A Deeper Cultural Look at the First Female Oscar Recipient…
Don’t get me wrong, I like Kathryn Bigalow. I don’t mind her movies, although her filmic obsessions are completely different from my own. Anyone’s filmic obsessions are their own creative prerogative. Besides, we’re fellow film alums from Columbia…So this is not about Kathryn. This is about something much deeper.
On March 7, 2010, for the first time in its eight-decade existence, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded its Best Director Oscar to a woman, and Kathryn Bigalow made herstory. The Hurt Locker, the lowest-grossing best picture winner of all time, was Bigalow’s prized contender. “Well,” said Barbra Streisand , presenting the award to Bigalow, “the time has come.” Every soul in audience-land knew that Streisand was referring to the glaring, gender-based decision. It must have been a mixed moment for Streisand, who was famously snubbed twice by the Academy; first for her monumental directorial effort, Yentl , in which she became the first person in history to direct, produce, co-author, star and sing in a major motion picture, and later in her psychotherapy melodrama, The Prince of Tides .
Don’t get me wrong. I am thrilled that it finally happened. I’m thrilled that the glass ceiling finally broke. But one really does have to ask, is it a coincidence that the film Bigalow wins for is about war, starring an all male cast, with guys blowing things up? What exactly is that about?
Do I think that the unprecedented and embarrassingly low numbers of women who get to direct will now, like Moses, see a parting of the red sea of opportunity? Do I think this will make a difference in the abysmal way women directors are treated in Hollywood (if they are acknowledged at all)? How naïve to think it might.
I don’t want to be a sourpuss about this. Bigalow is unquestionably a fascinating and skilled director. The subject matter that turns a filmmaker on, and makes them shine is not at issue here. My ambivalent mood has rather more to do with something Streisand said in the aftermath of being ignored twice by the Academy,
“I look at it as a larger problem,”
[re: Warren Beatty’s best director win for his pet project Reds],
“it’s as if a man is allowed to feel passionate commitment about his work, and a woman is allowed to feel passionate commitment only about a man.”
And as director Mary Harron said it,
“Male executives are looking for fantasy images of their younger selves, and this pertains to both the people and the films they celebrate.”
This stuff is so deep in the psychology of the patriarchy that none of us can see the forest from the trees. Bigalow did a boy’s film. She did it as well as the boys, and perhaps indistinguishably better. Make no mistake, this was her crowning achievement.
Spending an entire career focused on gender bender masculine mise en scene, it is understandable that Bigalow resists acclaim as a “woman” director. As any filmmaker would, she wants to be known not for her gender, but for her work. As Reed Johnson has noted, In the old-boys club that is modern Hollywood, there are few surer ways to kill off a promising film career than by getting yourself labeled a “feminist” director. Yet in the larger cultural framework, it is essential that her Oscar win not be underestimated. As Monika Bartyzel said on Cinematical.com,
“The casual viewer has no idea how monumental this is, unless they happen to hit the Internet for research. There’s just enough women in the popular Hollywood consciousness to make this win seem less noteworthy if you don’t know the history and numbers. Last night was the perfect opportunity to alert the common public to the imbalance. It wouldn’t have taken much — just a simple mention that she’s the first woman to win after 8 decades of awards ceremonies, matched with an expression of hope that this marks a change for female filmmakers.
If you believe that it’s not necessary, just take a look at any of the articles and commentary provided by those who don’t follow the business closely. In a post for EW,
quoted a TV producer who said: “You know, like, on the one hand, I’ve read figures that say women make up only a small percentage of Hollywood. But then, on the other hand, you know, like Nancy Meyers? Nora Ephron? Good, right?”
The excitement is understandable — 2009 was a pretty stellar year as far as women in Hollywood were concerned. For the first time, there were a myriad of female directors inciting buzz, a blockbuster film led by the power of an actress, and notable features full of strong and engaging female characters. But it is essential that we remain balanced about these achievements and not let our happiness distort the reality. It’s all too easy to excuse away the fight that still remains, and for these achievements to work against women, becoming a mask that covers reality. The casual observer will see the chatter around directors like Bigelow, the success of Sandra Bullock and The Blind Side, and falsely assume that things are coming up roses for women in Hollywood. There’s no reason for them to recognize and realize the imbalance unless they start flocking to film sites and the power of IMDb.”
So why, you may ask, didn’t Bigalow’s ex-husband, James Cameron win? After all, AVATAR made more than $700 million at the box office in the US alone, vs. only $17 million for The Hurt Locker. Here I have to agree with Patrick Goldstein of the L.A. Times who noticed that it is not an academy tradition to vote for computer generated aliens or 3D cameras when it comes to Best Pictures. Note other groundbreaking science adventures that failed Oscar history: Star Wars, Jaws. The Academy still likes to see itself as a human-based enterprise, ever liberally “PC” when it comes to world affairs (as long as they are happening to someone else, on some other end of the world).
But back to Bigalow. Clearly, she is something of an anomaly in planet Hollywood. As Andrew Hultkrans put it in Artforum,
Combining an affinity for the frenetic rhythms of the thriller with a taste for subversive genre-bending that recalls her “high art” beginnings, Bigelow is a consummate technician whose balletic action sequences remind us how cinematically pure the language of violence can be.
Here is Hultkrans’ interview with Bigalow. The fascinating biography of a consummate contemporary pioneer in her own words:
ANDREW HULTKRANS: It’s quite a leap from Conceptual art to the culture industry.
