It was a quiet triumph that passed unnoticed by people who don’t follow film all that closely. On Saturday, January 30, 2010, Kathryn Bigleow became the first film director who happens to have XX chromosomes, to win the award for Best Directorial Achievement in Feature Film given by the Directors Guild of America. The first time in the 62 year existence of the DGA that a man didn’t win.
Other women have been nominated. Lina Wertmuller (Seven Beauties), Randa Haines (Children of a Lesser God), Barbra Streisand (The Prince of Tides), Jane Campion (The Piano), Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation) and Valerie Faris, co-director of Little Miss Sunshine.
But this is the first time a woman has taken home the prize. Anyone who has seen The Hurt Locker will agree this award is well deserved. Could it be not only the excellence of the film, but the tough subject matter that made the DGA voters take notice? The gritty, tense journey into the war in Iraq, told up close and personal might have finally leveled the playing field. I could be wrong, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that she won for a gritty war movie.
We all know that the gender of a director shouldn’t be relevant. The best director award should be about talent, the ability to tell a story on film. But the world of film hasn’t quite worked that way and women have struggled to get into the director’s chair. That’s changing. There are more women than ever directing films and Bigelow’s win has to be encouraging.
It should be encouraging for another reason, the one that really should count. She won because her film is excellent. Bigelow’s, intense, edge of the seat and very human The Hurt Locker beat out mega budget technology. The flesh and blood The Hurt Locker won over James Cameron’s huge techno show Avatar.
It’s great that a woman finally broke that director’s award glass ceiling. But that’s only part of the story behind her win. Her film was, in my opinion, one of the best of the year. It’s timely and timeless at the same time. The war in Iraq has been reduced to something in the distance. The war has been sterilized, made small, made a part of our daily life, and turned into white noise we’re in danger of ignoring. Bigelow made us sit up and take notice.
It’s a war most of us have pushed onto the back burner of our lives for eight years and this film brings it up close and personal. Each bomb that is diffused is another chance at another day of life for the soldiers in the elite bomb squad unit portrayed in the film. Bigelow had the courage to take on a tough subject.
The Hurt Locker isn’t an easy film to experience. It’s not an easy film to describe. It has to be seen to understand the film’s power. I hope this win brings gives the film another shot in theaters even if it’s out on DVD.
James Cameron’s Avatar were seen as the front runner. It’s visually spectacular, but it’s not the best film in my eyes. It’s a great technical achievement but it didn’t stay with me because at the end of the day a great film has to tell a story that is compelling in a way that changes us.
Bigelow triumphs with a film focused flesh and blood human beings, unencumbered by layers of special effects, motion capture, and computer generated tricks. Humanity trumps CGI. Money and box office didn’t sweep Avatar into a DGA win. A “small” film, with little exposure and a small budget won because it’s a great film.
The DGA award pretty much ensures Bigelow a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Director. She’ll be the fourth woman nominated and only the second American woman. She’ll join Sofia Coppola, Jane Campion and Lina Wertmuller in a very small club. I think Jane Campion deserves another Oscar nod for her beautiful and moving Bright Star. Does Oscar have room for more than one woman director as nominee? [Editor's Note: The answer is no, we suppose. Based on today's Oscar nomination announcement.]
Could there be two women nominated for vastly different films, but films that define excellence in film direction.
I’ll be honest. I’d get a kick out of seeing Kathryn Bigelow take home the Oscar. She’d be taking it home for the excellence of her work. Excellence is the only thing that really should count, but seeing her break down the door to the boys club would be the icing on the cake.