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In Oscar race, the women are seen, but are they understood?

This year's contenders for the Oscar prize for directing include more women than ever. But it's not a sure sign of progress.

December 02, 2009|By Randee Dawn
  • “The Hurt Locker” director may benefit from the longer best picture list.
“The Hurt Locker” director may benefit from the… (Jonathan Olley / Summit…)

On the surface, 2009 has been a great year for women directors. For one thing, there are simply more of them in early award contention than in recent memory -- including Kathryn Bigelow ( "The Hurt Locker"), Lone Scherfig ( "An Education") and Jane Campion ("Bright Star"). That fact, coupled with a broader best picture nomination selection for next year's Oscars, means that recognition for these helmers -- or even for Mira Nair ( "Amelia"), Rebecca Miller ( "The Private Lives of Pippa Lee") or Nora Ephron ( "Julie & Julia") -- is likely in the works.

Yet having more women in the game isn't all it's cracked up to be. Notes Nair, "There still aren't enough of us. It's lovely timing, but it doesn't indicate the health and bounty of the marketplace."

Despite that impressive list of names, the numbers remain not so good for female directors. According to Martha Lauzen, whose annual Celluloid Ceiling Report quantifies women's roles behind the scenes, just 9% of the directors among the top 250 domestic box office earners for 2008 were women.

"It really is shocking," says Lauzen, executive director for the study of women in television and film as well as a professor in the School of Theatre, Television and Film at San Diego State University. "I don't think most people realize that over nine times out of 10, when they walk into a movie theater, they're not only seeing a male vision of the world -- but an affluent, white male vision of the world. That's a pretty narrow slice of the social pie."

Under-representation of women directing studio films is nothing new, yet the disparity with men does remain shocking. And the stated reasons behind it -- female-directed films under perform at the box office, women only want to direct films about female issues or that there aren't enough women around to hire -- are either archaic or unproved -- yet they persist.

"It's mostly a boy universe in the Hollywood system," Nair says. "I understand it, and there's no point in whining about it. If you want that system, you have to dance with that system, be elephant-skinned and have a sensitive heart."

Nair and Miller agree that women get cut fewer breaks (as in box office performance) than men for their films. "Women are given less leeway to make mistakes," Miller says.

That, despite reports like the one Lauzen released last year (Women at the Boxoffice) that indicated otherwise. Using domestic, international and DVD sales grosses, she learned that gender had little to do with box office success: "The size of the budget determines the size of the box office grosses," she says. "When women and men have similar budgets for their films, the resulting box office grosses are similar."

As for women directors choosing subjects that largely appeal to women -- that's a chicken-or-egg issue: Perhaps women directors get to helm more pictures like "Julie & Julia" than "Hurt Locker" because those kinds of films are where most of them develop their experience.

"To a certain extent, finding a director has similarities with casting," Scherfig says. "If you haven't made people laugh, yet you want to prove that you can make a comedy -- you should take on scripts when you believe you have something to contribute other than trying to increase your own spectrum."

The arguments have gone around the block so frequently that many directors -- like Bigelow -- simply won't discuss gender and directing. But those who tend to work outside the studio system tend to feel freer, not just to discuss, but to get their films made. In Europe, many countries have a more equal male-female director balance; in Sweden, there is a kind of affirmative action program in place to give parity to women screenwriters and directors.

Nevertheless, a Dane like Scherfig says some of the people she works with have certain expectations of her -- because of her gender, not necessarily because of her background in the Dogme95 avant-garde filmmaking movement.

"People assume that I mother the actors or that I'm better at directing children," she says. "But I am pragmatic rather than dogmatic in some ways, and I don't enjoy working with amateurs -- including children."

Miller, an American living in Ireland (with husband Daniel Day-Lewis) writes, produces and directs each of her films, which gives her a certain freedom in what she makes. Yet she acknowledges that, with so much money on the line for a studio film, the risk makes executives cautious.

"It's like when you go on a plane," she says. "You want your pilot to be a Midwestern man who's about 50. If there's a classic idea of what a director sounds or looks like, it's not female. That's something that has to be gotten over gradually."

At the moment, there's little domestic rallying cry for change -- or affirmative action, which means women directors continue to struggle to find roundabout ways to get their stories told. Nair's next film, "The Reluctant Fundamentalist," is a political film and, as such, steers broadly around expected subject matter from a female director. But she'll be making it outside the studio system.

"That's by choice," she says. "I don't want political censorship before the act of creation is done. Then, I hope there will be a system that wants it."

And, ideally, a system that no longer differentiates between male and female directors -- though that's still a long time coming. Says Nair, "If God is willing, we won't even have to have that conversation."

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