This time last year I was asked to write a long article on any topic for a film criticism module as part of my undergraduate degree. What follows is the product of this class, my exploration of, at the time, women in film.
Now, my question is, what has changed? If anything, why? What actually happened in last years Academy Awards, have they effected the predictions for this years?
Women in film is still a topic I am trying to pursue in my MA, but again I am asking, why is gender inequality still so prevalent in this industry?
My next post will not only discuss these issues but possibly have some real life implications, as a woman with a degree in film, hopefully two degrees by September, what are the implications of this issue on my job prospects for the future?
The Constant Question – Women in Film.
2010, the 82nd Oscars, and the first female wins the award for Best Director. Kathryn Bigelow makes history with her war thriller The Hurt Locker, but why was it such a shocking event? Why has it taken so long for The Academy to recognise female directors? It isn’t for the lack of talent of females within the industry. With the likes of Sally Potter, Gurinda Chadha and Lone Scherfig making waves on home ground, why do women have to work so much harder to be recognised than their male equals?
As we approach Oscar season, critics professional and non professional alike are out in force, decidedly set on opinions on who should win what, with many of the films having barely set a date for public release. With Unbroken directed by Angelina Jolie and Selma by Ava DuVernay amongst the predicted runners for the Oscar for Best Director, it is depressingly surprising that no less than two women are amongst the predicted. Angelina Jolie, making the transition from acting to directing, premièred her second feature film, UnBroken, in Sydney, preparing for general theatrical release on Christmas day. Telling the tale of American athlete, Louis Zamperini, Jolie directs her first war drama, following in the footsteps of Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker. As The Academy tends to favour patriotic war films such as these, Jolie’s picture might have a fighting chance. However again it is the star factor creating opportunities for women rather than their talent, especially judging by the mixed reviews UnBroken has gained.
Of course, there are a few recent films by female directors from the US that have gained some kind of notoriety, such as Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring. Although undoubtedly an auteur, her distinct style flowing through her past films, it is questionable as to whether her success is due to her markedly average films or her famous director father. It’s disappointing to debate this seeing as she is possibly the most recognised female director, although still in the independent sphere, however it seems to be her name that causes a stir, not her films. It is unfortunate that women cannot be picky over their representatives within film as there has only ever been one female director nominated for the Best Director Oscar at a time. It seems we take what we can get considering overall there has only been four nominations with one winner. Ever. In 87 years of The Academy.
Amongst these extremely elite names is Sofia Coppola in 2003 for her second feature film Lost In Translation which lost to Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (Peter Jackson) in both the Best Director and Best Film category. As one of my personal favourites of Coppola’s films, Lost in Translation (2003) tells the story of a Hollywood actor’s encounter with a young, bored woman at the start of a seemingly doomed marriage, in a country of which neither of them can speak the language. A clear indication of Coppola’s auteur status, Lost in Translation focus’ on what Coppola knows best: the monotony of the privileged Hollywood life. As well as the hardship of stardom and the effect of it on family life, Coppola’s work is defined by her anticlimactic endings, tending to focus on the life after the film, the narrative serving as only a snapshot of these lives we are viewing. Most closely comparable to her 2010 film Somewhere, in which a younger actor struggles to maintain equilibrium once his daughter is forced upon him, obstructing his seemingly typical LA life of sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll, Lost In Translation depicts a decidedly average narrative in which nothing much happens, not much meaning is created and nothing really gets resolved. Possibly reflecting ‘real life’ it all it’s dreary glory, Coppola manages to exude a kind of bourgeois attitude than one can imagine comes from an over privileged life of a Hollywood baby. Although less pretentious than her later films, to me, Lost in Translation, does not scream Oscar nomination. However looking back at previous Oscar winners, The Academy’s tendency to favour films about the film industry means that Lost In Translation lends itself more to Academy voters simply due to its primary idea – An actor’s misfortune of being an actor. Despite losing to Peter Jackson in the run for Best Director, she did manage to win herself the Best Original Screenplay Oscar for the same film. This is not surprising seeing as women are slightly more accepted as writers than directors, women having won, or co- won this Oscar since the very earliest Academy Awards, although very obviously the number of women winners pales in comparison to the number of men. The Academy represents precisely how long women have been overlooked for, and how slowly it seems to be catching up with the rest of the world in terms of gender equality, or at least the pretence of it.
Another female auteur, confined to the independent sector, is British director Sally Potter. Known for her experimental style and art school influence, Potter’s work exudes her personality. From de-constructing her own favourite novels to creating a film around her other passions such as dance, it is difficult to denounce Potters auteur status. If this is the case then why has she gained no real recognition outside of independent circles? A credible female director with an incredible talent for framing and visual spectacle, Potter embodies the unappreciated female director, her accolades consisting merely of international and female specific film festival awards. Potter’s eclectic mix of artistic genius and life passions create such a substantial auteur, it is hard to see how she has been overlooked for so long. Her works are clearly influenced by her life and loves, she is very open about the genesis of her ideas, having been influenced through both literature and experience. Her film adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando provides a more narrative based film than she is generally expected to make, in which a man transforms into a woman over their 400 year life. This film, providing an interesting take on gender politics, is undoubtedly a pleasure to watch. The visual spectacle of this piece showcases Potter’s art background. The Academy actually recognised this, gaining nominations for both art direction and costume design, however unfortunately being overlooked for any award for the actual director. Potter’s more mainstream approach to narrative film-making in this particular film possibly made it more approachable by popular awards such as the Oscars, however changing a distinctive part of her film personality should not be necessary for recognition, Potter’s work is undoubtedly artistically excellent, however only briefly recognised when she conforms more to the constraints of Hollywood narrative. The self reflexivity of Orlando may provide some clues as to Potter’s own view of being a woman in the film industry. The ending, added by Potter bringing the story up to present day as opposed to 1928 when Woolf finished it, shows Orlando as a female riding through London on a motor bike with a side-car in which sits her child. Both in matching retro leather overalls, this androgynous image shows just how irrelevant gender should be, referring back to the turning point of the film, a direct address to the camera, Orlando, played by Tilda Swinton, simply says “Same person. Different sex” epitomises the irrelevance of gender to a personality, both within and outside of the film.
