2020: A Year Like No Other For Women Directors (And Women Producers and Screenwriters, Too)

April 6, 2021 § Leave a comment

Chloe Zhao’s “Nomadland”
Heidi Ewing’s “I Carry You With Me”
Kelly Reichardt’s “First Cow”

When Kathryn Bigelow won the Academy Award for Best Director in 2009, breaking into what was arguably the world’s most formidable men’s club, most people assumed that more women directors would follow. But eleven years later, only one—Greta Gerwig, for “Lady Bird”–had been nominated, and she didn’t win. In the two years that followed, the Best Director nominee list reverted to what it had been almost every year since the Academy began handing out Oscars in 1929: five men, almost all white.

Then came 2020, a year of surprising quality and diversity in film. While two women have been nominated for the Best Director Oscar—Chloé Zhao for “Nomadland” and Emerald Fennell for “Promising Young Woman,”—the bigger story is the exponential increase in films directed by women, both here and abroad. One has only to look at the nominations for the Independent Spirit Awards—a better indicator of trends than the hidebound Oscars—to see the difference. Four out of five of the Best Director Spirit Award nominees are women: Zhao and Fennell, as well Kelly Reichardt (“First Cow”) and Eliza Hittman (“Never Rarely Sometimes Always”). It’s safe to assume that Lee Isaac Chung (“Minari”) never imagined being the lone male nominee in any Best Director award category, but there he is. 

This sea change in opportunity for women directors began because more women became producers, as both the Academy and Independent Spirit Awards attest. Of the six Oscar Best Picture nominees this year, four have women producers; of the five Spirit Awards Best Feature nominees, three do. 

Women screenwriters have also made gains in a male-dominated profession: for the Oscars, two out of five nominees in both the Original and Adapted Screenplay categories are women. For the Spirit Awards, three out of five nominees for Best Screenplay are women, while one of five for Best First Screenplay is. Then there’s the John Cassavetes Award for the Best Feature made for under $500,000, which is given to writers, directors and producers. This year’s nominees include two women writer-directors, one woman screenwriter, and three women producers.

For me, the breadth of the films directed by women is most heartening. With the exception of Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker,” which not only had an almost entirely male cast but was a war movie, women directors have been nominated for films about women. Given the lack of female stories and protagonists in movies that’s a good thing, but it’s also important to see women directing films about men, the way men have always directed films about women. Kelly Reichardt’s “First Cow,” and Heidi Ewing’s “I Carry You With Me,” two compelling films about male friendship, are a giant step forward. They’re also two of my favorite movies in a stellar year.

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