Oscars 2021: Chloe Zhao, Emerald Fennell make history in Best Director category; but what about other women filmmakers?

Prahlad Srihari
·6 min read

The Oscars have become a continual attempt at course-correction for the preceding edition's oversights. Women were shut out of the Best Director category in 2020, when the Academy had the opportunity to recognise the stellar work of one or more of Céline Sciamma, Greta Gerwig, Lulu Wang, and Marielle Heller. This year, for the first time in Oscars history, more than one woman has been nominated in the category. Chloé Zhao and Emerald Fennell are not only in the running for Best Director honours, but also Best Picture for Nomadland and Promising Young Woman respectively.

The fact remains: in 93 years of the Academy Awards, only one woman has won Best Director: Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker in 2010. The odds are in favour of Zhao becoming the second. It would be a fitting reward following a banner year for women-directed films. But the rewards should have been far greater.

Year after year, women have failed to earn nominations in the Best Director category because the Directors' Branch of the Academy deciding the nominees has notoriously been a boys' club. So far, only seven women have been nominated. That's less than 2 percent (seven out of 457 nominees in total).

The Oscars' Best Director category has been customarily all-male. Last year too was the rule rather than the exception. If ever there was a year it could have been all-female, it was 2021. The Independent Spirit Awards came close to it. Four out of the five nominees for directing were women. All five Best Picture nominees at this year's Gotham Awards too were directed by women. Common to these rosters are some names whose films struggled to pick up even a single nod at the 93rd Academy Awards.

Kelly Reichardt - First Cow

Chief among them is Kelly Reichardt's First Cow. The elegiac masterwork has been an awards season favourite, but sadly only among the critics' circles. The Western, in her deft directorial hand, is transformed in gaze, shape, and form into a tender tale of immigrants relegated to the fringes of American society. Through sheer empathy, she makes us questions all of America's founding myths. Reichardt stretches her winning streak, and all the Academy offers her in return is a cold shoulder.

First Cow - Oscars 2021
First Cow - Oscars 2021

Eliza Hittman - Never Rarely Sometimes Always

Another staple of the awards season has been Never Rarely Sometimes Always. Tracking a pair of small-town teens who journey to New York to procure an abortion, Eliza Hittman serves a neorealist drama about a young woman's reproductive freedom as she reclaims control over her body. Rooting the story in everyday truths and emotions, Hittman films an intimate portrait of friendship and ingenuity against the backdrop of a broken American system, with compassion and without any judgment, much like Reichardt does in First Cow. In the process, she unearths two stellar talents in newcomers Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always - Oscars 2021
Never Rarely Sometimes Always - Oscars 2021

Josephine Decker - Shirley

Josephine Decker should have been a shoo-in for Shirley. A director with such an original vision, she blends fiction and reality in her anti-biopic treatment of horror writer Shirley Jackson, much like Best Director nominee David Fincher does in his own fastidious way in Mank.

Shirley - Oscars 2021
Shirley - Oscars 2021

Radha Blank - The 40-Year-Old Version

While it's not hard to understand why Netflix prioritised Mank and The Trial of the Chicago 7 as its Oscar frontrunners, The 40-Year-Old Version deserved some Oscar push too. Announcing herself as a new comedic tour de force, Radha Blank wrote, directed and starred in her feature debut, which dissects "the white gaze's eroticism of Black pain."

forty year old 640
forty year old 640


Miranda July's films are a little too offbeat for the Academy's taste. Kajillionaire, though a delightful indie caper, was always going to be a long shot. Same goes for Relic. If the Academy didn't have such an aversion for horror, Natalie Erika James might not have been such an easy shut-out for her feature debut, where a haunted house becomes a metaphor for dementia and intergenerational trauma. Silence equals complicity in Kitty Green's workplace harassment drama, which has an anxiety and urgency to it which should have appealed to Oscar voters.

Babyteeth announced Shannon Murphy as a fully-formed talent, and offered a subversive new take on the teen cancer romance. Often, the Academy grants nominations based on name alone. Julia Hart's neo-noir I'm Your Woman would have yielded a lot more nominations, were the film directed by Martin Scorsese or David O Russell. A lot of these women are promising up-and-comers, but they all display the directorial assurance and sensitivity of veterans.


Constraints faced by women filmmakers

The Academy's oversight underscores the added challenges women face in an Intellectual Property-driven Hollywood real estate. Besides Bigelow and the few making superhero movies, most women directors work within the confines of the independent film community. Like it is for all indie filmmakers, Sundance and Telluride offer them their big chance to break through. Almost all of the above mentioned films either began their journey at Telluride (First Cow, The Assistant) in September 2019, or Sundance (Kajillionaire, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Relic, Shirley, The 40-Year-Old Version) in January 2020.

In the case of those backed by indie studios, the production budget doesn't allow for a promotional campaign that can keep these movies in conversation for so long. Nor do they have the luxury of a world-wide distribution deal, and a grand lobbying campaign to get the right eyes to see their movies. By contrast, Zhao's Oscar frontrunner Nomadland had a more recent world premiere at Venice in September 2020, and a global release ahead of the Oscars. Not to mention a lobbying campaign funded by Searchlight Pictures' parent company: a certain Disney.

The Oscars should be about the quality of the movie, not the quality of the lobbying campaign to win them.

The current nominees aren't undeserving by any measure. Only, the awards race is lessened in the exclusion of these women. Perhaps, increasing the nomination limit across the categories to 10 like the Academy did with Best Picture, would ensure a healthier field with a little less of us grieving over those overlooked.

Love it or hate it, Oscar credibility does go a long way in helping the public and producers alike discover cinema's freshest talent. The Academy has been changing its stripes to correct past oversights. This year, there was cause for more female nominees for Best Director, based on quality and nothing but. Sure, it could have been the start of a normalisation, to counter that of all-male nominees over the years. But Reichardt, Hittman, Decker et al deserved their first Dolby Theatre invites not because they're some of the best female filmmakers, but some of the best filmmakers of our generation.

Oscars 2021 will air in India on 26 April.

(Also read €" Oscars 2021: Nominations of Minari, Sound of Metal show dominance of the prestige film got diluted this season)

Also See: BAFTA 2021: Chloe Zhao's Nomadland wins top honours including Best Film, director; see winners' list

Oscar-nominated film Nomadland is acknowledgement of human impermanence, and also a protest against it

Oscars 2021: Revisiting Nomadland director Chloe Zhao's delicate debut Songs My Brothers Taught Me

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