Strong female-directed films snubbed by the Academy
Last year, awards season was all about #MeToo. Stars wore all black to the Golden Globes, there were pointed remarks about the “all-male nominees for best director” from Natalie Portman, and conversations led by Frances McDormand about inclusion riders. Controversy over Casey Affleck having been sued for sexual harassment meant that, against tradition, the best actress award was not presented by the previous year’s best actor winner. James Franco had been on track to receive a best actor nomination for The Disaster Artist, but was snubbed after accusations of sexual misconduct broke a day before Oscar nomination ballots were due. It felt, perhaps, as though a change was in the air.
Some things have indeed changed — Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey are both facing legal repercussions for their behaviour, which had been an open secret within the industry for years, and many others who faced accusations have (deservedly?) had their careers ruined. Still, all is not entirely well. One year on, Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody is raking in major awards, despite its director having faced multiple allegations of abuse against underage boys. Bohemian Rhapsody won Best Actor and Best Picture (Drama) at the Globes (which prompted a "thank you" message from Singer on Instagram) and has been nominated for seven BAFTAs, including Outstanding British Film, for which Singer is named as a potential recipient. Singer was fired from the project, reportedly for being belligerent on set, clashing with Rami Malek, and often just not showing up to work. Due to Directors’ Guild of America rules, Singer is the sole credited director on the project, despite the fact that Dexter Fletcher oversaw the last few weeks of filming and the entirety of post-production. The most recent lawsuit against Singer (after three in 2014, and one in 1997, as well as a series of other allegations) was filed a week after he stepped down from Bohemian Rhapsody. This doesn’t seem to have affected the film’s awards traction at all.
It particularly stings to have Bohemian Rhapsody be so awarded when some of the best films of the year were directed by women and are being almost entirely overlooked. The Golden Globes, Directors Guild Awards, Critics’ Choice Awards, and the BAFTAs have all failed to nominate a film directed by a woman for best picture. I would like to concentrate on three — Leave No Trace, directed by Debra Granik; You Were Never Really Here, directed by Lynne Ramsay; and The Rider, directed by Chloe Zhao. All three films are brilliant, and their brilliance is largely due to the skill of their directors; all have been overlooked for mainstream awards.
Leave No Trace follows an ex-soldier who (we gather) is suffering from PTSD, living with his daughter off the grid in a national park in Portland, Oregon. It is a deftly made film — a careful portrait of PTSD, of fatherhood and childhood; as well as an examination of how overwhelming and impersonal our modern world can be, particularly for those unused to civilian life. That Debra Granik manages to forge such an intimate and beautiful film from a premise that could so easily lean toward being cheesy or overwrought is truly astonishing. She coaxes performances out of her actors that feel so real you are immediately invested in their lives, immediately on their side and as suspicious of outside forces as they are. Thomasin McKenzie should be raking in nominations for best supporting actress — that someone so young and inexperienced was able to give a performance as self-assured and gently brilliant as hers is astonishing, a credit to her and a credit to Granik.
You Were Never Really Here also happens to follow a man suffering from PTSD, but it is an entirely different beast to Leave No Trace. It’s an action film, a thriller, but it doesn’t dwell on violence or exploitative images — it’s sparing, almost stark. Lynne Ramsay has made a masterclass in show-don’t-tell filmmaking, and as such it requires its audience to pay serious attention to what’s on screen, but if you’re willing to concentrate for 89 minutes I can promise you’ll be rewarded for your efforts. The central performance by Joaquin Phoenix is one of his best ever — Joe is quiet, but Phoenix shows us everything we need to know with the slope of his shoulders and the look in his eyes. Even though the film refuses to dwell on each violent act, as the scene cuts we are left to imagine what happened after his hammer fell. Ramsay uses our understanding of violence and undercuts it, showing us the aftermath and its effects on Joe rather than the immediate bloody results. It’s wonderfully done. The BAFTAs, thankfully, have given the film at least a little recognition — it has been nominated for Outstanding British Film — but Ramsay has still been snubbed for Best Director.
The Rider is a slightly fictionalised version of real-life events, its excellent central performances coaxed by Chloe Zhao entirely from non-actors upon whose lives the film is based. Zhao met Brady Jandreau while shooting her previous film — he taught her how to ride — and she decided then that she wanted to base her next project around him. The film follows a Sioux rodeo rider, Brady Blackburn in the aftermath of a head trauma that he struggles to treat with the severity it demands. Blackburn is played with a wonderful simplicity by Jandreau, who has the face and soulful eyes of a young Keanu Reeves, and whose father and sister also play themselves. He is told, repeatedly, that he shouldn’t continue to ride, but he can't keep himself away. It's all he knows how to do. The Rider is an exploration of family, of injury, of masculinity, and in some ways also of addiction — there is a very real threat that Brady's greatest and only passion may kill him. It's shot beautifully, with stunning American landscapes in juxtaposition with close shots of Brady and those around him as he comes to terms with his injury. Zhao's direction is wonderfully unobtrusive — the film has rhythm, but every moment is allowed to play out, and it has a tangibly realistic feel. It has been awarded best picture by various critics' circles, as well as at independent awards ceremonies, but it has not been nominated for any Academy Awards.
Each of these films is a low-budget, independent production, and since the road to being nominated for major awards involves ridiculously expensive campaigns, it is perhaps easy to see why they have been overlooked. It’s worth questioning, though, why these directors aren’t able to command the production and promotional budgets that their male peers are. Awards don't necessarily dictate a film's place in the canon going forward, of course, but people with only a passing interest may never even hear of films unless they receive awards traction. They can also help hugely in lending credibility to a director’s work going forward — to be able to say in the trailer that a film is from an Academy Award winner can be vital for getting a project funded. It seems a shame, then, to allow such worthwhile projects to be ignored, and to allow their talented directors to remain in relative obscurity. At least it is now impossible to argue that “there just aren't any female directors!” — there are many, just as there have been for decades, and they are making wonderful films that should be sought out and enjoyed by as many people as possible.
You Were Never Really Here is currently on Amazon Prime. Leave No Trace and The Rider are available to rent from various sources.
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