Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win an Academy Award as Best Director when she took home the iron for The Hurt Locker, besting her ex-husband (and good friend) James Cameron, who had directed the two highest-grossing pictures in history, Titanic (1997) and Avatar (2009). Incredibly, Bigelow was only the fourth woman ever nominated in the category. Incredible, as there have been women film directors for over 100 years.
She ranks as one of the trailblazers for women filmmakers in the struggle to achieve mainstream acceptance and gain respect by the Hollywood Establishment. Her Oscar must be seen as a nod to her role in proving that a woman can handle a big picture that appeals to the male demographic so prized by studio bosses and exhibitors.
Ironically, unlike most women film directors who were trailblazers, Kathryn Bigelow cannot be said to be a “female director” in that she deals with themes common to “women’s pictures” or subjects from a feminine sensibility, or was hired to handle star actresses. She is more in the vein of Ida Lupino, who directed B-picture potboilers after World War II and also scores of TV shows in a wide variety of genres, such as the Western Have Gun, Will Travel. In their work, gender is not an issue.
First Oscar Nomination
Although the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences was founded in 1927 and the first Oscars were given out in 1929, it wasn’t until the 48th Academy Awards that a woman director was finally nominated for the Academy’s “First Award of Merit.”
At the first Academy Awards ceremony, there were two Best Director Awards, as one was given out for comedy. The comedy direction Oscar was never awarded again, so 48 male directors had won an Oscar, and over 200 nominated for the award(s) had gone to men, before the first women was nominated in the category.
The Italian filmmaker Lina Wertmüller became the first, when her 1975 master piece Seven Beauties racked up four Oscar nominations, including a nod for her as Best Director. The writer-director Wertmüller established herself as a major figure in world cinema in the 1970s, making such memorable pictures as The Seduction of Mimi, Love and Anarchy, and Swept Away, all of which were remade in English by other directors.
The only woman director to achieve such fame and adulation prior to Wertmüller was Leni Riefenstahl, primarily for her documentaries Triumph of the Will and Olympia. Riefenstahl was controversial as Triumph of the Will, a documentary about the infamous 1934 Nazi Party rally in Nuremberg, glorified Nazism. Her close friendship with der Führer Adolf Hitler and Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels made her pariah until late in her long life.
Women Directors in the Silent Era
There had been prominent women directors in the early days of the motion picture industry; in fact, the first real fictional movie likely was directed by a woman, the French cinema pioneer Alice Guy-Blaché). The movie actress Lois Weber, who had been a street-corner evangelist before entering motion pictures in 1905, was the first American movie director of note, and a major one at that.
The husband of Alice-Guy Blaché, Herbert Blaché, cast her in the lead of his movie Hypocrites in 1908. She first got behind the camera on A Heroine of ’76, a 1911 silent that was co-directed by the original American director, Edwin S. Porter, and the actor Phillips Smalley, who played George Washington. She also starred in the picture.
In 1914, a year in which she helmed 27 movies, Weber co-directed an adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice with Smalley, who also played Shylock. making her the first woman to direct a feature-length film in the United States. (Jeanie Macpherson, who would play a major role in cinema as a screenwriter, also acted in the film.)
In the spirit of her evangelism, she began directing, writing and then producing films of social import, dealing with such themes as alcoholism, birth control and drug addiction. By 1916, she had established herself as the top director at Universal Film Manufacturing (now Universal Studios), the top studio in America, making her the highest-paid director in the world. The following year, she formed Lois Weber Productions.
Lois Weber was the only woman member of the Motion Picture Directors Association. She directed over 100 films, but her production company eventually went bankrupt in the 1920s, as her career faltered. (The studio system began to consolidate after World War One, and the major studios, who controlled production, distribution and exhibition began acting like a monopoly, squeezing out smaller producers.)
By 1927, her career as a filmmaker essentially was over. She did not make the transition to sound, although she did make one talkie, White Heat in 1934, a miscegenation drama set on a Southern plantation, that failed at the box office. She died destitute.
Lois Weber had been one of the original movie entrepreneurs, directing, writing, producing and starring in her own films in what essentially was a craft. (There is speculation that the great director John Ford may have been an assistant on one of her films, an example of a craft being passed on from one generation to another.)
The end of the freewheeling days of the original movie entrepreneurs saw women being squeezed out of the industry. The advent of sound required massive amounts of capital, and Wall St. came to Hollywood in a big way, putting bankers on the boards of directors of the movie companies and forcing efficiency experts onto the studios.
The Great Depression forced some of the studios into receivership. When they were reorganized, it was along vertical lines with the New York money men in firm control. Large, vertically integrated organizations typically demand conformity, and women in Hollywood proved to be the “odd man out.”
Golden Age of Hollywood
In America, Dorothy Arzner was the sole woman director during Hollywood’s Golden Era. The fact that there was but one female director in Hollywood during the days of its greatest prosperity is ironic, as women generally made up more than half the movie audience, and frequently dictated the choice of movie that they and their husbands or boyfriends or family went to.
