The Award For Best (Male) Director Goes To…

By Jessica Sutton and Patrick McTague.

The Academy Award nominees have been announced for 2020, marking the absolute height of Hollywood’s accolades. This year, influential women across the industry were ‘rewarded’ for their sterling work with:

  • Zero nominations for best director;
  • Half a nomination for best original screenplay (Krysty Wilson-Cairns, 1917, along with Sam Mendes);
  • One nomination for best adapted screenplay (Greta Gerwig, Little Women);
  • Zero nominations for best cinematography;
  • One nomination for best film editing (Thelma Schoonmaker, The Irishman).

The Academy Awards make for a sad reminder of two pervasive truths in Hollywood:

  1. The number of women working in the industry as directors, screenwriters, producers etc, is only a quarter of the number of men in the same roles.
  2. Women’s contributions to filmmaking are at best given tokenistic recognition, and at worse, undervalued and ignored completely.

10.6% of the top grossing films of 2019 were directed by women.[1] On the one hand, that is an all-time high, and it is pleasing that female representation among film makers appears to be growing. On the other, it is exhausting to know that so many movies are made, but the industry can only find room for just over 1 in 10 to be made by women who, let’s not forget, are 50% of the global population.

Further, the women who do contribute to the industry are largely unrecognised, even among nominees, let alone among prize winners. For example, female directors in 2019 received exactly zero nominations for this award. This continues the trend since 2010, when Kathryn Bigelow became the first, and only, woman to ever win the award. Since Kathryn Bigelow’s historic victory, there has only ever been one woman nominated for the award in this decade – Greta Gerwig for Lady Bird. One, out of a possible 50 nominations over ten years.

The 2010 ‘concession’ in awarding Best Director to a woman, appears to be regarded as a sufficient nod to women filmmakers, with the next decade being taken up with a return to the status quo of male directors. It is as if the Academy felt that giving the award to a woman once (although very rightly deserved) was all the proof the world needed that they were not biased in any way. Yet, in the ensuing years, female film creations which have been more than deserving of recognition, have not even scraped a nomination.

Of course, many respond to these criticisms with ongoing platitudes about the film industry being a “meritocracy” and that, “if women made better films, maybe they’d get more prizes!” Others may tactfully suggest that women might not want to be involved in the industry as much as men, and the spread of nominations simply reflects the industry’s gender proportions.

Women just weren’t directing films this year!

The argument that the lack of nominations is linked to women simply ‘choosing’ not to direct films, is clearly a fallacy. As noted above, women comprised 10.6% of directors of the top movies last year, and 20% of directors, writers, producers, editors, and cinematographers on the top 100 grossing films of 2019.[2] While this is a serious under-representation of women in an industry which should be for everyone, this remains a sizeable and increasing contribution. Women clearly want to be involved in the industry, and are slowly clawing their way towards some kind of parity in a male-dominated industry. Some of the films directed by women in 2019 included:

Portrait Of A Lady On Fire directed by Céline Sciamma, Hustlers directed by Lorene Scarfaria, The Farewell directed by Lulu Wang, The Nightingale directed by Jennifer Kent, Honey Boy directed by Alma Har’el, The Souvenir directed by Joanna Hogg, Little Women directed by Greta Gerwig, Booksmart directed by Olivia Wilde, Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood directed by Marielle Heller, Atlantics directed by Mati Diop, Captain Marvel directed by Anna Boden, Birds of Passage directed by Cristina Gallego, The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open directed by Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers and Kathleen Hepburn, Clemency directed by ChinonyeChukwu, Fast Color directed by Julia Hart, For Sama directed by Waadal-Kateab*, Knock Down the House directed by Rachel Lears*, Queen and Slim directed by MelinaMatsoukas, The Edge of Democracy directed by Petra Costa*, Harriet directed by Kasi Lemmons.[3]

Well, I guess women just make bad movies then.

The stereotype that women are somehow incapable of making good films remains pervasive. The industry has continued to doubt women as even being able to support a film as a primary protagonist – consider, for example, Hollywood executives’ predictions for Wonder Woman. “Surely no one wants to see a superhero movie with a woman!”[4] Surprise – Wonder Woman went on to be the highest grossing superhero origin film to date. Since then, female-led movies have become more common, (though still sparse, and nowhere near sufficient to correct the huge imbalance between positive male and female representation in cinema). However, women in filmmaking, as directors, writers, and their contributions to other roles behind the scenes, continue to be regarded as an imposition to an industry supposedly created and perfected, by men.

Women were responsible for some of the most highly praised films of 2019: with Portrait of A Lady on Fire, The Souvenir, Little Women, Birds of Passage, and The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open receiving audience and critic scores of over 90%. The films nominated for Best Director in 2019: The Irishman, Parasite, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, 1917, and Joker amassed averages of 82.2% on Metacritic and 87.6% on Rotten Tomatoes. Let’s compare this to five of the top rated films directed by women in 2019, which received averages of 90.8% on Metacritic and 97% on Rotten Tomatoes.[5] And, yet, barely a nomination between them.

If we analyse further, the films that were nominated for Best Director have a certain flavour to them which fills the keen-eyed feminist with growing discomfort. The one exception to this is probably Parasite, a self-aware exploration of the dynamics of class, which has a respectable number of women present in fairly active roles. However, the other nominated films certainly provoke what I shall term ‘feminist unease’.

1917, set in World War I, is not conducive to a strong female cast. The Irishman is a celebration of male brutality, with Anna Paquin’s character having a stellar six words of dialogue in the entire movie, with under 10 minutes of screen time.[6] Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a love letter to Hollywood past, so it’s no surprise that women don’t play a pivotal role in the central narrative. Of course, until it’s time for them to attempt to murder another woman in an unnecessary reimagining of the Manson family murders. Ultimately, the would-be murderers of Sharon Tate are thwarted by Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio in an epic showdown of ‘manliness’, ending with a woman being burned alive with a flamethrower.[7] That apart, rewriting the horrific murder of expectant mother Sharon Tate as a titillating subplot to an action movie, is both thoughtless and cruel. Incidents of fatal violence against women are present enough in reality, without victims also being twisted into a plot device by powerful and ignorant men.

And finally, Joker. A dive into the twisted mind of the comic book villain, with the ‘shocking’ reveal, that the Joker’s relationship with a lovely young mother in his apartment building, is fabricated in his imagination. What a twist, precisely zero women in the audience gasped. From Joker smothering his mother, to killing a female psychiatrist, and stalking and breaking into the house of the mother and child he imagined himself to have a relationship with, Joker is a romp through every woman’s worst nightmare – how simply being a woman in the vicinity of a ‘troubled’ man can be fatal. Joker could easily be misinterpreted by a certain subset of men as a rallying cry to inflict violence on a society that has rejected them – including the women that dare to not love them.

In short, the Academy Award nominations give us a mountain of evidence that female representation in Hollywood is still at an appallingly low level. Contributions women do make are being largely dismissed by the predominately old, white men who control the industry’s top accolades. Important questions are also raised by the calibre of film chosen for recognition. Perhaps it is time we all took a more critical lens to the media ‘validated’ by an industry which shielded a serial rapist for decades. As the trial of Weinstein continues, the lack of female recognition in the Academy Awards is a slap in the face to an entire gender who are simply fighting for equality in their place of work.



[3] * = documentaries.


[5] Seriously, we made a spreadsheet!



Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay.

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