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An Oscar for Lina Wertmüller Reminds Us of the Academy’s Gender Problem

The theme at this year’s Governors Awards focused on diversity and inclusion.
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By  · Published on October 29th, 2019

This year’s Governors Awards, bestowed by the Academy’s Board of Governors, kicked off Oscar season with an October 27th gala that called for greater representation in the industry and long-overdue recognition for its honorees. 

Actress Geena Davis was the recipient of the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award for using her high-profile platform to advocate for gender equality in the media industry. The recipients of Honorary Awards were Cherokee actor Wes Studi (now the first Native-American actor Oscar winner ever) and filmmakers David Lynch and Lina Wertmüller.

Wertmüller had been the first woman to be nominated for the Oscar for Best Director, for Seven Beauties, in 1977. Jane Campion and Greta Gerwig, two of the only four other women who’ve followed her in the category, presented the 91-year-old trailblazer with her special Academy Award on Sunday night. Wertmüller joked in Italian about changing the name of the statue from “Oscar” to “Annie,” signaling a shift in how the awards themselves are defined.

This moment was emblematic of the main theme of the night, with three out of the four honorees belonging to underrepresented groups in Hollywood. During her acceptance speech, Davis spoke on increasing gender equality in the entertainment and media industries, and Studi, as a high profile indigenous actor with a long career in Hollywood, said his Honorary Award was “about time.”

In the past few years, the Academy has made notable efforts at affiliating its brand with a message of inclusivity and diversity in representation. Whether reality reflects these efforts is another thing entirely.

The history of women directors and the Academy before Wertmüller’s honorary recognition is bumpy, to say the least. In the 42 years since Wertmüller’s nomination, only four other women have been nominated for Best Director: Campion in 1994 for The Piano; Sofia Coppola in 2004 for Lost in Translation; Kathryn Bigelow in 2010 for The Hurt Locker in 2010; and Gerwig in 2018 for Lady Bird. Bigelow remains the only woman to win an Oscar for Best Director, while Wertmüller is now only the second woman director to receive an Honorary Oscar, following Agnès Varda‘s recognition at the Governors Awards just two years ago.

Wertmüller’s honor represents what has and has not changed in Hollywood and the Academy Awards. Exactly why so few women have received nominations, let alone awards, for this category is complex, but the issue is not their supposed absence in the industry. Wertmüller’s decades-long career is proof alone that regardless of awards success, women directors are far from a novelty or recent phenomenon and have been a key and an active part of the film world since its inception.

An Oscar nomination offers recognition and validation from the eyes of the Hollywood establishment, so its significance is important to those groups that have rarely received it. The closest thing the Academy has to a redo button is the Honorary Awards. They mark recipients as credible, but also this validation is removed from a specific accomplishment.

In light of the decades of active ignorance of women’s accomplishments in directing, this honor is really too little, too late. The Academy can easily point to Wertmüller’s honor as proof of their change, but it cannot be seen as being in good faith until we see more equal representation in the stories onscreen and in the people behind the camera.

The moment of Wertmüller receiving this statue is a good one. But there is more work to be done, and it’s something to keep in mind ahead of the 92nd Oscars. Whether the Academy is interested in actual systemic change or merely the performance of it remains to be seen.

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An early 20th-century vaudeville performer-turned silent film star in a film student's body. Currently watching too many movies and writing too many essays in Santa Cruz, CA.