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The Best Director Race And Women Breaking The Circle Of Familiarity

At this current rate, they could just have Natalie Portman present the Best Director category at the Oscars this year. Since it’s bound to be full of “all-male nominees.” Even though there are names like Alfonso Cuaron, Spike Lee, and Barry Jenkins in the conversation to give the category some ethnic representation, there’s still a near lack of female representation. It’s a problem that’s going to continue to be one until it finally isn’t. However, when it will no longer be a problem is unclear.

There are probably those saying that the near lack of female representation this year is because there just weren’t any great films directed by women. That couldn’t be further from the truth. I feel like the reason is that there hasn’t been a film released this year directed by the likes of Sofia Coppola, Kathryn Bigelow, Greta Gerwig, or even Angelina Jolie. Because voters likely aren’t looking beyond their circle of familiarity, some of the best work from female filmmakers this year is getting overlooked.


Leave No Trace, directed by Debra Granik, currently has a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. That’s higher than the ratings of films like Vice (64%), Bohemian Rhapsody (62%), and Green Book (81%), which are all more likely to be nominated for Best Picture.

Can You Ever Forgive Me?, which features Best Supporting Actor frontrunner Richard E. Grant, along with likely Best Actress nominee Melissa McCarthy, was directed by Marielle Heller. The Rider, helmed by Chloe Zhao, won the Gotham Award for Best Feature. Also, director Lynne Ramsay has picked up several critical prizes for her work on You Were Never Really Here. So, before you may do so, spare me the “no great films” bullcrap or “They need to make better movies” crud.

Now, I’m also sure that there is this mindset that names like Marielle Heller and Lynne Ramsay aren’t in the conversation, because they aren’t as prolific as Kathryn Bigelow or Sofia Coppola. While that may be true, male directors like Lenny Abrahamson and Morten Tyldum, who aren’t starry names, were able to break through the circle of familiarity in the Directors Branch and land Oscar nominations. If they can do it, surely, someone like Marielle Heller can.

If the unknown factor continues to cast a shadow over women directors who aren’t well-known, even though they do tremendous work with proper studio backing, then the practice of nominating women for Best Director will be less normalized. Also, if a woman gets nominated amidst this mindset, it would be like lightning in a bottle. Something that happens only once in a while like when Greta Gerwig got nominated 8 years after Kathryn Bigelow was nominated and became the first and only woman to win.

The anticipation for familiar names, like Gerwig and Bigelow, to allow female representation not only makes their previous successes feel anomalous, but it creates some immense pressure for them to make amazing movies. It’s a part of the systemic mindset that male directors can get away with failures, while women absolutely cannot make failures.

One example of this double standard is this: After Mimi Leder directed Pay It Forward, which was a critical and commercial under-performer, she wasn’t allowed the opportunity to make another feature film for nine years. Meanwhile, Guy Ritchie helms King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword, which was a box office failure, and still was able to direct the upcoming live action adaptation of Aladdin.

Since female directors are making films that earn 100% ratings on Rotten Tomatoes, they shouldn’t have to succumb to the pressure of never failing. There are great movies by women directors being made every year, and people should be reminded that there are tremendous filmmakers making a name for themselves. It’s on industry voters to step outside their circle of familiarity, and it’s also on us critics to support great work by women whenever we recognize it.

I’ll say one last thing before I conclude. There may be those of you thinking that voters should nominate based on artistic merit and not gender. That may be a fair argument, but in order for change to occur, sometimes, feathers have to be ruffled. We’re about to have the 91st Academy Awards and only five women in history have been nominated for Best Director. FIVE. Only five women and only one of them has won. This is something that needs to be changed. One way to create that change is by forcing people to look outside their circle of familiarity and notice the great work being done each year by women directors attempting to make a name for themselves. If men can achieve nominations, and be offered mainstream filmmaking opportunities, despite being relative unknowns, why should women be forced to make a name for themselves in order to be recognized?


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