Oscar's Old Boys Club: Are the Doors About to Open to Female Directors?

From left: Directors Regina King, Emerald Fennell and Chloé Zhao have all been nominated for Golden Globes.
Patti Perret/Amazon Studios; Merie Weismiller Wallace/Focus Features;Joshua James Richards/20th Century Studios

From left: Directors Regina King, Emerald Fennell and Chloé Zhao have all been nominated for Golden Globes.

The Academy's helming branch has traditionally resisted welcoming women, but with talents like Chloé Zhao, Regina King and Emerald Fennell receiving awards buzz, that could change.

The directors branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been put on notice. One of the most notorious set of Oscar stats is the fact that during the whole of its 92-year history, the Academy has nominated only five women for best director. There has never been more than one woman nominated in a given year. And only one — Kathryn Bigelow for 2009's The Hurt Locker — has ever won.

But this year there are more viable female candidates than ever knocking on the door. The Hollywood Foreign Press Association and the Critics Choice Awards have both nominated three of them: Chloé Zhao for Nomadland, her portrait of a wandering woman seeking liberation on the road; Regina King, for One Night in Miami, her account of the meeting of four Black icons in 1964; and Emerald Fennell, for Promising Young Woman, her comedic thriller about a self-styled avenger. Film Independent's Spirit Awards went even further, handing noms to Zhao and Fennell as well as to Eliza Hittman for her abortion drama Never Rarely Sometimes Always and to Kelly Reichardt for First Cow, while earmarking its Robert Altman Award for King, her cast and the film's casting director.

If the Academy's nominations, which will be revealed March 15, don't prove similarly welcoming, there's sure to be an outcry.

Historically, though, the Academy's directors branch, traditionally one of the most insular of the organization's 17 branches, hasn't taken its cues from other awards groups. When the Globes nominated and then gave its best director award to Barbra Streisand for 1983's Yentl, the branch gave her the cold shoulder — even though, by that time in its history, it had awarded Oscars to other actors turned directors, like Robert Redford (for 1980's Ordinary People) and Warren Beatty (for 1981's Reds). Other Globe nominees who have gotten the Academy's cold shoulder have included Streisand (again, for 1991's The Prince of Tides), Bigelow (for 2012's Zero Dark Thirty) and Ava DuVernay (for 2014's Selma).

The Directors Guild — a much larger group than the Academy's directors branch given that it includes assistant directors and unit production managers — has also been somewhat more inclusive in recognizing women directors. It bestowed a nomination on Randa Haines in 1986 for her Children of a Lesser God. Like the Globes, it recognized both Streisand for Prince and Bigelow for Zero as well as Valerie Faris, who shared directing credit with Jonathan Dayton on 2006's Little Miss Sunshine.

Of course, then was then, and now is now. And like the rest of the Academy, the directors branch — long characterized as an aging boys' club — has been working to diversify its ranks. It now has 564 members, many newly drawn from the ranks of international directors. Recently invited new members have included The Farewell's Lulu Wang and Honey Boy's Alma Har'el, and the percentage of women now stands at 24.1 percent. Presumably, the influence of the old boys is shrinking.

And if there ever was a season that favors advances by women, it's this season. The disruptions and postponements caused by the COVID-19 pandemic mean that previous nominees, like The French Dispatch's Wes Anderson, and winners, like West Side Story's Steven Spielberg, will be sitting this one out. And that opens the door wider for new voices.

Certainly Zhao, after her critically lauded 2017 feature, The Rider, is poised to graduate to the next level. She's already earned directing prizes from film critics in New York, Los Angeles and from the National Society. Nomadland was named best feature and scored the audience prize at the Gotham Awards. And it made its debut at the Venice Film Festival, claiming the Golden Lion Award, which also served as a stepping stone for The Shape of Water's Guillermo del Toro and Roma's Alfonso Cuarón, who both won directing Oscars.

King also could be in an advantageous position. The winner of the supporting actress Oscar for 2018's If Beale Street Could Talk (not to mention a quartet of Emmys for her TV performances), she's making her theatrical directing debut with One Night, after having directed lots of TV. And, though the directors branch may have snubbed Streisand back in the day, it has since seen fit to honor such actors turned directors as Kevin Costner and Mel Gibson as winners.

It may be a harder reach for Fennell. A prolific British actor (she appears as Camilla Parker Bowles on the most recent season of The Crown) and writer (Killing Eve), she's making her feature directorial debut with Promising Young Woman. Still, on rare occasions, the branch has reached out to embrace a groundbreaking first-timer, as it did with John Singleton for 1991's Boyz n the Hood and Benh Zeitlin for 2012's Beasts of the Southern Wild.

So if the Academy's branch shuts the door on most of those possibilities, then the question is likely to be, "If not now, when?”

This story first appeared in the Feb. 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.