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.

Naomi Kawase’s “True Mothers”: Japan’s Superb Entry for the Academy Award

March 10, 2021 § Leave a comment

This review contains plot spoilers

At the outset “True Mothers” seems almost a cliché: a happy couple with an adopted child get an unexpected jolt when his desperate birth mother suddenly appears.  Fortunately, nothing is as it appears in Naomi Kawase’s masterful film, and the great pleasure of watching is its uncertainty. What begins as the story of a mother, father and five-year-old son keeps shifting, beginning with a red herring and ending on a surprisingly hopeful note.

In between, we see flashbacks of Satoko (Hiromi Nagasaku) and Kiyokazu (Arata Iura) Kurihara’s struggle with infertility (male, for a change) and their decision to adopt via an agency called Baby Baton, which they discover via a documentary. Impressed by the dedication of its founder, Shizue (Miyoko Asada), the Kuriharas apply, are accepted, and travel to the agency’s island headquarters to pick up their infant son. They also elect to meet his birth mother, a fourteen-year-old named Hikari (Aju Makita), who gives them a letter to read to the baby, called Asato .

Five years later Hikari telephones to demand the child’s return or, alternatively, hush money for not revealing the child’s adoption to his school. The Kuriharas call her bluff. According to Baby Baton’s rules, they have told Asato, his school and the neighbors that he is adopted, an important factor in a country with a long tradition of adopting the children of relatives, friends and colleagues, but little history of adopting the children of strangers. Meeting Hikari in person, the Kuriharas initially doubt her identity, since she barely resembles the middle schooler they briefly.

The film then shifts from Tokyo to Nara, and in flashback becomes Hikari’s story. At fourteen she falls in love with a schoolmate and conceives before the onset of menarche. (Here again there’s a surprise: the boy is kind, also in love, and heartbroken by the events.) By the time Hikari knows she’s pregnant it’s too late for an abortion and—having also seen the documentary–she elects adoption via Baby Baton.

Again and again “True Mothers” defies stereotypes and expectations. The island is tranquil and beautiful, Shizue is kind and motherly, and the other girls—young bar hostesses and sex workers impregnated by customers—are friendly. Hikari’s real troubles start when she returns home to Nara, where her narcissistic mother is concerned only for the family’s reputation and her daughter’s high school entry exams. Devoid of comfort and love, Hikari flees back to the island, discovers Asato’s adoption papers and makes her way to Tokyo. A school dropout and runaway, she ekes out a living near the high-rise apartment where her son is growing up. (Even here there’s a surprise: an employer who not only provides a place for her to live but looks out for her safety and well-being in a perilous time.)

Naomi Kawase, who directed and co-wrote the script with Izumi Takahashi and Mizuki Tsujimura based on Tsujimura’s novel, is the first Japanese woman director to reach the Oscars, an overdue honor for someone who won the Caméra d’Or at Cannes in 1997. Now, nearly thirty years into her filmmaking career, Kawase will direct the official film of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. She’s a worthy successor to the great Kon Ichikawa, whose “Tokyo Olympiad” has been the gold standard for sports films since its release in 1965.

“Pain and Glory”: Antonio Banderas In The Role Of A Lifetime

January 19, 2020 § Leave a comment

Antonio Banderas in Pedro Almodóvar’s “Pain and Glory”

Three months after seeing “Pain and Glory,” it remains vivid in my mind, as movies seldom do these days. (Quite a few I’ve forgotten by the time I get home from the theater—which says something about both the quality and the quantity of films I’ve watched over the years.) Not so Pedro Almodóvar’s latest film.

The story of Salvador Mallo, an aging film director grappling with a cascade of physical ailments and the ghosts of his past, “Pain and Glory” is a triumphant summation of Almodóvar’s themes of art, love, childhood, passion, religion and suffering. But it’s also the high point of his work with his greatest male star, Antonio Banderas, who during the past thirty-eight years has been Almodóvar’s alter ego, leading man and muse.