Lois Weber had been a friend of birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger, and had made films arguing for birth control so that women could have better control over their reproductive cycles and their lives. With the creation of “The Hayes Office” (former Postmaster General Will Hayes was made head of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America in 1922 and given the porfolio to “clean up” motion pictures), the advent of the Hayes Code in 1930, and the creation of the Production Code Administration in 1934, censorship enforced by the major studios became official and increasingly strict. Motion pictures dealing with topical subjects of interest of women would have to wait until the 1960s and the end of strict censorship.
In the “New Hollywood,” there was not only no place for an independent filmmaker like Lois Weber, there was only one place for a female director at all. After a period of flouting the Code in the years 1930-34 to boost box office receipts adversely affected by a sagging economy, the demands for conformity intensified as the Great Depression tightened its grip on America, creating a great deal of anxiety in America’s ruling class. A freedom of expression that had characterized the early cinema was quashed.
In a land known for freedom, a bureaucracy heavily influenced by the Catholic Church via its Legion of Decency was now dictating what Americans could see on the screen.
Dorothy Arzner broke into the business as a writer, a field that employed many women in the less controlled days of early cinema. (Cecil B. De Mille, the most successful director in Hollywood until Steven Spielberg, relied heavily on his screenwriter Jeanie Macpherson.) At Paramount (De Mille’s studio), Arzner shot additional footage on the original Blood and Sand, starring Rudolph Valentino, whose early career had been dependent on screenwriter June Mathis. She also was an editor (a career path that remained open to women even throughout the sound era).
Arzner was first allowed to direct Fashions for Women (1927) and the Ten Modern Commandments (1927), both of which starred Esther Ralston. She soon was given the job of helming the pictures of superstar Clara Bow, an irrepressible free spirit who not only was Paramount’s biggest star but the lover of studio boss Budd Schulberg.
She helped Bow, who had a heavy Brooklyn accent, make the transition to sound. Arzner is one of the people credited with creating the sound boom, as Clara was famous for being unable to stand still (her body in motion was part of her appeal), which caused problems as sound at that time was recorded by stationary microphones hidden behind props. To record Bow, the microphone had to be mobile.
Arzner directed 20 films between 1927 and 1943. During WWII, she directed films for the U.S. Army’s Women’s Army Corps (WACs). After the war, she helmed commercials and documentaries for television and taught directing and screewriting at U.C.L.A. One of her students was Francis Ford Coppola, whose daughter Sofia Coppola became only the third woman nominated for a Best Director Oscar.
In 1975, the Directors Guild of America, the directors’ trade union, held a gala “Tribute to Dorothy Arzner.” At the time, there was only one active woman director holding a DGA card!
Between Dorothy Arzner and Elaine May, who established herself in the 1971 with her successful comedy A New Leaf, the only woman director in the DGA was Ida Lupino. Lupino is best known as an actress, particularly as Humphrey Bogart’s co-star in High Sierra, but she also carved out a fine reputation as a director of B-movies. She is the first woman to direct a film noir.
From 1949 through 1953, Lupino directed seven feature films and then directed countless TV programs in all genres, including drama, cop shows, Westerns and comedy. In the mid-’60s, she was hired to direct the A picture The Trouble With Angels (1966), starring Haley Mills and Rosalind Russell. It had been a long drought for women directors. She directed her last TV episode two years later, in 1968, and retired from the director’s chair.
The next woman to get her Director’s Guild card was Elaine May, who made her name as a comedienne opposite Mike Nichols, who himself would become an Oscar-winning director. In the early ’70s, she directed two hits, A New Leaf (in which she co-starred with Walter Matthau) and Neil Simon’s The Heartbreak Kid. Unfortunately, her behavior on Mikey and Nicky (1976) was considered bizarre and the picture was a failure. She did not get another director’s gig until Warren Beatty hired her to helm Ishatar (1987), one of the all-time biggest box office bombs in history.
May never directed another motion picture, though she continued to work as a screenwriter. May shared an Oscar nomination with Beatty for the script of Heaven Can Wait (1978) and scored another writing Oscar nod for Primary Colors (1998).
After Elaine May, the female director who next established herself in America was Joan Micklin Silver, who guided Carol Kane to an Oscar nomination in her low-budgeted Hester Street (1975), the same year Lina Wertmüller broke the glass ceiling with her own Oscar nomination. Hester Street is a major milestone in low-budget, independent cinema, as the movie, budgeted at less than $400,000, got a relatively wide release after the Oscar nomination.
Silver went on to direct two films that achieved cult status in the late ’70s/early ’80s, Between the Lines and Head Over Heels (a.k.a. Chilly Scenes of Winter). Neither picture was a box office success.
At the time that Joan Micklin Silver tried to break into the movie business in the ’70s, she was actively discouraged by men, who said there was no room for women directors. The attitude made a mockery of the gains that woman had made in other fields since the feminist revolution of the ’60s.
She had to rely on her husband, a real estate financier, to put up the money for Hester Street, which broke through into the mainstream on the strength of Kane’s Oscar nomination. Although Silver never established herself as a major director, she continued to direct on television and in feature films into the 21st Century and was a true trail blazer for both female directors and low-budget, independent filmmakers.
