Marielle Heller and Tom Hanks on set on A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood
Photo: Lacey Terrell

“Congratulations to those men,” said an exasperated Issa Rae after reading out the Academy Award nominees for Best Director yesterday afternoon, a category exclusively composed of middle-aged male film-makers for the second consecutive year. I don’t wish to detract from the cinematic achievements of these directors, all of whom deserve recognition for their extraordinary work (with the notable exception of Joker’s Todd Phillips), but the pointed absence of female directors yet again is hugely dispiriting.

The Oscars are certainly not the only awards body that has passed over women film-makers this season: the Golden Globes, Baftas and Directors Guild of America each snubbed the many worthy female-helmed contenders. When the highlights of the 2019 film calendar included Greta Gerwig’s Little WomenMarielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood, Lorene Scafaria’HustlersOlivia Wilde’s Booksmart, Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, Alma Har’el’s Honey Boy and Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire (I could go on), it simply isn’t good enough that not one of these critically revered, box-office successes saw its director nominated. But why do women keep getting shut out of one of the Oscars’ most important categories?

Related article: Oscar Nominations 2020: The Full List


Only five women have ever been nominated for Best Director at the Academy Awards since it started doling out statuettes in 1927; of this small handful of directors, the lone winner remains Kathryn Bigelow, who took home the prize in 2010 for The Hurt Locker. Since the embarrassing publicity generated by 2016’s outraged hashtag #OscarsSoWhite that bemoaned the exclusion of any BAME actors among the nominees – a fate that worryingly would have been repeated this year were it not for Cynthia Erivo, but that’s a qualm for another time – the Academy has made efforts to diversify its pale, male and stale ranks, annually inviting about 800 new members across the organisation with the intention of doubling the number of women and people of colour by 2020.

Kathryn Bigelow at the Academy Awards
Photo: Kevin Winter
  • Despite this progress, the Academy’s community of film professionals is still 68 per cent male and 84 per cent white. Looking down this year’s list of Best Picture nominees, it is undeniable that stories appealing to this demographic take precedence. In The Irishman, Robert De Niro is a hitman mercilessly killing with his crew of New York mobsters; Ford v Ferrari sees Christian Bale build a race car with which to speed around Le Mans; and George MacKay dodges battlefield gunfire on a dangerous mission in the World War I epic 1917.

These three films all centre on stereotypically ‘male’ experiences and not one of them passes the Bechdel test. Within the Best Picture shortlist, Little Women is the only movie told entirely from the female perspective, while Parasite is the sole nominee with non-white protagonists. Oscar voters are evidently prejudiced in favour of films featuring characters who look like them. Until the directors’ branch becomes significantly more diverse, there is no reason why this lack of female film-maker nominees will ever change.


Last month, Vanity Fair reported that early voter screenings for Little Women had overwhelmingly female audiences, which confused its distributor Sony given that, as we have already established, awards decision-makers are primarily men. The producer Amy Pascal put this down to “completely unconscious bias” and not “anything like a malicious rejection”, whereas Tracy Letts (who plays the publisher Mr Dashwood in the movie) was less diplomatic. “I just can’t believe we’re still having this fucking discussion where movies by men, and about men, and for men are considered default movies. And women’s movies fall into this separate and unequal category,” he said. “It’s absurd.”

Other female-helmed films similarly struggled to entice male voters. Melina Matsoukas, who directed the stirring race-relations thriller Queen & Slimtold Variety that so few members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (the group that chooses the Golden Globe winners) attended screenings of her film that the studio decided to cancel its press conference. “For me, it’s reflective of their voting body. It’s not reflective of the society in which we live in or the industry as it stands today,” she said. “They don’t value the stories that represent all of us, and those stories are so often disregarded and discredited, as are their filmmakers.”

Related article: All Of The Looks From The 2020 Golden Globes

Photo: Andre D Wagner / Universal Pictures

Honey Boy’s Alma Har’el also called out the Globes in the trades. “I will not live my life as a filmmaker […] subjected to a group of voters that doesn’t see us,” she said. “They [the HFPA] don’t pay attention to new voices or value them in the same way they value men they are familiar with.” Her last point is squarely reflected in the Oscars’ Best Director nominees who are, for the most part, name-brand film-makers whose mere surnames point to an immense film-making legacy (Scorsese and Tarantino, I’m looking at you). It’s a frustrating catch-22: films carry less of a draw without a famous film-maker, but female directors are seldom given a platform to become famous. People like Chinonye Chukwu (Clemency), Jessica Hausner (Little Joe) and Shannon Murphy (Babyteeth) never stood a chance.


In recent years, the film-makers who have won the Best Oscar have done so by taking charge on movies characterised by grand, sweeping technical achievements. 2017’s recipient Damien Chazelle shut down the LA freeway to execute his perfectly choreographed opening dance sequence in La La Land, capturing the glorious riot of colour and song in one take. Alejandro González Iñarritú secured back-to-back Academy Awards in 2015 and 2016, shooting the whole of Birdman in an extended tracking shot (much like this year’s 1917) before shooting The Revenant in sequence using only natural light while enduring brutal conditions on location in Chile.

Captain Marvel
Photo: Chuck Zlotnick

Encouragingly, female directors were behind a record number of top-grossing movies last year (the best-performing among them being Captain Marvel and Frozen II), which marked an increase from 4.5 per cent in 2018 to 10.6 in 2019. That being said, studios are reticent to throw their weight – and their capital – behind female film-makers (it is pertinent to note that both of those aforementioned Disney movies were co-directed by men). This means that, generally speaking, women aren’t given the opportunity to command the budgets that allow for the visual mastery the Academy tends to reward.

Furthermore, even when they are signed onto larger projects, those film-makers with a less ostentatious style can get lost in the shuffle. Marielle Heller is a case in point. Her sophomore feature Can You Ever Forgive Me? is subtly realised with a delicacy that really let her actors Melissa McCarthy and Richard E Grant shine (who were both Oscar-nominated while their director was not). In much the same way, this year’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood is a beautifully rendered study of empathy (and once again her star, Tom Hanks, was Oscar-nominated and she was not). Heller’s double snub disregards the fact that it was her direction that helped polish her actors’ performances. Next time, before casting their ballots, I urge Academy voters to remember that they are in fact selecting the movie with the best directing, not the most directing.

  • Griping about awards may seem unimportant but, in an industry that prizes safe bets above all else, they do matter. Oscar nominations and wins raise the profile of their film-makers, ensuring that they are more bankable for future projects. For example, it was only after Greta Gerwig got her Best Director Oscar nomination for Lady Bird that she was entrusted to fulfil the same role on Little Women, as she was originally onboard as the screenwriter.

    By sidelining women, the Academy is tacitly implying that stories from a female perspective are insignificant, fighting against the industry’s rallying cries for change. To quote Har’el: “Our work and our perspectives are the future of cinema.” Let’s just hope the Academy finally wakes up and realises this too.

    The 92nd Academy Awards will air on 9 February.

  • This article originally appeared on Harper’s BAZAAR UK.

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