Directed by Women: 2018’s Unsung Awards Contenders in the Crafts (Part 1 of 3)

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Every year, as another awards season looms, we look to the statistics of awards seasons past to predict which historical precedents are poised to fall.

The stats on underrepresented artists collecting Oscar nominations are always disheartening. The percentages never seem to change, even with the shifting demographics of an expanding Academy. And even with the proliferation of platforms that provide new opportunities for emerging filmmakers to find an audience.

Before the dawn of the Studio Era in the mid-1920s, not only were women “allowed” to direct films, it was very common. Women could be found in every job on a movie set and were treated equally with their male counterparts. But everything changed when the studio heads of the burgeoning industry discovered fortunes could be made. By the time silent films were on their way out and “talkies” were the future, women had been almost totally relegated to the costume and makeup departments.

There are many avenues of exploration when it comes to the Academy’s recognition of filmmakers who are not white and male. For this multi-part series, we will examine films directed by women in 2018, particularly those that should be considered for Oscar nominations. We will also look closely at the Academy’s 90-year history with regard to female-directed films in all categories, not just Director and Picture. Some of these statistics are perhaps not as surprising as they should be. But if ever there was a year to change history, it is certainly 2018.

First, here are a few important numbers to know.

  • Out of more than 4000 films nominated for Oscars in the Academy’s 90-year history, fewer than 300 were directed or co-directed by a woman.
  • The first female-directed film to receive an Oscar nomination in any category was Dorothy Arzner’s “Sarah and Son” in 1930. Ruth Chatterton was nominated for Best Actress in a Leading Role.
  • The most likely categories for female-directed films to earn nominations are in the Shorts (animated, live-action, and doc) and Documentary Feature.
  • While the first woman nominated for Best Director was Lena Wertmüller in 1976, the first female-directed film to be nominated for Best Picture was Randa Haines’ “Children of a Lesser God” in 1986.

Now that the Golden Globe nominations are out, the prevailing wisdom is that most categories now seem to settle into a pretty set group. But that doesn’t have to be the case.

Over this series, we will take a closer look at several key Oscar races including acting, writing, directing, and picture. Today, though, we start with the crafts. From cinematography to makeup and hairstyling, we will explore Oscar’s history with films directed by women, and the many examples this year that should be part of any honest discussion of the year’s best.

First, a note about Visual Effects, whose twenty film shortlist was released on Monday. No film directed by a woman has ever been nominated for Outstanding Visual Effects. Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker,” Jennifer Kent’s “The Babadook,” and Patty Jenkins’ “Wonder Woman” were all ignored.

While nearly all effects-heavy films are directed by men, the Academy did have some options in 2018. Unfortunately, their shortlist of twenty continues the trend. To be fair, AMPAS does not get much to choose from in this area, which is one of many reasons why studios need to do more to hire women to direct their big-budget effects movies.

Cinematography

Saoirse Ronan stars as Mary Stuart in MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS, a Focus Features release.
Credit: Liam Daniel / Focus Features

Last year, when Rachel Morrison became the first woman nominated for an Oscar for cinematography, there was a second, overlooked reason the moment was significant. “Mudbound” was only the fifth film directed by a woman to earn a nomination for Cinematography. The first was Barbra Streisand’s “The Prince of Tides,” in 1991. The others were “The Piano,” “The Hurt Locker,” and “Unbroken.”

(It should be noted that Kátia Lund was credited for co-directing 2002’s “City of God,” but since the Academy only nominated Fernando Meirelles, that film is not counted in these statistics.)

This year’s slate includes some truly stunning cinematography. In Josie Rourke‘s impressive debut, “Mary Queen of Scots,” two-time Oscar nominee John Mathieson (“Gladiator”) provides beautiful, sweeping landscapes and intimate moments that transport the viewer to sixteenth century England and Scotland.

Similarly, Chloe Zhao‘s “The Rider” showcases the majestic plains of South Dakota in ways not seen since “Dances with Wolves” in 1990. Joshua James Richards captures the isolating loneliness that exists even – or especially – in wide open spaces. And another film that uses landscape to great effect is Rungano Nyoni‘s “I Am Not a Witch,” a foreign-language entry set in Zambia. David Gallego uses color and light to bring about Nyoni’s vision.

Tom Townend shows off the gritty, seedy side of New York in Lynne Ramsay‘s “You Were Never Really Here,” using a variety of techniques and camera types to show but not glorify intense violence.

Some additional noteworthy inclusions in the category are “On the Basis of Sex,” “Leave No Trace,” and “The Miseducation of Cameron Post.”

Editing

“The Piano,” “The Hurt Locker,” and “Zero Dark Thirty.” Jane Campion and Kathryn Bigelow remain the only women to direct editing nominees. Despite terrific pacing and perfect tension in many films over the decades, productions like “A League of Their Own,” “Seven Beauties,” “American Psycho,” etc. All were overlooked at awards time.

Marielle Heller’s “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is a perfect film for consideration in this category. Blending dark humor and intense sequences, this film is exceptional in its execution. We experience the slow reveal of exactly what we need to know about each character, exactly when we need to know it.

Similar praise goes to “You Were Never Really Here,” which blends elements together to craft a superb and twisted story. And another that has been almost completely ignored is “Nico, 1988” from Susanna Nichiarelli. This biopic blends reconstructed archive footage with its storytelling. This presents a biopic that feels in many ways like a documentary.

Sound

Kathryn Bigelow and Angelina Jolie are the only women ever to direct films to sound nominations. Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker” won both Sound Mixing and Sound Editing on its march to Oscar glory. Her follow up, “Zero Dark Thirty,” scored a nomination in Sound Editing. And Jolie’s “Unbroken” received nods in both sound categories as well.

But films like “The Piano,” “Big,” and “Wonder Woman” failed to earn recognition.

This year, prognosticators have settled on a group led by “First Man” and “A Quiet Place,” with others vying for notice. But several key films are left almost entirely out of the conversation.

Lynne Ramsay’s “You Were Never Really Here” incorporates excellent sound design, in the loud and quiet moments. It may not be as flashy as something like “A Quiet Place,” but it is equally worthy of discussion. Likewise, Lucretia Martel‘s “Zama” uses innovative techniques to transport the viewer to seventeenth-century Buenos Aires. And, much like Krasinski’s film, “Birdbox” from Susanne Bier blends familiar sounds into a world gone quiet. The result is another strange and intriguing creature-themed mystery.

And this is another place where films like “Leave No Trace” and “The Rider” should be considered.

Makeup & Hairstyling

It may surprise you to learn that only two female-directed films in all of Oscar history earned nominations for Makeup & Hairstyling. “Frida” became the first in 2002, with “The Iron Lady” following nine years later. Charlize Theron earned a statue for her role in “Monster,” but her transformation did not.

This year, in “Mary Queen of Scots,” Margot Robbie becomes a version of Queen Elizabeth I we don’t often see. Her skin bears the scars of smallpox, as does her thin and broken hair.  Perhaps not as drastic but still striking is Melissa McCarthy‘s look as Lee Israel in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” from Marielle Heller.

While many were divided about “A Wrinkle in Time,” the makeup and hairstyling in that film was some of the most unique in all of 2018. It was a big challenge to create a look for three beings older than time. But a team of true artists designed dozens of different looks, each more interesting and intricate than the last.

These are just a few of the crafts categories where films from women deserve to be part of the conversation. Come back tomorrow when we will look at scripts, music, and some particularly great performances.

Which films directed by women would you like to include in the Oscar conversation? Comment below and share!

Be sure to visit our Official Oscar Predictions Page to see the current rankings in all categories!