Directors from Down Under
Lina Wertmüller was Italian, and in Europe, there were many established women directors. Wertmüller sinply was the one who “broke through” into Hollywood, and was actually allowed to direct an English-language picture with Candace Bergen as her star.
That movie, A Night Full of Rain (its full title, in English: The End of the World in Our Usual Bed in a Night Full of Rain) got egregious reviews and flopped at the box office, Only one more movie of hers, Blood Feud (released the same year as a Night Full of Rain) would get prominent distribution in America, due it stars, Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni. Wertmüller’s continued her directing career into the 21st Century but is not longer the titan of world cinema she once was. (She was mentioned in Woody Allen’s famous 1977 short story “The Kugelmass Episode.”)
In Hollywood, it took an Australian director, Gillian Armstrong, to finally get the boys to concede that a woman could play their game. (Kathryn Bigelow was the second.) The rap on women directors was that they couldn’t handle a movie crew in the days when men utterly dominated the craft unions as they could not win the respect of the technicians, many of whom had the consciousness and manners of carnival roustabouts.
Although welcome as editors, women also were felt to lack a “pictorial sense,” that is (reading between the lines), they were unable to muster the strength to get a cinematographer and his male crew to put the camera where she wanted it, or light a set how she pictured it should be. (If Stanley Kubrick had trouble handling Russell Metty during the shooting of a big budget major motion picture like Spartacus, how could a woman handle her director of photography?)
The English director Sally Potter used an all female crew on her 1983 movie The Gold Diggers, but despite starring Julie Christie, that was a low-budget art film that was seen by very few people. Despite achieving an art house hit with Orlando (1992), the movie that established Tilda Swinton’s acting career, Potter was an avant-garde director who never broke though to a mainstream audience.
Gillian Armstrong refuted this nonsense that a woman couldn’t handle a make movie crew and lacked pictorial sense. Stories of her forcefulness as a director began making the rounds. Diane Keaton, who starred in Armstrong’s Mrs Soffel (1984) and wanted to direct in the future, used to write down Campion’s set ups during the shooting. Armstrong had no trouble handling the crew on the $5-million picture.
Armstrong directed her first feature in 1970, but she finally established her reputation at the end of the decade, with My Brilliant Career (1979), an art house hit in America that positioned Judy Davis and Sam Neil towards international stardom. Her 1997 masterpiece Oscar and Lucinda (1997) also helped establish Cate Blanchett.
Mrs. Soffel was filmed in North America for an American studio, as was the 1994 remake of Little Women, which brought Winona Ryder an Oscar nomination. However, it was her fellow Australian, Jane Campion (who actually was born in New Zealand but lives in Sydney) who became only the second woman to be nominated for the Best Director Academy Award, with The Piano (1993).
Filmed in New Zealand with American stars Holly Hunter Harvey Keitel plus British-born Kiwi Sam Neil and Canadian-born Kiwi Anna Paquin, the movie garnered Oscars for Hunter, Paquin and Campion, who won for best original screenplay. The $7-million movie also garnered a Best Picture nomination and grossed $40 million in the U.S. Unfortunately, Campion so far has failed to follow up on that success.
The kudos won by Jane Campion, plus the ability to command a crew while mastering the screen as shown by the careers of Gillian Armstrong and Kathryn Bigelow (who was establishing herself as a filmmaker at the same time as the two directors from Down Under), really broke the glass ceiling for women directors.
Bigelow was famous for her ability to handle a male crew. She was hired to helm the action picture K-19: The Widowmaker (2002), which was budgeted at $80 million, approximately twice what her 1995 millennial opus Strange Days had cost. Despite starring superstar Harrison Ford (who was paid a record $1 million a day), K-19 flopped at the box office, but it showed that Hollywood had trusted a woman with a big-budgeted picture.
The failure of K-19: the Widowmaker nearly capsized Bigelow’s career. For five years, she didn’t make a movie. She directed only one other feature film, Misson Zero, which wasn’t even released, until helming the $11-million Iraq war drama The Hurt Locker.
The suits in Hollywood, who pitch the business towards 12-24 males who return to cinemas multiple times to watch the same movies over and over, had turned their back on her after K-19. However, Hollywood as a community rallied behind her, and in the spirit of why the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences had been founded — to honor extraordinary achievement — they honored her with the Oscar for Best Director.
Kathryn Bigelow also picked up an Academy Award as a producer, as The Hurt Locker was honored as Best Picture. More than a century after the movies became an art form and a business, a century after women helped pioneer the cinema, woman had finally won the respect they deserved from Hollywood.
Alt Film Guide, “The Paucity of Female Directors in Hollywood”
The Guardian (UK), “Kathryn Bigelow makes history as first woman to win best director Oscar”
Museum of American Heritage, “Let’s Go to the Movies: The Mechanics of Moving Images”
New York Times, “‘The Hurt Locker’ Wins Big at Oscars”