Women have been a part of the film industry since the very beginning, yet looking at the list of Oscar nominees throughout history can feel a little… monolithic. Women make up a tiny, tiny percentage of those even nominated for major awards; the number of those who have won gets to be downright fractional. Kathryn Bigelow remains the first and ONLY woman to ever win the directing award, which she earned for The Hurt Locker at the 2009 Oscars. Before that, only three other women (Lina Wertmüller in 1976, Jane Campion in 1993, and Sofia Coppola in 2003) had even been nominated; no women have been nominated since Bigelow won.
There’s a whole host of reasons why women aren’t getting nominated for Best Director, and it probably starts with the fact that they also aren’t getting hired for Oscar-bait type projects—which is its own problem. But I was interested in a few specific instances where women did direct films that were indeed recognized by the Academy in other areas, but they still didn’t get a nomination. Now, general wisdom says that the nominees for Best Picture and Best Director will more or less match up; films that are nominated for Best Picture tend to also usually get a corresponding nomination for Best Director. This isn’t a foolproof formula, of course; almost every year there’s at least one director that is left out, and in the 18 years where the Picture slots have outnumbered the Directors, there are obviously multiple directors left behind. But, let’s just say that, in general, the great majority of Best Picture nominees also received a Best Director nomination. (Here’s the full PDF of mismatches by the way, courtesy of the Academy).
I mentioned earlier that only four women have ever been nominated for Best Director. There have, however, been seven instances where women directed films that were nominated for the highest honor, Best Picture—but were not nominated for Best Director themselves. That’s right, there have been MORE instances where this supposedly occasional anomaly has occurred than women actually getting recognized for their work.
I’ve collected all the members of this club below, to see if we can gather any insight by discussing them all together.
Children of a Lesser God, 1986 (59th)
Director: Randa Haines
Nominations: Best Picture; Best Actor (William Hurt); Best Supporting Actress (Piper Laurie); Best Adapted Screenplay
Wins: Best Actress (Marlee Matlin)
Who Got the Nomination Instead: David Lynch, Blue Velvet
Poring over lists of the past 80 years, it becomes clear that the Academy loves the idea of the “auteur.” Their chosen directors tend to be more visible, more visual, and more apparent (Academy members who are directors choose the nominees for Best Director, so this makes sense), so David Lynch sneaks into the category here for an admittedly deserved and avant-garde choice. Best Picture nominees are selected by ALL Academy members, so those selections tend to be a bit more mainstream—thus the selection of this popular film.
Awakenings 1990, (63rd)
Director: Penny Marshall
Nominations: Best Picture; Best Actor (Robert De Niro); Best Adapted Screenplay
Who Got the Nomination Instead: Stephen Frears, The Grifters; Barbet Schroeder, Reversal of Fortune
Before Awakenings, Penny Marshall directed Jumpin’ Jack Flash and Big, two charming—if, again, mainstream—comedies. Although Awakenings seems like perfect Oscar-bait, the Academy voters declined to nominate Marshall herself.
The Prince of Tides, 1991 (64th)
Director: Barbra Streisand
Nominations: Best Picture; Best Actor (Nick Nolte); Best Supporting Actress (Kate Nelligan); Best Adapted Screenplay; Best Cinematography; Best Art Direction; Best Original Score
Who Got the Nomination Instead: John Singleton, Boyz in the Hood; Ridley Scott, Thelma and Louise
Two worthy nods to Singleton and Scott, but I can’t help but think that Streisand’s trajectory from actress and singer to director was never going to sit well with Academy voters—especially the career directors who decided the nominations.
Little Miss Sunshine, 2006 (79th)
Directors: Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton
Nominations: Best Picture; Best Supporting Actress (Abigail Breslin)
Wins: Best Actor (Alan Arkin); Best Original Screenplay
Who Got the Nomination Instead: Paul Greengrass, United 93
United 93 was praised for its realism, technical accuracy, and the efficiency with which the story was told; Little Miss Sunshine focused more on an emotional family tale. In their nominations, directors historically tend towards rewarding particularly difficult achievements related to the filmmaking process, so in this case, Greengrass edged out Faris and Dayton.
