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‘Nomadland’ Wins Best Picture Oscar, the Second Female-Directed Film Ever to Do So

Chloé Zhao's road odyssey starring Frances McDormand took home the big (and historic) win on Sunday night.

Chloe Zhao arrives at the Oscars on Sunday, April 25, 2021, at Union Station in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello, Pool)

Chloé Zhao

AP/Chris Pizzello

Nomadland” took home a historic big win Sunday night at the Academy Awards when it received the Best Picture Oscar: it’s only the second film directed by a woman in Oscars history to achieve a Best Picture victory. Director Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker” (for which Bigelow also became the first female Oscar winner for Best Director) was previously the only female-directed movie to do so. The prize for “Nomadland” at the Academy Awards on Sunday went to producer/director Chloé Zhao, producer/star Frances McDormand, and producers Peter Spears, Mollye Asher, and Dan Janvey. “Nomadland” marks Zhao’s third feature directorial effort following “Songs My Brother Taught Me” and “The Rider.” Zhao also won the Best Director prize earlier in the evening.

In the Best Picture category, “Nomadland” beat out “The Father,” “Judas and the Black Messiah,” “Mank,” “Minari,” “Promising Young Woman,” “Sound of Metal,” and “The Trial of the Chicago 7.”

This is also the first time since the 1972 Academy Awards ceremony that Best Picture was not presented at the very end of the ceremony. At that Oscars, the show ended with a lengthy tribute to Charlie Chaplin, culminating in the silent icon winning an Honorary Award after having been exiled from the U.S. for 20 years. The tribute included an 11-minute montage edited of Chaplin’s greatest movie moments that was edited together by Peter Bogdanovich.

Before “Nomadland,” there were only over 15 nominees for Best Picture that were directed by women. They are: Randa Haines’ “Children of a Lesser God”; Penny Marshall’s “Awakenings”; Barbra Streisand’s “The Prince of Tides”; Jane Campion’s “The Piano”; Sofia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation”; “Little Miss Sunshine,” co-directed by Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton; Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locket”; Lone Scherfig’s “An Education”; Lisa Cholodenko’s “The Kids Are All Right”; Debra Granik’s “Winter’s Bone”; Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty”; Ava DuVernay’s “Selma”; and Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird” and “Little Women.” In addition to “Nomadland,” “Promising Young Woman” directed by Emerald Fennell was also up for Best Picture this year.

“Nomadland” has been the favorite all year to win the Best Picture Academy Award, with wins including the BAFTA Awards for Best Film, Best Actress, Best Director, and Best Cinematography; the Golden Globe Awards for Best Motion Picture Drama and Best Director; the PGA Award for Outstanding Producer of Theatrical Motion Pictures for the film’s producing team; Broadcast Film Critics Association Awards for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, and Best Director; the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Director; and many, many more prizes that presaged a Best Picture Academy Award win.

Awards buzz for “Nomadland” began when Zhao received the Golden Lion at the 2020 Venice Film Festival, where the film had its world premiere and launched an acclaim festival run.

A sensitive portrait of an itinerant life (here, the story of Fern, played by McDormand), “Nomadland” is adapted from Jessica Bruder’s 2017 nonfiction book “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century,” and, in a story that’s been told all throughout the awards circuit, the project actually originated with its star. A long admirer of the nomadic way of life, McDormand optioned the book with producing partner Peter Spears, and also wanted to work with Zhao after seeing her second feature film, “The Rider.” (Her first was “Songs My Brother Taught Me.”)

But even with McDormand’s support, Zhao, who also wrote the screenplay, made the story entirely her own, immersing the audience into the American West with both real and nonprofessional actors, and shining a light on lives not often explored in contemporary cinema in the United States. “We put our heads together in this little bubble and didn’t really think about the outside world,” Zhao told IndieWire during an interview last year.

“I’m not the kind of filmmaker who just makes films,” she said. “I have to be in love with my subject matter and want to learn more about it. Someone once said to me that passion doesn’t sustain, but curiosity does. I have to be excited by little things I discover along the way.”

Zhao and McDormand met a day before the 2018 Independent Spirit Awards, where McDormand was nominated for Best Actress and Zhao received a $50,000 grant honoring women directors.

“Thank you for being who you are,” Zhao said to Frances McDormand from the stage, foretelling a collaboration to come. When McDormand won her own Spirit Award for “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” McDormand thanked “All my new friends who I hope I get to work with in the very near future — a couple of them, we already have a contract,” then looked out into the crowd, adding, “Chloé? Yes!”

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