Critic's Notebook: Why There's No Excuse for Not Nominating Female Directors This Year
A year after Natalie Portman's pointed Globes intro, "And here are all the male nominees," The Hollywood Reporter reflects on woman-helmed awards contenders.
It's remarkable how often Films That Directed Themselves turn out to be by women. When Natalie Portman presented the Golden Globe for best director in January, she pointedly went off-script to say, "And here are all the male nominees." She might as well have been saying "Where's Greta Gerwig?" The actress-director's Lady Bird, after all, won a Globe for best musical or comedy. And likewise a few years ago, Ava DuVernay was notoriously snubbed by the Oscars while Selma competed for best picture.
Unthinking sexism? Too many good movies? Whatever the excuse, it's not because female directors aren't out there. This year, at last a half-dozen are in the mix. And their films hit timely issues: women's power, ambition, identities and social worth.
The films range in scale from Josie Rourke's sweeping historical drama, Mary Queen of Scots, to Tamara Jenkins' intimate portrait of a contemporary marriage, Private Life. They depict women at all ages. Melissa McCarthy is a middle-aged writer discarded by society in Marielle Heller's Can You Ever Forgive Me? and newly discovered Thomasin McKenzie is an adolescent coming into her own in Debra Granik's Leave No Trace.
They reinvent genres and turn gender stereotypes upside down. In Susanne Bier's action thriller Bird Box, Sandra Bullock plays an emotionally detached mother — and she's the heroine! In Karyn Kusama's Destroyer, Nicole Kidman is a guilt-ridden bad cop, the type of role usually written for men. And Mimi Leder's courtroom drama On the Basis of Sex depicts the early career of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, one of today's most inspiring real-life heroines.
Together these films suggest that a long-simmering truth may finally be having an impact: With more women behind the camera, more varied and richer images appear on-screen, too. The mostly imperfect heroines in this group face enhanced versions of real-life problems.
Rourke, an acclaimed theater director, has made a smashing first film about the rivalry between ruthless 16th century royals: Mary of Scotland (Saoirse Ronan) and Elizabeth I of England (Margot Robbie). She creates stunning, inventive visuals and deftly handles action scenes with an armor-clad Mary on horseback leading her troops.
But there is no mistaking these queens for male leaders. They are treated skeptically or dismissively by lower-ranking men. No wonder they are utterly cruel to each other, as the film depicts the self-preservation that — in a royal court or a corporate boardroom — often pits women against one another. Savvy about women and political power, the film was written by Beau Willimon (House of Cards), so let's hope we're beyond the canard that women getting ahead in the industry means cutting men out.
Kidman is captivating in Destroyer, not because she de-glams but because she is so pitiless about the depths to which her character, Erin, has fallen: unwashed, alcoholic, haunted by a death she caused years before. Kusama (Girlfight) also makes space for scenes with Erin's rebellious, neglected teenage daughter. It may be a relief for women viewers that there are no movie-perfect mothers here.
Bullock's character in Bird Box doesn't even bother to name her children; she calls them Boy and Girl. That reluctant mother is embedded in Bier's (The Night Manager) high-voltage, apocalyptic thriller as the family treks blindfolded toward safety because it is lethal to glimpse the creatures causing the chaos.
McCarthy's character in Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a dour misfit, a washed-up writer who forges letters from famous authors in order to survive. Yet McCarthy and Heller (The Diary of a Teenage Girl) make her sympathetic in her desperation. This unique character has a relatable problem: A new generation has passed her by.
Such quirky films, and little indies, often have a tough time in awards races. Both Leave No Trace and Private Life recently picked up Spirit Award nominations and should be in the best picture and best director conversation. Granik (Winter's Bone) displays her singular, naturalistic vision in Leave No Trace, with Ben Foster as a veteran with PTSD who lives with his daughter off the social grid. The film is unflinching and heartbreaking as the girl forges a life apart from his.
Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) stands apart as a fictional version of a beloved role model. But like so many of this year's films, On the Basis of Sex sends a bracing message that women have every reason to be tough-minded and ambitious. That means taking charge as directors and maybe actually winning some awards.
This story first appeared in a November stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.