An Education, 2009 (82nd)
Director: Lone Scherfig
Nominations: Best Picture; Best Actress (Carey Mulligan); Best Adapted Screenplay
Who Got the Nominations: Kathryn Bigelow, James Cameron, Lee Daniels, Jason Retiman, Quentin Tarantino
We now move back into the expanded Picture nomination pool, and we start seeing that films directed by women start to be nominated a bit more consistently as potential Best Pictures. That is great—but not much help to the directors themselves, unless they are Kathryn Bigelow (who was nominated and won this year).
The Kids Are All Right, 2010 (83rd)
Director: Lisa Cholodenko
Nominations: Best Picture; Best Actress (Annette Bening); Best Supporting Actor (Mark Ruffalo); Best Original Screenplay
Who Got the Nominations: again, more Picture nominees than Director—Darren Aronofsky, Joel and Ethan Coen, David Fincher, Tom Hooper, David O. Russell
Again, smaller movies like The Kids Are All Right start to benefit from the expanded Best Picture nomination pool, but no corresponding nominations for the directors of these films. Bigelow won the year before this, and a woman hasn’t been nominated since then. My cynical side hopes that isn’t because the Academy members feel they’ve now sufficiently rewarded ALL women, into eternity, with that single reward.
Winter’s Bone, 2010 (83rd)
Director: Debra Granik
Nominations: Best Picture; Best Actress (Jennifer Lawrence); Best Supporting Actor (John Hawkes); Best Adapted Screenplay
Who Got the Nominations: Darren Aronofsky, Joel and Ethan Coen, David Fincher, Tom Hooper, David O. Russell (same year as above)
Two for two on shutting out the women this year! And both primarily stories about women, with strong, unobjectified female leads…
Zero Dark Thirty, 2012 (85th)
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Nominations: Best Picture; Best Actress (Jessica Chastain); Best Original Screenplay; Best Film Editing
Wins: Best Sound Editing
Who Got the Nominations: Ang Lee, Michael Haneke, David O. Russell, Steven Spielberg, Benh Zeitlan
Bigelow had already won previously for The Hurt Locker, so… why use up a space on her when you could nominate David O. Russell again, right?
Selma, 2014 (87th)
Director: Ava DuVernay
Nominations: Best Picture; Best Song
Who Got the Nominations: Wes Anderson, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Richard Linklater, Bennett Miller, Morten Tyldum
DuVernay’s evocative and timely film also suffered from controversy about its depiction of LBJ; while the Academy directors love to reward technical and even avant-garde achievements of filmmaking, they tend to be more hesitant when it comes to films that are even slightly politically daring.
So, what can we learn from this? Female directors tend to tell stories that are focused on women or at least feature men and women equally—whether through their own storytelling choices, or because the studio begrudgingly accepted that a woman might be well suited as a directorial choice for these films. For me, the most distressing correlation with all these movies is how many of them are stories that are not just directed by women, but are about women. I’m not advocating for women to be awarded Oscars for everything they do, but I do think that a good look at the types of stories and the types of filmmakers that the Academy rewards needs to be a bigger part of the discussion—as well as questioning how representative these choices really are.
The Academy is made up of nearly 6000 members, who are 94% white, 77% male, 86% over the age of 50, with a median age of 62. The director members, who choose the Best Director nominations, are even more lopsided genderwise, at 91% male. The lack of diversity within the Academy starts with a lack of diversity in hiring practices in all positions of the film industry, but it also contributes back to it in a cyclical fashion—when studios (run by white men) see that the Academy (which is mostly white men) tends to reward stories (about white men) that are made by white men… well, guess what gets greenlit the next year? Guess who gets hired?
One of the most telling facts, for me, can be seen in this year’s Best Actress nominees. Of all the films made by the Best Directors this year—The Grand Budapest Hotel, Birdman, Foxcatcher, Boyhood, and The Imitation Game—none of them garnered a Best Actress nomination. In fact, only one of the Best Actress nominees even came from a Best Picture; all of the other actresses were from films that were nominated for neither Picture nor Director. In contrast, every single one of the Best Actor nominees starred in films that were nominated for either Best Director or Best Picture—and in most cases, both. To me, that says that, whether consciously or not, the Academy and the studios themselves are putting a higher value on stories about men. When it gets to the point that to even find a worthy lead female performance, they have to look outside of the films they’ve otherwise deemed the Best, because women are so utterly not the focus of those stories… well, that’s a problem.