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The Big O: Ava DuVernay’s Sisterhood of Un-Nominated Women Directors — and How They’ve Fared Since

The Big O: Ava DuVernay’s Sisterhood of Un-Nominated Women Directors -- and How They've Fared Since

As the country celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr. Day this week, it was difficult not to think about what could have been when the nominations for the 87th Academy Awards were announced last Thursday.

The voters missed their chance to make history by overlooking Ava DuVernay in the Best Director category for her stirring account of King’s fight to secure black voting rights a half-century ago in Selma. DuVernay would have been the first female black filmmaker to be so honored.

There was reason for such optimism. Last year marked only the third time that a black director, Steve McQueen, was nominated in that same category for his gut-wrenching historical drama 12 Years a Slave, which was proclaimed Best Picture. (Gravity helmer Alfonso Cuaron took home the Best Director trophy that night.)

Still, it had taken a long time to get to a third nomination for an African-American director. There have been only two other Oscar-nominated black male directors: John Singleton for 1991’s Boyz n the Hood and Lee Daniels for 2009’s Precious. The 18-year gap between such recognition says it all.

What has gotten overlooked in this year’s race, however, is that DuVernay DID make history by becoming the first black women to have a film compete for best picture. Considering only eight titles made the cut this year out of a possible ten, the achievement is even more admirable.

It also means that she is joined by three other filmmakers with Best Picture contenders – Clint Eastwood (American Sniper), Damien Chazelle (Whiplash), and James Marsh (The Theory of Everything) – who also didn’t make the cut among the directing nominees. With only five directing slots, such disconnects have become more common since the limit in the Best Picture category expanded in 2009.

In response to the lack of diversity among this year’s nominees, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the first black president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, observed in an Associated Press interview that Selma being up for Best Picture is not to be undervalued.

“It’s an award that showcases the talent of everyone involved in the production of the movie Selma,” she said. “The best picture category is voted on by the entire membership of around 7,000 people.” The rest of the nominations are decided by individual branches, and anyone who has checked the credits of any recent movies lately realizes that means a group of primarily older white men.

DuVernay, who herself is a member of the Academy, is now part of a different, rather elite club as well.

Yes, only four women have competed in the director’s category before. Three of them – Jane Campion (1993’s The Piano), Sofia Coppola (2003’s Lost in Translation), and Kathryn Bigelow (who won for 2009’s The Hurt Locker) – also had their films in the Best Picture race. Italy’s Lina Wertmuller, who first broke the gender barrier in 1976, had her Seven Beauties vie for Best Foreign Language Film instead.

However, eight other female filmmakers in the past have found themselves in DuVernay’s shoes: With a horse running in the Best Picture derby, but they themselves left out of the directors’ race.

It is enlightening to see what happened to these talented women, whose work was recognized but without a corresponding nomination for their behind-the-camera efforts. (What did the Academy think, that those films directed themselves?) But here’s the good news: Most got a sizable career boost from the exposure.

1. Randa Haines, Children of a Lesser God (1986).

Before: Haines got her start in the business as a script supervisor on low-budget films like the 1971 horror film Let’s Scare Jessica to Death and the 1974 cult comedy The Groove Tube. She moved on to directing such 1980s TV shows as Hill Street Blues and Knots Landing, then moved up through the ranks after her acclaimed 1984 TV movie about incest, Something About Amelia, was nominated for seven Emmys, including a win for its young star, Roxana Zal.

The nominated film: Children of a Lesser God, Raines’ feature debut, was based on a 1980 Tony-winning play about a rebellious young deaf woman and a teacher who specialized in hearing-impaired students. Its 21-year-old star, Marlee Matlin, remains the youngest winner in the Best Actress category, as well as the only deaf actor to be honored. The film had three other nominations for a total of five: Best Actor (William Hurt), Supporting Actress (Piper Laurie), and Adapted Screenplay.

After: Haines, now 69, would direct three other well-received features: The Doctor (1991), starring Hurt; Wrestling Ernest Hemingway (1993), with Robert Duvall, Richard Harris, and Sandra Bullock; and the salsa-dancing drama Dance With Me (1998), with Vanessa Williams. She returned to TV for two movies, 2002’s The Outsider, a Western with Tim Daly and Naomi Watts, and 2006’s The Ron Clark Story, a biopic about a teacher starring Matthew Perry.

The Oscar effect: Haines has not been especially prolific, but she did get opportunities to work with big stars on somewhat high-profile titles.

