Introducing this year’s director category at the politically charged Golden Globes, Natalie Portman echoed the frustrations of many with the withering comment “And here are the all-male nominees.”
Two weeks later, Lady Bird’s Greta Gerwig – only the fifth woman in 90 years to be Oscar-nominated as director – left empty-handed, leaving Kathryn Bigelow (for The Hurt Locker) as the award’s sole female recipient.
It should be no surprise to learn, then, that female voters make up a measly 28% of the Academy. After picking up her Oscar, Bigelow said, “I’d love to just think of myself as a film-maker, and I wait for the day when the modifier can be a moot point.”
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It’s a view echoed by Nora Ephron (late director of Sleepless in Seattle and Julie & Julia, Wednesday Sony Movie Channel); in her book I Remember Nothing, she listed among the things she wouldn’t miss “Panels on Women in Film”.
If film broadens our horizons and encourages a variety of perspectives, then it matters who’s telling the stories, otherwise we only ever see part of the picture. Riding the recent wave of truth-telling, African-American film-maker Ava DuVernay is one of the formidable talents leading the charge for change.
Although she’s held the reins on two Oscar-nominated features (Selma and documentary The 13th), she has yet to bag her own nomination. Despite this, her new film A Wrinkle in Time represents a landmark.
A family fantasy (in cinemas from Friday 23 March), it stars Oprah Winfrey and Reese Witherspoon as mysterious super-beings empowering a young girl in a dangerous quest… and it’s the first time a black female director has commanded a budget for a live-action feature of more than $100 million.
“I don’t take it as a mantle of proud distinction that I’m the first woman of colour to make a film at this price point,” she explained on a Variety podcast, “because it really means we haven’t done this in decades and decades and decades before that.”
So how poorly represented are women behind the camera? The gender diversity website Women and Hollywood reports that, of the top-grossing 250 films of 2017, women represented 11% of directors, up from 7% in 2016.
Although that’s a move in the right direction, we’ve seen backsliding before and the picture is bleaker for women of colour. Only four black, one Latin and three Asian females worked as directors on the top 1,100 films from 2007 to 2017. In that same period, women directed 27.5% of the features at indie festival Sundance, so even if women are making films, transitioning to the big leagues is another matter.
There are yawning chasms in the breaks available, best illustrated by the career path of former micro-budget male directors. Colin Trevorrow went from a $750,000 budget on his first film Safety Not Guaranteed to handling the $150 million Jurassic World three years later; Gareth Edwards, whose 2010 Monsters cost an estimated $500,000, followed up his debut in 2014 with the $160 million Godzilla.
The keys-to-the-kingdom trust levels given to these fledgeling male film-makers have never been offered to women. This endemic faith in male directors has its antecedents in the “New Hollywood” movement, which changed the cinematic landscape.
From the late 60s onwards, it ushered in a swathe of exciting young visionaries – including Steven Spielberg and George Lucas – as major studios gifted them untold artistic freedom in an attempt to tap into a younger, more tuned-in audience.
Yet these opportunities were still only available to men and during this creatively fertile era, only the Italian film-maker Lina Wertmuller, who worked in Europe, was recognised by the Academy: the first nominated woman director, in 1977 for Seven Beauties.
In contrast to the fortunes of today’s rising male film-makers, Patty Jenkins, whose debut Monster was both Oscar-winning and profitable, had to wait 14 years to direct her next film, last year’s Wonder Woman. It was a milestone: the only superhero movie to be directed by a woman to date became the highest grossing live action film directed by a woman and the highest grossing superhero origin movie ever.
If ground is finally being made up, with a modest increase in representation and women occasionally entrusted with large-scale projects, why has it taken so long? Anna Biller’s experience on the set of her lauded 2016 indie The Love Witch acts as disturbing testimony here.
Via her Twitter feed, she described how her predominantly male crew were reluctant to take orders from a woman and so aggressively opposed to her vision that she believed some were sabotaging her work.
The Time’s Up and #MeToo movements offer further, equivalently alarming explanation. The outpouring of historic sexual harassment and assault accusations relating to the movie business – with the majority of victims female and alleged abusers male – and the wall of silence that protected serial predators, sometimes for decades, suggests that even for female stars their power has been merely illusionary.
Disrespect for women in the entertainment industry seems entrenched and it’s hard not to relate the stubborn disregard for their suffering to how they are perceived as film-makers.
Women’s experiences seem of limited interest to Hollywood. But the fact that women’s voices are finally being heard should at last bode well for their creative prospects. After all, women are already dominant in costume design and well represented in editing, songwriting and producing.
If the appetite is there, let’s hope this new momentum leads women into more male-dominated areas of work. Who knows, maybe A Wrinkle in Time’s fantasy tale of powerful women lighting the way isn’t quite so far-fetched after all.
A Wrinkle in Time is in cinemas now