Things were looking up for women filmmakers in the 2020 awards derby — that is, until the Golden Globes shut out female directors in four major categories, including Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Drama and Musical/Comedy Motion Picture. At first, it was easy to shrug that off as the latest example of the 90-strong Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s hopeless myopia. No, they do not represent the far more inclusive Academy membership, which has been changing its stripes in recent years.
But what will happen at the Oscars? On the plus side, critics’ groups have given visibility and credibility to two films in the race: popular actress-turned-writer-director Greta Gerwig’s follow-up to Oscar-nominated “Lady Bird,” her adaptation of the American classic “Little Women” (Sony), and Lulu Wang’s original family dramedy “The Farewell” (A24). Both films benefit from strong writing, directing and performances. So it was a shock when the SAG Awards nominations shut them out.
The SAG nominating committee of 2,500, which is double the size of the Academy actors branch, tends to skew more mainstream — hence its support for such crowdpleasers as “Bombshell,” “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” and “Jojo Rabbit.” But Gerwig’s coming-of-age period romance “Little Women,” starring well-reviewed Saoirse Ronan and breakout Florence Pugh, should appeal to both sets of voters. As a late entry that didn’t grab attention at film festivals and won’t open until December 25 — and did score nine Critics Choice Award slots including Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay and Director — “Little Women” may need more time for viewers to catch up with it.
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But so far, the more predictive Guild nominations have not been supportive. “Little Women” was a surprise no-show in the period film category at the Costume Designers Guild — along with Oscar contenders “Joker,” “The Irishman,” and “Judy” — and it didn’t turn up among the period nominees for the Art Directors Guild, or the less likely live-action nominees at the Cinema Audio Society, which does lean in to louder, more bombastic big-scale action fare.
Again, during a shortened awards season heading toward the earliest-ever February 9 Oscars, these bodies voted early. Academy voters will have more time to catch up with late-openers like “Richard Jewell” and “1917,” which SAG also overlooked.
“The Farewell,” however, has had the luxury of time, building steam since A24 scooped it up at Sundance and turned it into a summer hit. It has also fared well with critics groups; it was nominated for four Critics Choice Awards, including Supporting Actress Zhao Shuzhen and Actress Awkwafina, who is favored to win the Golden Globe for Best Actress, Comedy. Both could wind up with Oscar nominations, but could have used a boost they did not get from SAG nods.
“Little Women” and “The Farewell” could also could also wind up with slots among the PGA top ten and Oscar Best Picture nominees, which is usually around eight or nine. These are the anointed two, out of all the available possibilities of movies directed by women. Both Wang, in Original, and Gerwig, in Adapted, will vie in the writing categories, which offer 10 total options for the Writers Guild and Oscars.
The Directors Guild, at least, has added five more slots via its First-Time Director category, which shined a spotlight on winner Bo Burnham, for example, for “Eighth Grade,” and could benefit narrative rookies Alma Har’el (“Honey Boy”), Annabelle Attanasio (“Mickey and the Bear”), Melina Matsoukas (“Queen & Slim”), Olivia Wilde (“Booksmart”) and Mati Diop (“Atlantics”). That gives the DGA a total of 10 narrative slots. (Diop also has a strong shot, with her Senegalese Oscar entry, at landing on the shortlist December 16 for the Best International Feature Film Oscar.)
But the Globes and the Oscars only have five directing slots. That’s where the problem comes in. Gerwig may have landed in the Critics Choice directing list because they listed seven nominees. In a race for one of five slots at the DGA or the Oscars, Gerwig and Wang are going up against Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Bong Joon Ho, Sam Mendes, and Noah Baumbach (Gerwig’s partner) — and quite possibly Pedro Almodovar, Todd Phillips or Safdie brothers, who have been on the rise lately.
Plenty of awards attention is in the offing for Jennifer Lopez, star of Lorene Scafaria’s “Hustlers,” and Tom Hanks, star of Marielle Heller’s well-received “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” But those films are not gaining traction in other areas, including their directors. Scafaria and Har’el can still hold out hopes as directing nominees at the Film Independent Spirit Awards, which also recognized screenplay nominee Chinonye Chukwu’s “Clemency” and Wang’s “The Farewell” as Best Feature contenders.
The Oscars may be diversifying its voting ranks, but the directors branch, especially, is still dominated by older white men, even though the percentage of women in the Academy has risen from 25 percent in 2015 to 32 percent in 2019.
While Gerwig became the fifth woman to be nominated for Best Director for “Lady Bird” in 2018, this past year no woman penetrated the director list. Among those left out were Marielle Heller, whose “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” yielded three Oscar nominations, for Adapted Screenplay (Nicole Holofcener), Actress (Melissa McCarthy) and Supporting Actor (Richard E. Grant). It’s possible that if Holofcener had directed it, she would have gotten an additional boost as a veteran, long overdue auteur. We will never know.
Other lauded directors who were Oscar also-rans last year were Lynne Ramsay, director of Cannes-prize-winning “You Were Never Really Here,” starring Joaquin Phoenix, which did not thrive at the box office, and “Winter’s Bone” Oscar nominee Debra Granik, whose Sundance hit “Leave No Trace” was critically hailed, and Chloe Zhao’s “The Rider,” which was named the National Society of Film Critics’ best film.
All of this has made one thing clear above all else: Five directing slots is not enough to accommodate a full range of Oscar candidates.