2. Penny Marshall, Awakenings (1990).

Before: After starring in the popular sitcom Laverne & Shirley for eight seasons (1976-83), Marshall used her industry clout to move on to film-directing with such major studio hits as 1986’s crime comedy Jumpin’ Jack Flash with Whoopi Goldberg and the 1988 fantasy Big with Tom Hanks. Big would make her the first female director to have a movie that grossed more than $100 million (final total: $114.9 million) and led to Hanks’ first of five Oscar nominations.

The nominated film: Awakenings, based on a 1973 memoir by Dr. Oliver Sacks, concerned longtime catatonic patients who managed to be revived by the aid of a new drug. The movie earned two other nominations, Best Actor for Robert De Niro’s performance as a patient, and Adapted Screenplay.

After: Marshall, now 71, continued to be one of Hollywood’s more successful film directors, with such titles as the 1992 female baseball drama A League of Their Own (which made her the first woman director with two films that grossed more than $100 million) and 1996’s The Preacher’s Wife with Denzel Washington and Whitney Houston. After 2001’s Riding in Cars With Boys starring Drew Barrymore, she turned to directing and producing for TV, including Showtime’s United States of Tara, and still does guest spots on shows like Portlandia.

The Oscar effect: Marshall was already deeply entrenched in the Hollywood scene even before she ever called out “Action,” especially since brother Garry and ex-husband Rob Reiner were successful directors as well. But to have gotten recognition for a serious title like Awakenings when you are best known for comic material certainly added to her credibility as a filmmaker.

3. Barbra Streisand, The Prince of Tides (1991).

Before: Multi-talent Streisand already enjoyed huge success and plenty of Oscar history before adding the title of director to her resume. She tied as Best Actress with Katharine Hepburn from A Lion in Winter for the 1968 film version of her Broadway musical Funny Girl. She would be nominated again for 1974’s The Way We Were and won a trophy for co-writing the song “Evergreen” for 1977’s A Star Is Born, which she also produced. She starred as a young Jewish woman posing as a boy to get religious training and made her directing debut with 1983’s Yentl, which was nominated for five Oscars and won Best Score. Much fuss was made at the time when Streisand and her movie were snubbed by Oscar voters in the directing and Best Picture categories, especially after Yentl won Golden Globes for directing and for best comedy or musical movie.

The nominated film: Streisand has the distinction of being the only woman who directed herself in a Best Picture contender. The story of a dysfunctional Southern family based on Pat Conroy’s novel found her co-starring as a psychiatrist who has an affair with her suicidal patient’s equally troubled brother, played by Nick Nolte. The Prince of Tides earned seven nominations total, including Best Actor for Nolte, and was a substantial hit, grossing $75 million.

After: She would direct only one other film, the 1996 romantic comedy The Mirror Has Two Faces, which is best remembered for never-before-nominated legend Lauren Bacall failing to win a supporting Oscar for her role as the Streisand’s caustic mother and losing to Juliette Binoche in The English Patient.

The Oscar effect: Yentl was initially derided as a vanity project for Streisand, now 72, but she finally was taken seriously as a filmmaker after her efforts on The Prince of Tides.

4. Valerie Faris (with Jonathan Dayton), Little Miss Sunshine (2006).

Before: Faris and husband Dayton got their start as filmmakers doing music videos and documentaries for such major musical acts as Paula Abdul, Janet Jackson, R.E.M., the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Extreme, Beastie Boys, and The Smashing Pumpkins. They directed for HBO’s comedy sketch series Mr. Show (1995-98) and did commercials for such companies as The Gap, Volkswagen, Apple, Ikea, and Sony.

The nominated film: The pair were solicited with various offers to direct such feature films as 1999’s Mod Squad and 2003’s Bad Boys II. They began work instead on the low-budget independent film Little Miss Sunshine in 2001. The family road-trip comedy that revolves around a beauty pageant for little girls premiered at Sundance and was bought by Fox Searchlight for a hefty $10.5 million. The film would receive four total nominations, winning for supporting actor Alan Arkin as a grouchy grandfather, and adapted screenplay. Little Miss Sunshine would go on to gross over $100 million worldwide, and Little Miss Sunshine herself, supporting actress nominee Abigail Breslin, has gone on to have a successful acting career.

After: Faris and Dayton’s next directorial project, 2012’s Ruby Sparks, starred Paul Dano as a novelist whose main character comes to life. The script was by actress Zoe Kazan, who was the fictional heroine. The fantasy romance received good reviews. Faris and Dayton are working on their next feature, I’m Proud of You, based on a book about the popular kids’ TV-show host Fred Rogers.

