The 2010 Academy Awards took place on a Sunday, as per usual. The jokes were just as bad, hosts Steve Martin and Alex Baldwin just as hit-and-miss, but something was different. The tone felt self-congratulatory. Faces in the crowd lit up with the expectation of history. People at home fidgeted on their couches, called their children to the TV with pride, and practiced their excuses for skipping work the following day. Crowds in Times Square huddled together in the cold, crossed their mittenned fingers, and prayed.
A woman was about to win Best Director.
OK, so I’m exaggerating a bit about the national anticipation, but it’s true that Kathryn Bigelow’s big moment had a bit of that old weight of history about it. Even Bigelow’s ex-husband, James Cameron, against whom she competed for the Oscar, beamed with pride and leaped to his feet when her name was called, just moments after presenter Barbara Streisand issued a dramatic pause and a button before the announcement—“the time has come.” But when Bigelow stepped on to the stage and became the first woman in history to accept the Best Director Oscar, her acceptance speech dumped that history and cut to the chase. No long polemics about her struggles, no messages to the little girls watching at home. In fact, beyond the usual thanks, Bigelow didn’t say very much at all.
It’s almost as if Bigelow shrugged her shoulders at history and decided that, really, it’s not that big a deal. After all, Bigelow may be the first female Best Director winner, but it’s not like women had been completely shut out of consideration throughout the history of the award, right? I mean, literally dozens and dozens of women must have been nominated over the years, and—
Um, OK, Mr. Skeptic, I’ll check my figures, but I’m sure—
Only four? That can’t be right. There has to be way more than four women ever nominated for—
Huh. Four. That’s… that’s actually not a lot at all.
OK, but this is Hollywood. It was an old boy’s club until, like, last Wednesday. Until the 1960s, nobody even got a job directing pictures unless they were male, white, and 80-dead. One time, somebody walked an urn full of ashes onto a Hollywood golf course, introduced it as Roger, and got it a three-picture deal. So it’s not like women really even had opportunities until—
Dorothy Arzner, huh? Directed throughout 1920s and 30s. Alice Guy-Blache directed over 400 films and may have shot the first ever narrative film on the planet. Oh my. Hundreds of other names? Well, this is just embarrassing.
Yeah, it turns out women have been integral, vital, and vibrant voices in cinema since the very beginning, which is a statement that falls right into the category of “no fucking shit,” and Kathryn Bigelow, only the fourth ever female nominee for Best Director, and only the second American woman, was the very first ever to win the biggest award. In 2010. That matters. It really, really matters, and Bigelow left the moment on the table.
But is that such a surprise? Bigelow has never been one for speeches in her work, either. Her earliest films are almost anti-dialogue, carrying the weight of the story in symbolism, mood, and environment, and even her most obvious message movie, The Hurt Locker, avoids actually stating the message. Bigelow frequently deflects questions about her gender and what it means for her work, even as critics and pundits refuse to talk about anything else, primarily because of the types of films she likes to make.
Bigelow works almost exclusively in the action-adventure genre, and her films primarily draw young men and boys to their violence and sexually-charged intensity. That pop you’re hearing is the cognitive dissonance in a world of critics who see Bigelow’s types of films as adolescent, juvenile, male nonsense but see Bigelow as a careful, thoughtful filmmaker. She so obviously thinks through her meaning, so how can she shoot and promote films with such outrageous violence, especially when it’s so often directed towards women?
In other words, why doesn’t she make lady movies?
After her Oscar win, I became briefly preoccupied with the question, wondering about what her win really meant—not for Bigelow, but for the Academy. I don’t care what Bigelow chooses to make, but I found it insulting that it took a woman working in a traditionally male genre to break through with the Academy. Was her win a victory for women (yes), or a sad mark on the Academy for needing a female director to cater to them a little more before finally handing out a statue. Bigelow had to put on masculine camouflage before finally being allowed into the circle of men, and she did so by making male movies and OH MY CRAP, I’M DOING IT TOO!