Other literary adaptations have been attempted by female directors, such as Lone Scherfig’s adaptation of the David Nicholls novel One Day, starring Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess. Although a commercially successful film, Scherfig gained no accolades for this film despite renowned film critic Peter Bradshaw’s positive reception. Scherfig, director of no less than 8 feature films, two of which in her native Danish tongue, is not a recognisable name. Having directed films starring such Hollywood actresses as Anne Hathaway and Carey Mulligan (An Education) this is extremely surprising. An Education is a coming of age drama, in which a young bright woman, constrained by her parents and private education system experiences release through the companionship of an older man. Set in 1960s London, Scherfig presents Lynn Barber’s memoirs of a suburban school girl, Scherfig depicts a young girl’s struggle to choose between what is ‘right’ and what is fun. Such an interesting topic for a theatrical release deserved to be recognised. An Education was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar in 2010, however Lone Scherfig received no such recognition for her role as director by the academy. Seeing as the Best Picture and Best Director nominations tend to go hand in hand, whilst her artistic and narrative excellence is recognised, her name is not. The topic of this film resounds so clearly in the collective consciousness of young women, especially in Britain, the topicality alone was a reason to stand up and take notice. This could explain why BAFTA along with a few other British film organisations recognised Scherfig’s efforts to bring this message to the forefront of social consciousness
Socially conscious films tend to be a focus of the under-appreciated female directors within Britain. Gurinder Chadha, one of the UK’s most well known female directors exemplifies the female talent present specifically within the modern British Film Industry. Her works include brit-flick Bend it Like Beckham which challenges gender stereotypes in an arguably more accessible way that Potter does with Orlando, as well as Bollywood- heritage film crossover Bride and Prejudice which portrays the similarities of modern Asian marriage tradition and Victorian British tradition through the updating of English classic Pride and Prejudice. It is clear the influence of her own heritage, born in Nairobi (Kenya), her family part of the Indian Diaspora in South East Africa, she moved with her family to Southall (England) when she was two, obviously then able to experience both Asian and British tradition. These traditions define her as a filmmaker, able to create such relate-able gender challenging films, targeting the young female audience in a way that has never been done before, through sport. This shows just how much Chadha is in touch with the modern audience, a sign of a truly great director. She has a key demographic but her films also transcend this, appealing to old and young audiences alike. Chadha received accolades from various British and festival awards, mainly for her feature film Bend It Like Beckham (2002), for which she was also nominated for the Best British Film BAFTA.
These examples of four female directors whose originality, style and social relevance are equal to if not greater than the male filmmakers of this time, yet they struggle in such a male dominated industry swamped by remakes and blockbusters to get their films noticed by the “right” people. In comparing the most renowned or popular awards in American and British film, it is easy to see how female centric narratives by female directors can be lost in the gravity of the patriarch of film. Modern day BAFTA and Academy Awards tend to go hand in hand, nominations tend be be similar and even indicate the other’s winners. However there are still some marked differences in how these films are recognised. In the early years BAFTA recognised British and European film over American films, Laurence Olivier won the Best Film BAFTA in the same year the Academy Award went to Harold Hecht for Marty for United Artists. Also in the early years, BAFTA distinguished between British film and Foreign film quite openly with categories such as Best British Film and Best Film From Any Source as opposed to the Academy’s Best Film (which is basically Best American Film) and Best Foreign Language Film which is still used today, not allowing there to be much, if any comparison between the dominance of American and the rest of the world. This also suggests that non- American films cannot win Best Film therefore have to be put in a separate category. The only foreign language film to contest an Oscar, was The Artist, a film which for the majority of the narrative, revolves around the fact that there is no verbal expression. This comparison depicts the existential difference in recognition of talent between the US and the UK. This suggests why there is such a difference in the focus of female directed films between American female directors and British female directors. The Oscars and BAFTA, the highest popular awards in their respective countries therefore focus on different attributes of films, therefore encouraging filmmakers to focus on these attributes too.
This explains why British film makers focus on the social conscious message as opposed the American film makers focusing on superficial traits that have been made and remade over time. There is only so much American patriotism one can handle. British female directors, it seems, are much more self aware of the troubles of gender equality in society, shown through their choice of topic for films. Potter’s gender morphication in Orlando and Chadha’s direct address of the social issues of female conformity really represent their own troubles with society and within a male-centric industry. In comparison to this, the american female directors I have addressed, present films with disappointingly Oscar-based narratives, those which clearly are made for and released to be nominated for these big awards. Although self aware, these films seem to not only conform to the male centric world of film, but also neglect an opportunity, or even a duty to present gender challenges to this system.
Without some serious changes in attitude about women in film, it seems that there isn’t much hope for the recognition of women within this industry. Without real representation of women within such institutions as The Academy, female winners of such awards will remain the recipient of token gestures, futile attempts at a pretence of equality.