Could female directors hit Oscar paydirt this year?

Posted by · 4:31 am · May 30th, 2009

Jane CampionOnly the greenest of awards-watchers needs reminding of the following statistic: a mere three women have been nominated for Best Director in the 81-year history of the Academy Awards. It’s long been an embarrassing state of affairs — never more so than in the late 80s and early 90s, when in three out of six consecutive years, the Best Picture nominee denied a directing nod happened to be made by a woman.

Still, the sad truth is that the workings of the industry are such that female filmmakers are rarely entrusted with the kind of prestige studio product that grabs awards attention. (It’s no coincidence that the three past nominees — Lina Wertmuller, Jane Campion and Sofia Coppola — all come from the foreign and/or independent sector.)

2009, however, offers a considerably rosier outlook. As I was compiling my own early Oscar predictions (which I’ll share with you next week) in the wake of Cannes, it occurred to me that the Academy has an opportunity to double that paltry aforementioned statistic in the space of a single year. More than double, actually: looking down the list of awards possibilities, it is feasible — if still not very likely — that as many as four of this year’s five Best Director slots could be filled by the fairer sex.

Apparently, I’m not the only one thinking alone these lines: IndieWire’s Peter Knegt considers the possibilities of three ladies in his post-Cannes awards speculation column, going so far as to predict nods for all three (based only on films he’s seen so far). So who are these women (including the one Knegt isn’t considering) with a chance of making Oscar history come January?

New Zealand’s Jane Campion is the likeliest contender. As Kris discussed in his Off the Carpet column earlier this week, Campion’s “Bright Star” may have come away empty-handed from the Croisette, but it nonetheless easily emerged as the Cannes title with the most Oscar buzz, thanks to an Academy-friendly profile (it’s a visually resplendent period biopic, after all) and a raft of rave reviews. It helps Campion that she’s a known quantity to voters: 16 years after “The Piano,” she stands a strong chance of becoming the first two-time female nominee in the Best Director category.

A darker horse from the foreign arthouse sector is Lone Scherfig, a Danish director who emerged from the Dogme 95 movement with the crossover hit “Italian For Beginners” in 2000. Unlike Dogme peers such as Lars Von Trier, Scherfig is celebrated for her warmth and humanism, both qualities apparently much in evidence in her Sundance darling “An Education,” a romantic British coming-of-age tale that has won critics’ hearts and prompted speculation that it could emerge as the gentle underdog in this year’s Oscar race. Such films don’t always carry their directors with them (just ask the directors of “Little Miss Sunshine,” one of whom is — fancy that — a woman), but Scherfig’s arthouse pedigree is an undeniable asset.

If Scherfig represents the softer alternative, the opposite is true of Kathryn Bigelow, whose bruising, testosterone-laden Iraq War drama “The Hurt Locker” has been wowing critics since its unveiling at Venice last fall. General consensus is that the film is too gritty and action-oriented to make it into the Best Picture lineup — and it’s true that the Academy has yet to meet an Iraq movie it really likes — but the physical scale and complexity of the endeavor is of the type that can win a ‘lone director.’ Meanwhile, Bigelow, long regarded as a game-changer for women in Hollywood, has nothing but goodwill on her side.

Finally, Mira Nair isn’t generating quite as much awards talk just yet, but once her Amelia Earhart biopic “Amelia” is unveiled, we’ll have a clearer idea of where her chances lie. On her side is that she’s at the helm of Fox Searchlight’s designated awards heavy-hitter, easily the largest, starriest and baitiest project of the four discussed here. Cause for hesitation lies in Nair’s own mixed track record: a terrific filmmaker when tackling subject matter close to her Indian roots (“Salaam Bombay!” netted her a foreign-language Oscar nod two decades ago), her more Western-oriented work has gone awry. (Remember the crash and burn of “Vanity Fair?”) As such, she remains something of a wild card — but still stands a chance of making history twice over, as the first non-white female directing nominee in Oscar history.

Bearing in mind that forecasting nominations is enough of a leap as it is, could any of them actually win? I wouldn’t count on it: providing they even get in, Scherfig’s film seems too small for victory in the top races, Nair’s too old-fashioned, while Bigelow likely won’t have an accompanying Best Picture nod at all. Campion would appear to stand the strongest chance, but “Bright Star” represents the kind of literary, Anglocentric fare (“Atonement,” “The Reader,” “The Hours”) that routinely gets nominated by the Academy in the top categories, but rarely has enough muscle to win. Still, if two (or more) ladies make the lineup, the (doubtless) ensuing media hype could well put some pressure on voters to break the hex.

