It is known to any Oscar trivia fan that when Hank Sims announced the President of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences in the 1979 ceremony he mistakenly referred to her as Mr. Fay Kanin. Maybe it was nothing but a slip of the tongue, but it was a good indication of the Academy’s reality, since screenwriter Kanin was the first female President of the Academy since Bette Davis’ one-month stint back in 1941.
The Academy, and hence the Oscar, has always been a man’s world, and no other category, apart from the male acting awards, has been more man-dominated than the director’s. Since 1927, when the Awards were first bestowed, no woman has ever won the Oscar for Best Director, and only three have been nominated.
Italian helmer Lina Wertmüller was the first woman to be recognised for her achievement in directing for her work in the film Seven Beauties in 1976. She didn’t win, but her double nod for directing and writing as a foreign female director earned her a place in Oscar history.
It took 18 years for another woman to win a directing nomination. New Zealander Jane Campion emulated Wertmüller with a double helmer/writer nomination for her murky love story in The Piano. Campion, among other things, convincingly translated her original story into beautiful, haunting images, created and Emily Brontësque atmosphere and made an inexperienced 9-year-old give an Oscar-winning performance, but the Academy (contrary to many previous critics’ awards) favored Steven Spielberg who, admittedly, had managed to make a staggering, intensely personal film with Schindler’s List. Campion was compensated with the award for her achievement in writing, a discipline much more open to women than directing.
One decade after Campion’s accolade, Sofia Coppola became the third, and to date last, woman to receive a Best Director Oscar nomination for Lost in Translation. As with Campion, she lost in the directing category but was honored for her flawless script.
Altough a nomination in the Best Picture category often implies an automatic nod for its director, some women-directed films were nominated but their directors were snubbed: Randa Haines for Children of a Lesser God, Penny Marshall for Awakenings and, most famously, Barbra Streisand for The Prince of Tides. Personally, however, I think that Streisand’s snub was justified, among other things, for her egoccentric decision of (mis)casting herself in the pivotal role of the shrink.
It is a capricious turn of fate that the woman that could, and should, break Oscar’s black history with women has among her credentials films like the surfing-themed Point Break or the futuristic Strange Days. I have to admit that, intriguing as she might always have been for her idiosyncrasy, I always considered her nothing more than a female macho version of Nora Ephron, but with The Hurt Locker she has created a masterpiece that places her in the first rank of American filmmakers.
The film follows a US bomb disposal squad in Iraq in their nerve-racking, nearly suicidal job of defusing booby traps placed under cars, vans or simply hidden under the dust of Baghdad’s streets. The breathtaking prologue sets the tone for the rest of the film, which takes the viewer to a journey to hell, to which the film’s three main characters provide different human responses.
The picture has a single location, the streets of Baghdad, and thus consciously avoids the unnecessary political diatribes against terror or war, so present in recent overloquacious war films, and it also eludes the conventions of narrative, the film being rather a series of unbearable tense scenes glued together by a couple of digressions that take us to the life of the characters out of the nightmare.
The Hurt Locker is not a film about the origin and the causes of war, but about its consequences, not on a global, but on a human scale. It manages to convey a rare sense of immediacy, maybe because its screenwriter, journalist Mark Boal, was himself embedded with a US bomb disposal team in Iraq.
Jeremy Renner gives a convincing performance in his portrayal of the disturbed war addict, and the rest of the cast of mostly unknown actors are equally fine, in a film so atypical (but efficient) in its casting choices that grants its two only true stars (Guy Pearce and Ralph Fiennes) as much screentime as to any next door Iraqi.
Kathryn Bigelow, the woman behind this rough gem, proves here that her years of hotshot action movies have made of her a master at the staging of tension. Her stunning directing effort is reinforced by the job of her cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (who worked in the excellent United 93) and her editor, that manages to bring out the sense of space in a film in which every centimeter counts.
The Hurt Locker is a good film, maybe the best war film made in years, but it stands out especially for its skillful direction. That’s why Bigelow should be recognised next March in the Academy Awards ceremony with the Oscar for Best Director of the year. If my wish comes true, she will have officially 45 seconds to thank the Academy not only on her behalf, but also in the name of so many great women that paved the way for her: previous nominees Wertmüller, Campion and Sofia Coppola; French pioneer Alice Guy Blaché, whose only flaw in life was her husband; Dorothy Arzner, the first woman ever to direct a talkie; the great Ruth Gordon, who more than two decades before earning wide recognition with her acting Oscar for Rosemary’s Baby and her legendary turn in the cult movie Harold and Maude formed one of the best writing couples in cinema history with husband Garson Kanin; Leni Riefenstahl, if her own demons let her rest in peace; and my personal hero Ida Lupino, thou who art in heaven.
I can’t wait to see it.