The Oscar effect: Faris, 56, and Dayton, 57, didn’t so much need Hollywood as Hollywood needed their unique vision. Little Miss Sunshine certainly put them on the map as filmmakers, but they already had proved themselves as major talents in other media.

5. An Education, Lone Scherfig (2009).

Before: Scherfig got her start on Danish TV and was part of the low-tech Dogme ‘95 movement. Her breakout film was the 2000 romantic comedy Italian for Beginners. She directed three other films, including the comedies Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself (2002) and Just Like Home (2007).

The nominated film: An Education, with an Oscar-nominated adapted script by British author Nick Hornsby (Wild), is a coming-of-age-tale set in post-war Britain about a precocious schoolgirl who gets involved in a questionable romance with an older man. The part proved to be a breakout opportunity for Carey Mulligan, who got a Best Actress nod.

After: Scherfig found that the Oscar spotlight opened doors to do more American movies. Her first was 2011’s One Day, based on a popular novel about how a couple keep meeting up on the same day each year. Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess played the star-crossed lovers. Unfortunately, the film was greeted by a less-than-rousing reception. Next up is The Riot Club, based on a play about an exclusive, all-male social group at Oxford that stars such young British up-and-comers as Max Irons and Sam Claflin, which opened overseas last year.

The Oscar effect: Lightning has yet to strike twice for Scherfig, 55, even though awards attention for An Education did provide her with more opportunities.

6. The Kids Are All Right, Lisa Cholodenko (2010).

Before: Cholodenko’s career took off like a rocket with 1998’s High Art, her feature-directing debut about lesbian drug addicts in the art world with striking performances by Patricia Clarkson, Ally Sheedy, and Rahda Mitchell. Her next feature, 2002’s Laurel Canyon, was a pungent slice of L.A. life starring Christian Bale, Frances McDormand, and Kate Beckinsale. That was followed by the 2004 family drama Cavedweller for Showtime. She has also directed TV episodes of Homicide: Life on the Street, Six Feet Under, The L Word, and Hung.

The nominated film: Cholodenko co-wrote The Kids Are All Right based on her experiences dealing with sperm donors and recruited her starriest cast yet. Annette Bening and Julianne Moore are a lesbian couple with two teenage children, Josh Hutcherson and Mia Wasikowska, who decide to seek out the man who was their father (Mark Ruffalo). Nominations included Bening for actress, Ruffalo for supporting actor, and original screenplay.

After: Cholodenko drew glowing reactions to last year’s two-part HBO miniseries Olive Kitteridge, based the Pulitzer-winning novel that was adapted by playwright Jane Anderson and stared McDormand as a prickly New Englander. Cholodenko has also directed the first two episodes and executive-produced NBC’s eight-part miniseries The Slap, which will start airing in mid-February.

The Oscar effect: Cholodenko, 50, is the rare filmmaker who knows how make edgy themes palatable for mainstream audiences without compromising herself – an art she perfected with The Kids Are All Right. Right now, she is one of the more in-demand directors in the business.

7. Debra Granik, Winter’s Bone (2010).

Before: Granik’s astute handling of heavy subject matter was on display in her first feature, 2004’s Down to the Bone, which showcased Vera Farmiga as a small-town wife and mother who tries to keep her drug habit a secret. She and her leading lady would win prizes at the Sundance Film Festival that year.

The nominated film: Winter’s Bone, a raw, backwoods tale about an Ozark teen who protects her family from a gang of meth-producing outlaws, was a sensation at the 2010 Sundance festival and made a star of Jennifer Lawrence, who was nominated for lead actress. Also getting Oscar nods were John Hawkes as Lawrence’s addict uncle and Granik’s adapted screenplay.

After: Granik, 51, has had a harder time than most finding her next project. She had been working on producing an HBO pilot called American High Life, but it was rejected as a series. She still is looking to do a film adaptation of Rule of the Bone, based on a 1995 novel by Russell Banks about a teenage Jamaican drug dealer. She directed a documentary titled Stray Dog, a portrait of a Vietnam vet and biker that made the film festival rounds last year. But certainly the woman who discovered Jennifer Lawrence, who won her role in The Hunger Games after director Gary Ross saw her in Winter’s Bone, deserves better. Here is an interview that explains Granik’s situation. 

As for No. 8, that would be Kathryn Bigelow, who was passed by in the Best Director category for 2012’s Zero Dark Thirty. We like to think she is doing just fine without the Academy seal of approval for her commanding efforts recounting the hunt for Osama bin Laden. And, judging by what happened to most of the other female directors who were passed by, DuVernay will most likely more than overcome her omission as well.

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