That’s not even getting into the diverse spate of female-helmed 2009 titles that seem less likely to garner gongs for their makers — from Nora Ephron’s “Julie and Julia” to Andrea Arnold’s “Fish Tank” to Anne Fontaine’s “Coco Before Chanel” — but still point to improving fortunes for women in the industry. Here’s hoping.

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15 responses so far

  • 1 5-30-2009 at 8:57 am

    Adam M. said...

    I don’t think Bigelow has a shot at all, and Scherfig is a HUGE stretch at this point. Nair could actually be a shoo-in if “Amelia” doesn’t disappoint. (The film itself is right. up. Oscar’s. alley.) I think Campion would be in better standing had “Bright Star” won something at Cannes, but she’s definitely still in the game.

    I’d also keep an eye on Niki Caro who landed some Oscar attention for “Whale Rider” and “North Country.” Her next film “The Vintner’s Luck” is a wonderful story based on a highly praised and beloved novel that should, if done well, make for some great filmmaking. If nothing else, maybe she’ll snag an Oscar nod for one of her female cast members as she did for her two aforementioned films. I’m particularly interested in Vera Farmiga’s turn as the Baroness Aurora and, perhaps even more so, Gaspard Ulliel playing Xas the angel.

  • 2 5-30-2009 at 9:03 am

    Ryan Hoffman said...

    I’ll go with history and say one will be nominated, if that.

  • 3 5-30-2009 at 1:51 pm

    Xavi Rodriguez said...

    I really hope that finally a woman will win an Oscar in Best Directing Category.

    I think that all the contenders you said has that kind of opportunities:

    *Jane Campion: I have no doubt that she will be nominated again. Even a few possibilities of winning

    *Kathryn Bigelow: If they’ll have a lone shot for Directing, she has a good possibility, unless “Green Zone” have all the attention…

    *Lone Scherfig: Maybe the story is too sweet and light, but sometimes Academy likes it…
    *Nora Ephron: Unfortunally only acting categories and maybe screenplay

    *Niki Caro: Another New Zealander, but I think she has stronger chances that expected, even for Victory like Adam M. said before

    *Amelia: I head really awful things at test screeners and if “the Namesake” was ignored…

  • 4 5-30-2009 at 8:49 pm

    MattyD. said...

    I really truly believe that Campion will get nominated from “Bright Star”. It’s the only film to really come out of Cannes that is Academy-friendly and critically-certified good. Not to mention so much of what I’ve heard about the film concerns the direction and so many reviews mention Campion frequently. I already know I’m gonna love this film come Oscar night :).

  • 5 5-30-2009 at 10:34 pm

    Glenn said...

    Let’s not forget when Barbra Streisand won the Golden Globe for “Yentl” and wasn’t even nominated for the Oscar (and she also had “Prince of Tides”, which is one of the titles in that late 80s/early 90s stretch you mentioned).

    I actually predicted Schoefig in my year-in-advance. I normally wouldn’t have but Reitman’s nod for “Juno” last year made me think that maybe that branch is realising these small indie comedies don’t direct themselves? Who knows though. Campion is looking likelier now though.

  • 6 5-31-2009 at 8:49 am

    Adam M. said...

    I think Campion is going to peak too soon. We shall see though.

  • 7 5-31-2009 at 6:27 pm

    Glenn said...

    Her biggest worry probably isn’t that she’s a woman but that she has a distribution company that is so new their name hasn’t even been cleared yet.

  • 8 5-31-2009 at 7:30 pm

    Johnny Doubles said...

    I’m glad somebody has taken notice of this. With so many films with strong Oscar potential, 2009 might be the best chance yet for a woman to take the top prize!!

  • 9 5-31-2009 at 11:50 pm

    Patryk said...

    Hopefully Campion’s film is nothing like “Portrait of a Lady,” which was difficult to sit through, despite the fine cast.

  • 10 6-01-2009 at 2:36 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Patryk: General consensus is that it’s a lot simpler and more classical than “The Portrait of a Lady.” That said, I really like “Portrait,” even when it doesn’t quite hang straight — I wish more filmmakers would be that formally experimental in their period pieces.

    And I completely agree with Glenn about the Bob Berney distribution issue — we have very little idea what to expect in that regard.

  • 11 6-03-2009 at 3:17 pm

    rosengje said...

    Bright Star is much more straightforward and accessible than “The Piano” or “The Portrait of a Lady.” As such, it is probably her greatest chance to be embraced by the Academy again. I think Kathryn Bigelow would be the more traditional Best Director nominee, especially as the Lone Director. If “The Hurt Locker” was directed by a man there is no doubt in my mind it would be nominated.

  • 12 12-22-2009 at 1:44 pm

    christine marie said...