KATHRYN BIGELOW: It does seem like a departure. I was studying painting at the San Francisco Art Institute and one of my teachers put me up for the Whitney Program, so I went. This was ’73 or ’74, when Conceptual art really came to the fore. I did a couple of videos with Lawrence Weiner, and I worked with Art & Language, an artists, group who were critiquing the commodification of culture. So I was very influenced by them, and my concerns moved from the plastic arts to Conceptual art and a more politicized framework. And I became dissatisfied with the art world – the fact that it requires a certain amount of knowledge to appreciate abstract material.
Film, of course, does not demand this kind of knowledge. Film was this incredible social tool that required nothing of you besides twenty minutes to two hours of your time. I felt that film was more politically correct, and I challenged myself to try to make something accessible using film, but with a conscience. I still work off that foundation. So I shot this short piece called Set Up .
I was matriculating in film history and criticism. I was reading Freud, which led me to the philosophy department. I was working on Semiotext(e). I had Peter Wollen as a teacher, and Edward Said – extraordinary thinkers. So naturally I was influenced by them, which ironically pulled me back into the art world. Structuralist thought is hopelessly out of fashion now, but it’s what led me to The Loveless , my first feature-length narrative film. I was still resisting narrative; that film is more like a meditation.
Then I ran out of money again and got a teaching job at Cal Arts, out here. I was forced to move for economic reasons; I had no intention of The Loveless being a calling card to the industry. Working in the art world, of course, you have nothing but disdain for Hollywood. AH: The Loveless is a series of period tableaus; there are scenes where there’s hardly any sound, certainly no dialogue…
KB: Playing with genre is both conscious and unconscious, because I don’t think you’re ever immune to genre. Even if you choose not to use it, that’s a loaded decision in and of itself. But I have a desire to subvert and redefine. Genre exists for that purpose. It’s a so a great interlocutor with the audience, a way in, a language they understand and that makes them comfortable. Once you touch base in a genre you can go in any direction. It’s interesting to do a vampire western like Near Dark, to create a hybrid, but I’m not always cross-pollinating genres strategically. AH” It’s not, “I’m going to do a tech noir today”?
KB: [Laughter] Ironically, as we started to develop Strange Days, we did talk about it as a tech noir.
AH: So you’re a fan of film noir?
KB: Are you kidding? Film noir is probably my favorite genre. That’s how I moved from art to film, so to speak: I went through Fassbinder on my way to noir.
Born in San Carlos, California, the only child of the manager of a paint factory and a librarian, Bigalow spent two years at the San Francisco Art Institute. At 20, she won a scholarship to the Whitney Museum’s Independent Study Program. She was given a studio in a former Offtrack Betting building, literally in a vault. Her teachers and primary critics were among the notables: Richard Serra, Robert Rauschenberg, Susan Sontag. In 1981 she received her masters from Columbia University Film School.
I most respect L.A. Times’ Reed Johnson’s assessment of Bigalow’s filmic obsessions:
Critics often have focused on Bigelow’s evident appetite for loading up her movies with guns and steel, car chases and loud, baroque explosions. Well, why shouldn’t she? Violent imagery in art never has been an exclusively male preserve, even if a Bigelow or an Artemesia Gentileschi seems to come along only once every generation.
But this emphasis on the macho technical trappings of Bigelow’s films is misleading. Unlike so many of her male colleagues, Bigelow isn’t drawn to big bangs and mano a mano encounters simply to stoke the hormones of 14-year-old boys.
Her deeper interest lies in men’s tribal rites and rituals; their fears, posturings and warrior codes; their feelings about sex and fatherhood; their conflicted loyalties and clashing ideas of what leadership and heroism mean. Like one of her inspirations, the ultra-bloody Sam Peckinpah, Bigelow is intimately concerned with the bonds that connect men with each other, and the values that connect them with themselves.
At the center of it all, in so many of Bigelow’s films, are men (and occasionally women) trapped in alien landscapes and disorienting spaces, trying to reconcile the tension between their professional duties and the adrenaline rush of living on the edge. Like the playwright David Mamet’s male characters, Bigelow’s struggle with the knowledge that they are defined and perceived more by what they do than by who they really are.
These are themes that Bigelow has returned to throughout her career: in “Blue Steel” (1989) with Jamie Lee Curtis playing a cop battling sexism and a serial killer; in “Point Break” (1991), which stars Keanu Reeves as an undercover FBI agent infiltrating a criminal gang of Zen surfer dudes; and in “K-19: The Widowmaker” (2002), with Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson as rival Soviet submarine commanders, coping with a secret mission gone lethally wrong…
Bigelow’s attitude toward such characters is invariably one of empathy and discernment. At the same time, by depicting men struggling, and sometimes failing, to master their environments, her movies subvert the conventional audience expectation of being able to identify with a strong male protagonist…
Whatever you say about the stunning attributes of her Oscar winning, The Hurt Locker still belongs, as L.A. Times’ Reed Johnson so astutely put it,
to the most guy-centric of all movie genres…the war picture still is a place where primarily male characters and male audiences can go to test their values, belief systems and relationships to institutions, history and country. In that sense, the war movie remains a cultural citadel of male privilege.
Bigalow showed her reluctance to highlight her historic win on Oscar night 2010, by making no mention of it in her Oscar speech. Even behind the scenes, when accosted by reporters, Bigelow remained reluctant to call herself a female director. She was asked, ‘Are you ready to say that now at this historic moment?’ Kathryn replied, ‘First of all, I hope I’m the first of many. And of course I’d love to just think of myself as a filmmaker, and I wait for the day when the modifier can be a moot point.'”
She ain’t the only one.