Do the Oscars Have a “Female Director” Problem This Year?


Do the Oscars Have a “Female Director” Problem This Year?

Illustration: Akshita Monga

The Oscars have historically served as the platform for various political protests and provocations. Two days from now, chances are good that someone will speak about the Me Too movement at this year’s host-less ceremony. But given the Academy’s self-portrait of all things righteous, its blatant disregard for the brilliant films helmed by female directors becomes all the more baffling – the Best Director Category, like Natalie Portman put it at the Golden Globes last year, boasts of “all-male nominees”; no female-directed film is up for Best Picture either. It’s especially strange given the quality and depth of cinema women have helmed over the last 91 years of the Academy’s existence and yet only five female directors have managed a nomination in the Best Director category through the years.

2018 witnessed a plethora of incredible perspectives from four female directors that were deserving of a nomination: Debra Granik’s ode to father-daughter relationships in Leave No Trace was tender and wrenching in equal measure and came layered with a commentary on isolation in today’s hyper-connected world. Marielle Heller’s tragicomedy Can You Ever Forgive Me? brings to screen the real life story of Lee Israel, a broke writer who chooses to forge literary letters to pay rent and ends up befriending an atypical accomplice. Heller forces the audience to dig deep into the psyche of a textbook unlikeable character, producing one of those rare films shouldered by a middle-aged female protagonist, who is more preoccupied with her work than her appearance. In Netflix’s underrated Private Life, Tamara Jenkins’ deftly traces the banality of a middle-aged couple’s pursuit of parenthood, that is as richly detailed as it is a harsh commentary on the business of making babies. And Lynne Ramsay, a provocateur like no other, explored the dark psychological side of a depressed murderer in You Were Never Really Here.

The year had also seen other notably admirable films like Chloe Zhao’s The Rider that picked up “Best Feature Film” at the Gotham Independent Film Awards over heavyweights Roma and The Favourite and was awarded “Best Film” by the National Society of Film Critics Award; Jennifer Fox’s The Tale that featured an unstoppable Laura Dern, and Kathryn Kusama’s The Destroyer, all which cap off an exceptional year. In terms of subject, Granik, Ramsay and Zhao intriguingly take turns to explore the pained male psyche in their respective offerings – thereby confirming there are no boundaries, here, that need the proverbial push.

Evidently, the Academy has as much a spine as it has a tasteless tongue. Even Kathryn Bigelow’s solitary win for Best Director for The Hurt Locker nine years back seems, in retrospect, a nod to the kind of war-time testosterone fuelled cinema that the Academy gladly laps up. Commenting on being shut out by the Oscars an interview with Indiewire, Heller offers an infuriating revelation on the breathless lobbying mechanisms that make up an Oscar win and the public consciousness that is habituated to deem work by female directors as less worthy, “I got separated from my film, which I worked so hard on,” Heller said. “If I had gone into this awards campaign going, ‘I made this movie. I did this. I created these performances, I created this chemistry, I brought them together, I cast Richard E. Grant, I cast Melissa McCarthy. I brought them together. I did this. I found all of these things. This was what I did, this was what I did, this was what I did,’ maybe I wouldn’t have been separated from the story of movie in the way that I have been. But how would I have slept at night?”

Granik on the other hand, revealed the Academy’s habit of sidelining female directors in the same piece, claiming that she “never expected to be nominated” and hence, wasn’t disappointed. She also looked at the exclusion of female directors in the Best Director Race as an “empirical exclusion” rather than a snub. That is not, however, to say that the Academy should condescendingly distribute handouts, but only widen its palette – pull itself level with a vision for cinema that perhaps only women can offer.

A director’s vision – his or her language – is really the core of a film; the actors are its vocabulary, the ones who’ll carry within them, the emotion of the narrative.

Last year, Greta Gerwig famously became the fifth woman to be recognised in the Best Director category at the Oscars. It forces the argument that when films helmed by women continue to get nominated for other categories but repeatedly snubbed for their directorial accomplishment, it’s nothing but the Academy perpetuating the myth that women aren’t deserving of receiving sole credit for an ensemble piece.

A director’s vision – his or her language – is really the core of a film; the actors are its vocabulary, the ones who’ll carry within them, the emotion of the narrative. Understandably, it is the most pivotal role in cinema, and therefore by definition, the most elevated designation after male actors. It’s also why, the rarity of a woman as elevated as their male peers, despite credible work to show for, feels despairingly off.

In nudging the superhero spectacle Black Panther for “Best Film” in the Oscars race, the Academy has confessedly responded to the age, in the process winning for itself the insincere accolade of being inclusive and perceptive. And yet, its imagination, its crusade to popularise aberrant films is still catalysed by the presence – and dominance – of the male genius, in one way or the other. It is a symptom of the systemic faith men place in other men that must eventually change, which Granik claims “works like a rubber band. You stretch it, and then it snaps back, because it got uncomfortable [being] stretched”.

Three months into 2019, Nisha Gantra’s Late Night (recently sold to Amazon for 13 million dollars), Alma Hare’l’s Honey Boy, and Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir are among the early names already earning acclaim across the festival circuit. Can the Oscars really afford being uncomfortable being stretched next year as well?