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Oscars So Male: Why the 2017 Oscar Race For Best Director Has a Gender Problem

Women are not looking strong in the Best Director race. We offer up some candidates.

Maggie's PLan

“Maggie’s Plan”

While 2017 is shaping up as an Oscar race with many more diverse contenders than last year, people are starting to notice a familiar trend. Where are the women?

On Oscar prediction website Gold Derby, all 23 Oscar “experts,” including me, offer five director nominees who are male. Looking at movies that have pulled strong critical support, none seem to be gaining buzz that an Oscar contender needs to build momentum and become a must-see.

The strongest candidate is writer-director Rebecca Miller’s sixth feature, sophisticated New York comedy of manners “Maggie’s Plan,” which earned strong kudos at Toronto and Sundance but scored modestly on the specialty circuit ($3.5 million). Can Sony Pictures Classics bring the movie back to Academy voters? They’ve send out early screeners, but I fear — Woody Allen aside — relationship comedies do not often compute with Academy voters.

Lupita Nyong'o with David Oyelowo at the 'Queen of Katwe' premiere

Lupita Nyong’o with David Oyelowo at the “Queen of Katwe” premiere

Jim Smeal/BEI/Shutterstock

Similarly, Disney heart-tuggers with a female empowerment theme like “Queen of Katwe,” no matter how much director Mira Nair was praised by critics, simply won’t be sampled by many voters who think they know what the movie is without watching it. And Disney’s marketing failed to lure audiences; it has grossed $6 million so far.

What other women directors are in the running? It’s a question of making films must-sees by Oscar voters.

New Yorker profile subject Andrea Arnold’s Cannes prize-winner “American Honey” (A24) has scored strong reviews, but the immersive road movie starring Shia LaBeouf is still likely to play best with the arthouse crowd, along with Maren Ade’s deliciously hilarious but nearly three-hour German Oscar submission “Toni Erdmann” (Sony Pictures Classics) and French director Mia Hanson-Love’s brilliant Isabelle Huppert vehicle “Things to Come” (IFC/Sundance Selects).

All three films will get boosts from critics at year’s end. But they still have to play for the Academy directors—whose tastes are more eclectic and international than the Academy mainstream. Think past nominees Michel Hazanavicius (“The Artist”), Danny Boyle (“Slumdog Millionaire”), Alejandro González Iñárritu (“Birdman”), Benh Zeitlin (“Beasts of the Southern Wild”), Lenny Abrahamson (“Room”), Mike Leigh (“Secrets and Lies”) and Michael Haneke (“Amour”).

"Toni Erdmann"

“Toni Erdmann”

But as we all know, the Academy directors rarely nominate a woman. Only Lina Wertmuller (“Seven Beauties”), Sofia Coppola (“Lost in Translation”), Jane Campion (“The Piano”) and the sole woman Oscar-winner Kathyrn Bigelow (“The Hurt Locker”) have that distinction —and none have repeated in the category. The Academy has been adding women to the branch, so maybe there’s hope for change there.

Finally, the likeliest women directors to walk onstage Oscar night will be winners in the foreign language, documentary, and animation categories, where Maren Ade and Ava DuVernay (“13th”) might make the final five.

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