Those who know Banderas only from American films will find him a revelation in the eight films he has made with Almodóvar–particularly if they understand Spanish. For though Banderas is a reliably strong actor in English, he’s always the exotic foreigner. In Spanish, however, he operates at an entirely different level: both funnier and darker, he delivers performances of great variety and complexity. The roles Banderas has played in Amodóvar’s previous films prove his range—and his gameness:

1982 “Labyrinth of Passion”:   Sadec, a terrorist

1986 “Matador”:   Ángel, student matador, failed rapist and false
confessor to two murders

1987 “Law of Desire”:   Antonio, possessive gay lover of a film director

1988 “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown”:   Carlos, the previously unknown son of Carmen Maura’s character’s ex-lover

1990 “Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down”:   Ricky, a recently released mental patient who kidnaps a former porn star/B movie actress/recovering heroin addict with whom he had a one-night stand during an escape from the asylum

2011 “The Skin I Live In”:  Psychopathic plastic surgeon

2013 “I’m So Excited”:  Airport ground technician whose wife, a colleague, is played by Penélope Cruz

As good as Banderas was in these movies, his performance in “Pain and Glory” stands at an entirely different level, suffused with suffering, humor, self-knowledge and acceptance. In a role that could have been an exercise in scenery chewing, he is nuanced and restrained throughout, a feat of immense control.

After being named Best Actor at Cannes and by the New York, LA and National Film Critics societies, this week Antonio Banderas was nominated for the Best Actor Academy Award. Because of Joaquín Phoenix’s nomination for “Joker,” he is considered a dark horse, and the Academy is notorious for favoring what the late Heath Ledger called “the most acting, not the best acting.” But I hope Banderas will triumph, just as he did two weeks ago when he won the National Society of Film Critics’ Best Actor Award while we were talking at a pre-Golden Globes reception. More on our conversation next time.

Hollywood, the Most Sexist Industry of All

March 8, 2017 § 1 Comment

The director who won:

Kathryn Bigelow

And those who didn’t:

Sofia Coppola

Jane Campion

Lina Wertmüller

On this International Women’s Day, it’s worth noting that the average American fire department offers more opportunities for women than the film and television industry. I’m not just talking about women directors, though the fact that only four women have been nominated for the Best Director Academy Award in the Oscars’ 89-year history looks really bad, as does the fact that only one has won. I’m talking about opportunities for women across the board. The statistics are not only deplorable but actually getting worse.

The 2016 annual report of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film states:

In 2016, women comprised 17% of all directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers working on the top 250 domestic grossing films. This represents a decline of 2 percentage points from last year and is even with the percentage achieved in 1998.
Women accounted for 7% of directors, down 2 percentage points from 9% in 2015 and 1998. Last year, 92% of films had no female directors. In other roles, women comprised 13% of writers, 17% of executive producers, 24% of producers, 17% of editors, and 5% of cinematographers.
This year’s study also found that only 3% of composers working on the top 250 films were women.

What is to be done? It’s not enough to increase the female and minority membership of the Academy, which remains overwhelmingly white, male and old. The executives who greenlight films and TV shows have to change too, both in their gender makeup and outlook. It’s one thing to have more women executives who embrace the status quo, and another to have female–and male–executives who champion women writers, directors, cinematographers and composers. Another factor plaguing film and television is the lack of urgency. As long as the powers that be think things are fine as they are, nothing will change.

Oscar Snubs and Best Picture Fiascos, Past and Present

January 24, 2015 § 1 Comment

This One Won Best Picture

This One Won Best Picture

This One Didn't

This One Didn’t

The recent hand wringing over the lack of nominations for “Selma” beyond Best Picture was surprising, given the fact that most of the people writing about it should know that nominations are not given out of fairness or merit. (Profitability is also beside the point, otherwise at least one “Fast and Furious” or “Spiderman” movie would have been nominated for Best Picture by now.) It’s as if they’ve forgotten that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is not some sort of Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval-giving organization but a by-invitation-only private club whose members (according to a recent LA Times poll) are:

94% white
77% male
86% fifty or older, median age 62

Not exactly a picture of diversity, yet over the years these members have nominated a raft of offbeat choices for Best Picture, films like “The Tree of Life,” “Pulp Fiction,” and this year’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” Winning is another matter: although other nominations come from the corresponding branches, every eligible member votes for the Best Picture nominations, which explains why the directors of Best Picture nominees aren’t necessarily nominated for Best Director. Given the size and occupational variety of the AMPAS electorate, the Best Picture winner is often not so much a matter of what everyone loves most as what everyone hates least. Accordingly, the winners are usually bland and sometimes the worst of the bunch. Does anyone really think “Crash,” is a better film than “Brokeback Mountain”? That “Forrest Gump” is better than “Pulp Fiction”? That “Dances with Wolves” is better than “Goodfellas”? Yet all the former won Best Picture; the latter lost.

