2019 was the year of the female director. Did the Academy not get the memo?

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Awards season this year feels a little familiar doesn’t it? If we cast our mind back to late 2017, the film industry was excited at the possibility of female director being nominated for major awards. The year had witnessed a boom in female representation behind the camera, both in blockbusters (e.g Patty Jenkins for Wonder Woman) and Indie circles (most notably Greta Gerwig for her breakout hit Lady Bird). The latter made such an impression that the trades and prognosticators were convinced that Gerwig would be the first woman to receive a number of nominations since Kathryn Bigelow in 2009. But the Golden Globes outrageously snubbed Gerwig for the nomination, despite Lady Bird winning the award for Best Comedy. Natalie Portman famously called out the all male nominees and hey presto, a controversy had formed. This was only made more severe in the context of the new revelations regarding Harvey Weinstein’s sexual assault against women in the industry and the dawn of the #metoo campaign.

Gerwig went on to receive an Oscar nomination that year, and, despite not winning, the Academy were seen to register the mistake of previous awards shows and introduce more diversity into the directing mix. Flash forward to 2020 however, and we have the beginning of an identical story over another of Gerwig’s films, Little Women. Only, unlike in the 2017/18 season, the Academy decided to follow the precedent of the Globes and Bafta and ignore Gerwig’s work. This itself highlights a stark regression, not evolution as the Academy promised after the Oscars so white controversy, and to make matters worse, 2019 was an even more impressive year for female directing talent besides Gerwig, thus making the matter substantially worse.

Consider some of the best reviewed films of the last year. The Farewell was one of the most emotionally rich and well acted films of the year utilising a fantastic ensemble and showcasing star-making turns from Awkwafina and Zhao Zhuzhen (both also snubbed). Hustlers featured Jennifer Lopez’s (snubbed) best performance of her career and also was a fun, snappy insight into the seedy world of strip clubs in the wake of the Financial Crisis. It was a feminist call to arms about fending for oneself and not being vilified for wanting to survive in a man’s world. Consider Booksmart, one of the sharpest comedies of the year, something more impressive considering it was Oiivia Wilde’s directorial debut. What all of these features have in common are that they are some of the most acclaimed films of the year and that they were all directed by a women. What’s even more interesting is that they all are dominated by female led stories that highlight female relationships, whether it be the relationships between friends or family.

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(From left: Keke Palmer, Cardi B, Jennifer Lopez, Constance Wu and Lili Reinhart tearing up the Red Carpet at a premiere for Hustlers in Los Angeles)

You’d already think that with this level of female directing talent that at least one would be nominated for a directing award at a major ceremony. But the situation becomes even more shocking when considering that the year marked the aforementioned return of Greta Gerwig to the big screen. As the director of not only one of the best films of the year but also as someone who has two juggernaut movies with critics under her belt, you would expect all of the goodwill towards female talent this year to possibly be concentrated within a nomination for Gerwig. Radical change was never going to happen overnight, so to expect Hollywood to nominate multiple female nominees would be unrealistic. But giving Gerwig a nomination was a prospect so realistic and so plausible, that the fact that they didn’t has to involve some form of subconscious bias. Heck, Little Women is nominated in six categories including Best Picture. You’d think that qualifies it as one of the best movies of the year.

It’s clear that the Academy have even more work to do regarding representation in their awards than we realised. This season was the perfect opportunity to acknowledge the growth of female talent in the director’s chair, but Academy members flinched and decided to go with far safer choices. In most years, there is a hint of an excuse in the statement that quality is considered regardless of gender, as female directed movies are so few and far between that most of the best movies of the year are indeed directed by men for the most part. But, despite what Stephen King would have you think, 2019 was different. No more excuses Academy.

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