‘Well, the time has come.”
Those were the words Barbra Streisand spoke at the 2010 Academy Awards before she handed the Oscar for best director to Kathryn Bigelow, the first woman in the 82-year history of the ceremony to claim that honor. It was a moment that felt like a potential game-changer for every female who has ever smacked her head into the glass ceiling of male-dominated Hollywood. The orchestra even punctuated it by playing Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman” as “The Hurt Locker” filmmaker walked off stage.
Two years have passed. And with another Oscar night ahead — one where all the best-director contenders are men, just as they were last year — it’s natural to wonder whether that memorable “I Am Woman” win actually created a Bigelow Effect, flinging open new doors for aspiring female filmmakers. Or are things pretty much status quo in the land of blockbusters and action franchises?
An annual report from San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film suggests status quo. In fact, according to the latest Celluloid Ceiling study, released last month, only 5 percent of the directors who worked on the 250 top-grossing movies of last year were women. That’s a two-percentage-point drop from 2010. On the plus side, the number of women working behind the scenes — as writers, producers, editors and crew members — rose from 17 percent in 2010 to 18 percent in 2011.
“When Bigelow won, a lot of people assumed things must be okay, but the numbers tell a different story,” Martha Lauzen, the center’s director said.
That story is complicated, and not without some glimmers of progress. But it’s also one that begins with a simple fact: Most of Hollywood’s key players are white men.
“When you’re talking about 95 percent of the films being directed by largely white males, that’s a stunning number to me,” Lauzen said. “There are many things happening simultaneously to produce that number. More than ever before, film studios are businesses. And one of the things businesses like to do is avoid perceived risk. Women are still perceived as riskier hires than men.”
Part of this, Lauzen said, is human nature. A man is more likely to greenlight a story that appeals to men, then enlist another man to tell that story.
There may also be a Mars/Venus aspect. During separate conversations with two notable female filmmakers — Phyllida Lloyd, who steered Meryl Streep in “The Iron Lady,” and Debra Granik, the former D.C. resident who directed “Winter’s Bone,” an Oscar nominee last year for best picture — both women noted that their sensibilities frequently differ from some of their industry counterparts.
“I feel often that I’m seeing things upside down and back-to-front [versus] how the boys are seeing them,” said Lloyd, who made her directorial debut with the big-budget musical “Mamma Mia.” “Perhaps just by dint of what we’re passionate about, it’s harder to franchise our thoughts.”
Granik, an independent filmmaker prone to tackling gritty stories about life on the margins of society, also said the subjects that inspire her have been deemed “unmarketable” by some. But gender may have nothing to do with that.
“I have to struggle to find a way to be accessible, and I have to find creative, visionary, smaller-scale financiers who literally, on a cultural level, want to see diversity in story-telling,” she says, talking via cell from an Amtrak train. “I still want to bring actors to the screen that haven’t been seen before. Who can bank on that financially?”
And then there’s that familiar matter that comes up in any conversation about why women haven’t ascended more quickly in their fields: because some ratchet back professional pursuits to make time for family. During an interview last fall to promote her first directorial effort, “Higher Ground,” actress and mother Vera Farmiga acknowledged that she wants to direct again but said that “it’s going to be a rare occasion for me to do that because I want to direct my children.”
Still, a number of films either made by women or focused on female experiences have generated chatter during this awards season, including: Lloyd’s “Iron Lady”; “Bridesmaids,” written by the Oscar-nominated Annie Mumolo and Kristen Wiig; “The Help,” whose largely female cast won the best ensemble honor at the Screen Actors Guild Awards; “Albert Nobbs,” a film co-written and produced by its star, Glenn Close; and “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” directed by Lynne Ramsay.
What can be done to ensure that women make more noise during future Oscar seasons? Lauzen recommends holding congressional hearings on the issues raised by that Celluloid Ceiling data or perhaps offering tax incentives to women to help get their projects off the ground.
Granik points out how helpful it can be when women champion one another, noting that Bigelow hosted a screening last year for “Winter’s Bone” that helped attract industry attention. (Bigelow was unavailable to comment for this piece; a rep said she’s working on her next project, a much-discussed film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden.)
Lloyd thinks the global revolution in the film business — which relies more and more on international box-office receipts — will make it even more crucial for films to appeal to female audiences. And she suggests that women must start creating a new mind-set for the next generation of potential Bigelows.
“One of the things we could really do to help is take away that lack of entitlement from our children, as women, and make sure they don’t have that fear. [They should feel] That they own the place,” she said. “That will change things.”