This year’s Academy Awards felt like it was consciously striking a steady balance between looking to the future and honoring overdue titans of the past. It was at once exciting in the positive direction it showed the Academy moving in, yet often frustrating for how restrained it was in making that progress. On the one hand, this was the year Jordan Peele became an Oscar winner, blowing past Academy assumptions of what an Oscar movie is with a viciously relevant, lastingly disturbing horror trip. On the other, it was also a night when Dear Basketball, a flimsy, self-congratulatory sketch by Kobe Bryant, won more awards than Mudbound, a more trailblazing film that wasn’t far from people’s minds throughout the night. On the one hand, the big winner of the night was The Shape of Water, a rather delightfully daft, kinky pick for the Academy, as well as the first woman-led film to win since Million Dollar Baby in 2005.
On the other, it was also a night when everyone was talking about the exciting nominations of Greta Gerwig in Original Screenplay and Director, yet where Lady Bird was one of only two Best Picture nominees – The Post included – to go home empty-handed. If the 90th Academy Awards was a night of exciting progress, it was still rather measured, calculated progress. The enthusiasm for wider representation for women, people of color and trans-filmmakers, vividly depicted onstage, was often not mirrored by some of the winners, both in the major and lower-key categories.
Take the Documentary Feature race, packed with three potentially exciting winners. It could’ve been a night where Last Men in Aleppo won, making a strong statement against the current administrations outlandish travel ban against Muslim countries. It could’ve been a night where Yance Ford, director of the bold, sobering Strong Island, became the first transgender director to win an Oscar – though many felt that progress was covered by A Fantastic Woman, a film directed from a cis-male perspective. Or the night could’ve followed the trajectory many pundits expected and cinephiles hoped for, giving Agnes Varda (along with co-director J.R.) an official Oscar moment for Faces Places, a delightful, uplifting and eccentric French travelogue. With an emotionally overwhelmed Greta Gerwig onstage, any of these would’ve made an electrifying moment.
Instead Icarus won, boosted by its relevance amid the Winter Olympics and its ease of availability on Netflix. In a flash, it felt like the enthusiasm in the room, and on the net, deflated a bit. It became a stoic, respectful moment instead of a truly enthusiastic one. This underlines a more overarching and conspicuous problem in the Academy, as it currently stands. If they honor a story about women, it’s directed from the perspective of a male filmmaker. A couple of films director by people of color, namely Jordan Peele and Guillermo Del Toro, won awards, but no woman-directed films took home a single award from this year’s ceremony. Or the previous year. Or the year before that.
That last time a film directed or co-directed by a woman won an Oscar in any category was in 2014, when Selma‘s lone trophy was Original Song and Laura Poitras’ Citizenfour, an insider’s look at Edward Snowden, won Best Documentary. Looking to the bigger races, only four woman-directed films have won awards in any of the Top 8 categories this century – Monster (2003), Little Miss Sunshine (2006), The Hurt Locker (2009) and The Iron Lady (2011). Of those, the only woman-directed film to ever win Best Picture, Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, was overwhelmingly focused on the experiences of three men stationed in Iraq. The message this sends? A woman-directed film can win Best Picture, as long as it’s predominantly about men.
If this year’s Oscars feels most singularly frustrating in this regard, it’s because the Academy had so many opportunities to honor woman-directed films. Beyond the aforementioned Documentary category upset, two woman-made films were nominated for Animated Feature, the Dorota Kobiela co-directed Loving Vincent and Nora Twomey’s The Breadwinner. They both lost to Coco, an uplifting piece of Mexican representation that was, nonetheless, directed by a white man. In Foreign Language Film, Ildikó Enyedi’s On Body and Soul lost to Sebastian Lelio’s aforementioned trans-narrative A Fantastic Woman.
Dee Rees’ widely beloved Mudbound, a potential outlier in the Best Picture race during early voting, was nominated in four category, making history for women and women-of-color with each nod. First female Cinematography nominee Rachel Morrison lost to Roger Deakins’ work on Blade Runner 2049, and first woman-of-color Adapted Screenplay nominees Rees and Virgil Williams lost to James Ivory’s work on Call Me By Your Name. These wins may not be disappointing, as they’re both honoring exceptional work by filmmakers who have been long overdue for commendation. Still, those lost potential opportunities to honor women’s work could become a more glaring issue in the future.
Perhaps the biggest lapse in recognition for a woman-directed film, though, comes from the big races. Greta Gerwig’s widely beloved Lady Bird was nominated for no technical awards, so its only chances were in some of the most buzzed about categories – Picture, Director, Actress, Supporting Actress and Original Screenplay. Obviously Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water won Best Picture and Director, the first to take both since Alejandro G. Innaritu’s Birdman in 2015, and this year definitely felt like a year when Lady Bird could’ve made history with either win. No film by and about women has ever won the top prize, and that lack of major commendation for women’s stories could be a major issue going forward. Greta Gerwig lost Original Screenplay to Jordan Peele, a tough case of two whip-smart scripts competing for high-key commendation. Again, not an embittering defeat.
Which leaves the acting races, where Lady Bird‘s two stars, Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf, both lost to nominees from male-directed films about women. Both Frances McDormand’s work in Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri and Allison Janney’s in I, Tonya are vicious, go-for-the-jugular performances, written the vigorous aggression present in a number of such films by men. Both Martin McDonagh and I, Tonya scribe Steven Rogers write their women with the same volatile attitudes they lend their men, and you can’t fault McDormand or Janney for digging into such potentially meaty roles.
That lack of a genuine woman’s perspective, though, is apparent when compared to the equally sharp characters and performances in Lady Bird. Neither Ronan or Metcalf aren’t playing soft characters. They love and fight hard, and that wild, relentless emotion makes for two of the most exciting, electrifying performances this year. If a woman-directed film could’ve been honored in any category, these would’ve been prime opportunities. Perhaps McDormand’s win in Best Actress was worth it for the stellar speech she gave, urging the industry to help the women nominated this years achieve their future visions. That moment may result in a number of exceptional films that stand the test of time, like Lady Bird, Mudbound and Faces Places, regardless of the number of trophies they take home.
That doesn’t let the Academy off the hook. When this new generation of women’s stories comes down the pipeline, the Oscars better be ready to acknowledge them as emphatically as they can.