My all-time favorite undeserving Best Picture winner is 1980’s “Ordinary People,” a family melodrama that even at the time of its release looked less like a feature film than a middling TV Movie-of-the-Week. But it starred Donald Sutherland and Mary Tyler Moore and was directed by Robert Redford, all formidable stars near height of their powers, so it beat not one but three vastly superior films: “Raging Bull,” “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” and “The Elephant Man.” (If that weren’t enough, the voters gave the Best Director award to Robert Redford, who beat not only Martin Scorsese but David Lynch and Roman Polanski for the award. Did anyone really think Redford was the best director of the group?) Never mind: history determines the real winner. Today “Raging Bull” is considered one of the greatest films of all time, while “Ordinary People” is remembered mainly as the movie that introduced Timothy Hutton, whose Best Supporting Actor win is the apex of his career so far.

Whichever nominee wins this year’s award for Best Picture, the real best picture winner won’t be determined for at least a decade. How will we know? It’ll be the movie we’re still watching and thinking about. If the past is any indication, it won’t be the one with the Oscar.

Beachwood Canyon in the 1940 Census, Part II: Discovering Bernard B. Brown, the Academy Award-Winning Original Owner of My House

May 20, 2012 § 19 Comments

When I first saw my 1937 Cape Cod in Hollywoodland, I laughed at its description: it’s not a Cape house that anyone in Massachusetts would recognize. In fact, it’s a typical pre-WWII California country house, heavy on the clapboard and decidedly simple in design. For me, it has been ideal: a box for living and working that is equally suited to both. My home has changed hands many times during its history, and I’ve enjoyed hearing neighbors’ stories about its previous owners: an old lady who owned standard poodles, circa 1960; the family of 6 who in the 70s crammed three children in two small bedrooms upstairs and one daughter in the dining room; the 80s TV actor whose drug habit ended his ownership of the house, along with his career; the couple who in the 90s set up a home art gallery that attracted a steady stream of customers. But until I searched the 1940 Census, I never knew anything about the original owner, the one for whom the house probably was built.

His name was Bernard B. Brown, and the Census lists his occupation as sound supervisor at a motion picture studio. On IMDB, I found evidence of prolific three-decade career at Universal: sound credits on 528 films between 1930 and 1958, composing credits on another 30, and directing credits on 2 shorts. He was well paid for the time, listing his income in excess of $5000 a year. The height of Brown’s career came in 1945, when he won two Academy Awards, a competitive award for sound (for “Lady on a Train,” starring Deanna Durbin and Ralph Bellamy) and a technical achievement award for the “design and engineering of separate soloist and chorus recording room.”

Brown was part of the second wave of film industry immigrants to Los Angeles. The first wave consisted of the actors, directors and crew members who worked on Silent films. The second wave, which began in the latter half of the 1920s, brought those who created Talkies: sound men. In 1940, Bernard Brown lived in my then-new house with his wife Mildred. The Browns listed no children on the Census, which–because they were 41 and 37, respectively–means they probably didn’t have any. This was a surprise to me because the garage floor boasts, along with the 1937 date of the house’s completion, two small children’s hand prints. (Children putting their names and handprints in wet cement, Grauman’s Chinese Theater-style, seems to have been common practice in Hollywoodland.) The other surprise was Brown’s birthplace: Lafarge, Wisconsin, a stone’s throw from my maternal grandparents’ hometown of LaCrosse, and the closest thing my peripatetic family has to a hometown.

The probable reason no one in the neighborhood remembers Bernard Brown is that he and Mildred moved out of the house long ago, at the end of his career in 1958, if not before. But they didn’t go far: when Brown died in 1981 at the age of 83, he was living in Glendale. It’s possible that someone reading this might remember working with him during the late 1950s, in which case I would welcome any information. In the meantime, I’m trying to find a photo of Bernard Brown so that I can hang it in the house. It’s the least I can do for a man who epitomized the original Hollywoodlander–someone whose life was spent behind the camera, making movies.

Horses at Franklin and Highland, 9:15am

February 27, 2012 § Leave a comment

A stone’s throw from the scene of last night’s Academy Awards ceremony, two horses waited for their owners outside a Starbucks. Happy End-of-the-Awards-Season!

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