See, gender can become a very thorny issue down here in the trenches. You have to take as your premise that there is no such thing as “male” and “female” subject matter, regardless of what audience shows up to watch the movie, otherwise you risk discrediting Bigelow’s win in some way. (Thank goodness The Hurt Locker is actually pretty great, for history’s sake.) Gender matters, but it also doesn’t matter at all. I can’t ignore, say, the way Bigelow intentionally confuses sex and violence, or the somewhat-androgynous female leads that love her male heroes, but who’s to say that Bigelow’s gender played a part in those choices? It’s a question that I’ve decided to make an attempt to answer here.
Kathryn Ann Bigelow
November 27, 1951, in San Carlos, California to Ronald Bigelow (a factory manager) and Gertrude Larson (a librarian).
Young Kathryn Bigelow wanted to be a painter, discovering art from her father, a factory manager who had aspirations of being a cartoonist. She attended the Art Institute of San Francisco, but her obvious talent propelled her across the country to a full scholarship at the Whitney Museum of Art in New York City, where she improved her craft under the tutelage of artists like Vito Acconi and Richard Serra. Somewhere along the line, Bigelow became attracted to the wider audience of feature filmmaking and turned her focus towards painting with a camera instead of (or sometimes in addition to) a brush. Collecting prestigious universities like some folks collect baseball cards, Bigelow moved on to Columbia University where she earned a master’s degree in film theory and criticism, and where she shot her first short film, an experimental piece contrasting violence and scholarly dialogue called The Set-Up (1978).
Bigelow teamed with fellow student Monty Montgomery to produce her first feature, the moody and meandering biker film The Loveless (1982), a film most notable today for introducing a very young Willem Dafoe. It would be five years before Bigelow made her solo directing debut with the redneck vampire tale Near Dark (1987), which she quickly followed with a string of violent, sexually charged studio thrillers, including the megahit Point Break (1991). During her rise, Bigelow met, collaborated with, and in 1989 finally married another wonderkid of the system, James Cameron, and the pair remained an influence on each other’s work for years, even after their divorce in two years later.
After the failure of Strange Days in the 1995, Bigelow diversified. She moved into television projects (Homicide: Life on the Street) while searching for new film opportunities. After a few more misfires, Bigelow met writer Mark Boal and became interested in his stories of shadowing a real bomb squad unit in the war zone of Iraq. Bigelow and Boal adapted his stories into what would become the defining project of Bigelow’s career, The Hurt Locker. The film brought Bigelow widespread acclaim and, as you may have caught earlier, the Best Director Oscar, as well as the award for Best Picture of 2009. Both awards for Bigelow’s tiny film were won at the expense of her ex-husband James Cameron’s mega-budgeted Avatar. There’s a headline in there somewhere, I’m sure.
• Works almost exclusively in genre cinema, but looks for fresh and unexpected angles
• Makes films that explore violence, adrenaline, and the addictive nature of combining the two
• Uses mostly male protagonists, with sexually ambiguous relationships or love interests
• Combines visual trickery (first person cameras, etc.) with painterly eye for color, especially deep blues or dusty oranges.
A painting Bigelow made for The Hurt Locker.
7, with two special additions(see below)
Bigelow dabbled in a lot of fields while building her career. She’s directed short films, music videos, hours and hours of TV, and, I can safely say, will be the only director ever featured on this site to have modeled for The Gap. I’m not going to cover her TV work or her short projects like The Set-Up or Mission Zero. Her debut feature, The Loveless, is technically ineligible for the countdown because she worked with a co-director who, from all accounts, was heavily involved. That makes it difficult to parse out who did what work, but the film is so interesting that I feel like I have to write about it, so I’ll include it as a side article but not for the countdown.
Also, I’m going to completely skip her newest film, Zero Dark Thirty, during the initial pass at this project. Once the film is out on DVD and has had a few months to sink in, I’ll decide where I’d rank it and add it to the list.
Connection to Previous Project?
A huge one. Bigelow was married to James Cameron for a few years and their careers are heavily tangled up together.
Oh, and it seems likely that both Bigelow and the Hughes Brothers turned down Rise of the Planet of the Apes. There’s no deeper meaning behind that, it’s just weird.
I’m doing away with my categories for this project as an experiment. I think I might have more freedom to write in my style and, just maybe, that might help me complete articles in a more timely fashion. Or maybe it’ll make things worse. No way to know until I try. Please stop on by next week for The Loveless before we kick off this countdown for real.