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

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.

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  • Gary Lubarsky January 27, 2011 at 2:38 pm

    While I agree with your overall point, let’s keep in mind that some progress has been made in recent years (no, not much, but some) and remember that progress almost never takes place in a straight-line fashion.

    By the way, I think Norah Ephron might be a tad offended at not being mentioned in your piece.