The women behind the camera: a quintet of female-directed masterpieces

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Kathryn Bigelow at the Oscars

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Georgina Hayes
Views Editor

Georgina Hayes highlights five under-appreciated films

Since the first awards ceremony in 1929, The Academy has deemed only five women filmmakers worthy of a coveted Best Director nomination (these women being: Lina Wertmuller for Seven Beauties, Jane Campion for The Piano, Sofia Coppola for Lost in Translation, Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker, and Greta Gerwig for Lady Bird). In 2010, Kathryn Bigelow finally made a small crack in that glass ceiling by becoming the first woman to ever win Best Director at the Oscars. If optimistic onlookers were hopeful that this monumental achievement was a sign that Hollywood was irrevocably changed, however, they were soon to be sorely mistaken. Eight years on, Bigelow remains the only woman to take home Hollywood’s most prestigious directing award.

This leads us neatly onto the question that plagues awards season each year and seems to ignite outrage from people sitting at either side of this debate: why?

To many, the answer is simple: not enough women direct films, and the ones they do direct aren’t good enough to merit a Best Director nomination.

To all those who actually watch cinema and don’t have their heads shoved firmly up their arse, the answer is very different: not as many women get the opportunity to make films because of societal, cultural and professional obstacles that male filmmakers simply don’t face. And yet, when they do overcome all said hurdles, women make some seriously impressive films. Why these films aren’t given the awards nominations they deserve is completely beyond me, but many commentators will point towards how shockingly undiverse The Academy has been until relatively recently.

Still, unlike in 2010, it seems that times really are changing – many of us watched in empowered awe as Hollywood’s strongest and most successful women created the Time’s Up movement, and many of Hollywood’s most powerful men realised they could get behind or be left behind. That being said, the changing political and social landscape of The Academy can’t undo any of the egregious snubs of female directors gone by, so below is a list of masterful films directed by magnificent female filmmakers that were absolutely robbed of a Best Director nod (in no particular order).

Mudbound (Dees Rees, 2017)

I’ve placed Dees Rees’s period drama Mudbound at the very top of this list as it exemplifies how far The Academy still has to go. With all the noise celebrating Greta Gerwig’s nomination this year for Lady Bird, so many have been elated to see female filmmaking represented on the Best Director list that we’ve forgotten to be rightfully outraged by The Academy’s snub of Dees Rees for her incredible work in Mudbound.

The film, based on Hillary Jordan’s book of the same name which Rees also co-wrote the screenplay for, tackles issues of race, segregation, PTSD, poverty and the American Dream. This tale of rural class and race struggle would not be the powerful and harrowing watch that it is without Dees Ress’s remarkable direction and Rachel Morrison’s cinematography. Of course, Morrison was rewarded for her work with a groundbreaking Best Cinematography nomination, but Rees was shoved aside to make way for more predictable but abundantly less impressive work from Steven Speilberg (The Post).

American Psycho (Mary Harron, 2000)

I’ve decided to include American Psycho because although it may well be the most well known film on the list, many watch this black horror-comedy that has been elevated to near-cult status without the faintest idea that it’s directed by a woman. The story of Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale), an ego-maniacal, sex-obsessed, murderous psychopath, is full of gratuitous violence, profanity and nudity – something that many condescendingly believe that female filmmakers aren’t capable of doing justice. As an intrinsically male-centred narrative, American Psycho ultimately represents a wildly entertaining and thoroughly engrossing meditation on poisonous masculinity, all the while dispelling the myth that women can only make “female-centred” films.

Selma (Ava DuVernay, 2014)

As with Mudbound, The Academy’s snub of Ava DuVernay for her work in Selma is perhaps symptomatic of Hollywood’s problem with female filmmakers, black filmmakers and, even more specifically, black female filmmakers. I still remember the day I saw Selma in the cinema: DuVernay’s film left not a dry eye in the house, and many of us left the cinema in a kind of stunned silence as we reflected on this dramatisation of police brutality, the killing of four young black girls by the Ku Klux Clan, and the marches on Selma and Montgomery. Although the film was nominated for Best Picture (and ultimately lost to the, in my humble opinion, hugely overrated Birdman), DuVernay was robbed of the Best Director nomination she deserved. Still, at the very least, DuVernay was able to break ground as the first black female filmmaker to be nominated for Best Director at the Golden Globes.

The Falling (Carol Morley, 2014)

Carol Morley’s The Falling (which, for your interest, stars everyone’s favourite sword-swinging Stark child) is easily the most literary film on this list, infusing elements of the supernatural, rite of passage and intense melodrama. It also happens to be the only British film on the list, and its setting in a 1960s all-girls school makes The Falling feel like a Gothic novel come to life. Without giving too much of the plot away, the film is female-driven and female-defined, and tackles head on the irreverent, near-tabooed phenomenon of psychological and sexual contagion amongst adolescent girls. Whereas American Psycho proves that women can and have made male-driven films that explore themes of poisonous masculinity, The Falling is a stellar example of a quintessentially British, female-driven film.

Monster (Patty Jenkins, 2003) and The Hitchhiker (Ida Lupino, 1953)

The plethora of female-made films that didn’t receive the recognition they deserved has resulted in a tie for fifth place. Monster and The Hitch-Hiker share a place on this list as they compliment each other best; both Jenkins and Lupino made trailblazing crime films half a century apart, and The Academy saw fit to snub them both. Monster is best known for Charlize Theron’s transformative and astonishing embodiment of a mentally ill woman, Aileen Wuornos. Still, no great film is made without a great director. We may know Patty Jenkins now as the woman behind the camera for Wonder Woman, but she was also the genius behind Monster. She somehow has viewers reaching for tissues and wiping away tears for the horrific serial killer Wuornos; not only is Monster a brutal, edge-of-your-seat crime film, but it also a powerful exploration of mental illness, sexuality and the trauma of sexual abuse.

Fifty years prior, Ida Lupino became the first woman ever to direct a mainstream American noir film. To this very day, noir is still very much associated with masculinity, but in 1953, Lupino not only waded into this formidable drama but set a precedent within it as well. Inspired by the killing spree of murderer Billy Cook, Lupino took an unconventional but trailblazing risk that eventually paid off: whilst most noirs were metropolitan, Lupino chose small villages and the wilderness as her primary shooting locations, a move contemporaries praised. Instead of relying on the claustrophobia of the cityscape, Lupino expertly used vast, desolate landscapes to show viewers how truly isolated our protagonists are. Lupino didn’t just contribute to film noir; she expanded our understanding of it. Still, as is the theme of this list, The Academy chose not to award her efforts with a Best Director nod.

Honourable mentions: Boys Don’t Cry (Kimberley Pierce, 1999), Little Miss Sunshine (Valerie Farris & Jonathan Dayton, 2006), Big (Penny Marshall, 1988), The Kids Are All Right (Lisa Cholodenko, 2010), Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik, 2010), The Beguiled (Sofia Coppola, 2017)