Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Dream Bigger: Thoughts on Katherine Bigelow's Academy Awards

The day after Katherine Bigelow won the Academy Award for Best Director, and her film Hurt Locker took home Best Picture too (among others), I read a compilation of responses from women filmmakers on the blog Women and Hollywood. It's a diverse series of reactions, ranging from the celebratory to the yearning to the skeptical, and it's worth the read.

I had also read, weeks before, the marvelous New York Magazine article "The Red Carpet Campaign: Inside the singular hysteria of the Academy Awards race." by Mark Harris, which begins and ends with Katherine Bigelow. "It's time," Harris states plainly. "It's her turn." Harris' article enumerates the many Oscar narratives that people tell about the nominees -- The Cinderella Story, The Come Back, The Long Shot, and so on. I haven't even seen Hurt Locker, but I found Harris' article so compelling -- and with such a nuanced understanding of the politics of Hollywood and the Academy -- that it felt like a foregone conclusion that Bigelow would win. It's the right story at the right time, especially with the added subplot of indie ex-wife snubs blockbuster ex-husband.

But as I sat in the living room with some of my best friends in the world, in an Oscar party that rides the line between scathing critique and deep cinephilia (and I wouldn't have it any other way), I watched as my friend burst into tears when Bigelow won for Best Director. And this is no Pollyanna we're talking about, but a tough, sharp as a tack, New York Jew. She warned us all ahead of time that she would probably cry if Bigelow won. I just didn't think she was serious.

My friend's sister said, "You know I will still hate her if she wins and doesn't say anything anti-war." Bigelow didn't. She trembled and held Oscars in both hands and kept her eyes down like she couldn't believe what was happening. She soft-pedaled her relationship to the armed forces, with the generally palatable appeal to "come home safe." She spoke of collaboration as the secret to directing -- which I think is true, but also makes me think about the complexities of female socialization, and how hard it is for a woman to hold the spotlight and say, "Yes, that was me. This is mine. I did it" and not mention anyone else, but especially men, who "made it possible." She then made an even odder dedication to "all of the people in uniform" around the world, who serve a greater good. EMTs, firemen, cops, catholic school children...

I don't mean to be a jerk. And I don't hate Katherine Bigelow, like my friend's sister might. But neither did I cry when she won because I felt some meaningful glass ceiling break around me. When Bigelow won, I saw a woman draped in privilege who had worked really hard for decades catch the brass ring. That's great, but I did not see an icon of the feminist movement walk off that stage, despite the Academy's memorable choice of "I am Woman (Hear Me Roar)" as background music. Bigelow is a woman who carries privilege across nearly every spectrum (she's white, heterosexual, thin, able-bodied, owning class, native English speaker, conventionally gendered and beautiful) except that she's female, and has made movie after movie which showcase men and community among men (bikers, surfers, cops, soldiers, etc.). It's not that women are wholly absent from her films -- they do make notable appearances, and are often fairly well-nuanced as characters. But it is definitely a "man's world" in Bigelow's films.

That focus on masculinity makes her win as Best Director a bit hollow for me. I've read commentary about how it's not important that Bigelow is a woman -- she's a filmmaker first, and this is Hollywood's way of recognizing that. But at the same time, she's held up as the first woman to do it, to win the big prize and run with the big boys, two-fisting her Oscars and making a "real" action movie. Not a soft "woman's film," like Campion does, or Nair, or even Streisand. It's that conflict that makes me ambivalent about her win, and irked by her acceptance speech. As a woman, she can't get away from it being political -- because she IS the first woman to win the award, and how is that possible, honestly, given the depth of women's contributions to Hollywood and the film industry across the globe since the very invention of cinema? Why did it take 83 years for a woman to win Best Director? And why *this* woman now? We have to ask ourselves these questions. And Bigelow should ask herself these questions, too.

The Academy Awards are a game, a contest. Like any pageant, they are about more than just who is the best. The people who should win don't always win. The people who should win don't even always get nominated -- for their entire careers. The Academy Awards are not a meritocracy. This is actually the implication behind the "It's time" Oscar narrative -- the Academy gets it wrong, they show incredible bias and unexamined privilege, and they do it year after year. "It's time," as a satisfying story, is about the very possibility of breaking through prejudice and going against the odds of the dominant paradigm. But in Bigelow's case, the only/primary dominant paradigm she flouted was being female. Don't misunderstand me -- that's not insignificant. But it's certainly not enough for this woman filmmaker either.

If you knew that you had the chance to be the first woman to "make history" by becoming the first female Best Director, why wouldn't you name the women directors who inspired you? The women whose work is a direct (or indirect, or even distant) influence on yours? The women whose names are so rarely spoken today outside of specialized women's studies/cinema studies interdepartmental classes in expensive grad schools? Alice Guy-Blache. Dorothy Arzner. Maya Deren. Su Friedrich. Lizzie Borden. Vera Chytilova. Ida Lupino. Kinuyo Tanaka. Monika Treut. And more and more. You have a rare opportunity -- among the rarest pedestals that exist at this time -- to say something transformative. To acknowledge, with gratitude and humility, all those who came before you, and open someone's eyes to the invisibility of their labor, their perseverence and their vision. And all it would take is to say their names. Once.

Instead, Bigelow thanked the Academy, thanked her collaborators, and dedicated the statue to soldiers -- "may they come home safe." She may have given her speech just like any male filmmaker would have, neatly and inoffensively confined to this project and this narrow historical and cultural moment, but it's in such "equality" that I find myself the most grieved. I want more. I want better than that. Breaking a glass ceiling is not an invisible, unspoken event. It happens with a crash, and you'll probably get cut doing it. And so we work hard, for decades, and reach for that brass ring, and reach further, reach harder each time we miss. The moments when you do catch the prize are precious, but we must not lose sight of the ultimate aim -- a more just and liberated world. So keep reaching, friends. Reach further. Dream bigger than tiny ol' Oscar. The prize was never really the statue. The prize is the chance to tell the story.

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