress nominees include: Caitriona Balfe (Belfast), Ariana DeBose (West Side Story), Aunjanue Ellis (King Richard), and Ruth Negga (Passing). There is impressive work represented by all. As always, there were a few snubs, like Meryl Streep’s turn as science skeptic President Orlean in Don’t Look Up. But, fear not, she may still get some recognition when Oscar nominations are announced next month (she holds the record with 21 nods).

Meanwhile, we’ll keep our eyes on Campion and Gyllenhaal. The Best Director winners club — whether the Golden Globes’ branch or the Academy’s — is almost exclusively male. It’s a club more women deserve to belong to. Whether the HFPA chooses to honor a first-time director’s triumphant debut or an esteemed veteran’s return to form is anyone’s guess.

My money’s on Campion (although both the numerical and historical odds favor a man). Campion is no stranger to shattered glass ceilings. She was the only woman in Cannes Film Festival history to win the Palme d’Or until 2021, when she was joined by Julia Ducournau (for Titane).

Whether Campion wins or not, she asserts that The Power of the Dog has reenergized her creativity although she makes no promises about directing another film. “Well, I’m not thinking in terms of what’s next anymore, that’s for sure. It’s more, if something takes my fancy, I’m going to do it. Is that a shift of consciousness? Maybe. I am certainly going to use my energies differently from now on. For one thing, I’m starting a pop-up film school, because I really hate how unequal education is for people with money and people without money. I really hate it … So, I’m going to work for free and start this film school and Netflix is going to support me … When I was young and starting out, making films was just so invigorating and it seemed to help me live in a good way. I felt I needed to do it. But over the years, that need has changed. I don’t really have it anymore. I don’t need it for myself anymore. So, I’m just going to direct my energies in all sorts of different ways. I really don’t know how that’s gonna work out, but for me that’s exciting in itself.”

The Power of the Dog is available in theatres and on Netflix.


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