Can Kathryn Bigelow break gender barrier?


By CARRIE RICKEY

She is well-positioned to become the first woman to win best director for ‘Hurt Locker.’

Kathryn Bigelow made history on Saturday when the director of “The Hurt Locker,” a tale of risk junkies defusing improvised explosive devices in Iraq, became the first woman to receive top honors from the Directors Guild of America (DGA).

Prospects are good that she’ll make history once again March 7 at the Oscars. In a battle-of-the-exes twist, Bigelow could take the prize over former spouse James Cameron, whose “Avatar” is the top-grossing movie of all time.

Her Academy Award nomination was announced Tuesday morning. Because it’s so rare that the DGA winner doesn’t go on to win an Academy Award — only six times in 61 years — odds are Bigelow could be the first female director in the Academy’s 82-year history to crash the celluloid ceiling. It’s a feat that the three prior nominees — Lina Wertmuller (“Seven Beauties”), Jane Campion (“The Piano”) and Sofia Coppola (“Lost in Translation”) — failed to accomplish.

“This is Sally Ride, first woman in space big,” declared Melissa Silverstein on her Women & Hollywood blog on Sunday (http://womenandhollywood.com). “This is Sandra Day O’Connor, first female on the Supreme Court big. This is Billie Jean King beating Bobby Riggs big.”

OK, definitely a watershed moment. But I’m skeptical that Bigelow’s Oscar nomination and possible win will represent any substantive change for women in Hollywood. When Hattie McDaniel became the first black to win an Oscar (for 1939’s “Gone With the Wind”), it did not immediately open the door for other black actors. After Wertmuller became the first female director nominated, 17 years passed before Campion became the second.

Yes, Bigelow’s movie about how warriors get addicted to the rush of war is truly great. But 2009 was by most measures only a good year for female filmmakers, who are consigned mostly to romantic comedies and biopics.

According to Martha Lauzen, a communications professor at San Diego State, the percentage of movies directed by women was 9 percent in 2008. By my math, 17 of the top 250 box-office movies in 2009 were directed by women, a jot under 7 percent.

Since 1998, the number of female filmmakers has been between 7 percent and 10 percent, said Lauzen, who for nearly 20 years has tracked employment of women in the film industry.

“We have to celebrate Bigelow’s achievement,” said Jeanine Basinger, professor of film history at Wesleyan University.

“If Bigelow wins, it’s a breakthrough,” she said. “Still, as a film historian, when I contemplate the minuscule numbers of women directors today as compared to the more equal numbers of women and men during the silent era, I am always surprised.

“There used to be no gender bias in filmmaking, nor was there the gender specificity we see today,” she said.

Copyright 2010 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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