Poor Barbra Streisand. Maybe you didn’t know it, given how rich and famous and garlanded she is, but she is an abused victim—a victim of Hollywood. She directed a movie in 1991 called The Prince of Tides; it was nominated for an Academy Award but she was not, and the shock waves sent tremors from Provincetown to the Castro.
So it was meet and proper that La Streisand should have been the one to hand out the Best Direction statuette at the Oscars on March 2. And when she ripped open the envelope, she smiled and said “the time has come”—because a woman, Kathryn Bigelow of The Hurt Locker, had finally won an Oscar for directing a picture, a mere 83 years after the award was first given out.
The fact that Streisand was there to do the presenting suggests that the famously secret balloting for these prizes may not be quite as secret as all that. Something similar happened in 2003, when Kirk Douglas and his son Michael just happened to be on hand to present the Best Picture to Chicago, which just happened to feature Michael’s wife, Catherine Zeta Jones. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences seemed to know that Bigelow was going to win, and wanted the most gratuitously snubbed female director in history to be the one to give her the trophy.
But there could be no director more different from Streisand than Kathryn Bigelow. She is an unusual “first woman” winner in that she triumphed with her work on a movie that, like her other pictures, bears no trace in its genetic code of having been directed by a person with two X chromosomes. The Hurt Locker is the most visceral combat movie made in the United States in this decade, and its sole female character of any import barely even gets a close-up.
Even more peculiar, while Bigelow did indeed do a smashing job of directing The Hurt Locker, it was an odd year of all years for her to win; the general view among moviemakers, moviegoers, and movie critics is that James Cameron achieved a breakthrough in his helming of Avatar that has fundamentally altered the course of cinema. (I don’t agree with this assessment, but I seem to be the only person on the planet who doesn’t.) Ordinarily that consensus would have been sufficient to win Cameron the Oscar for a movie he spent 10 years making, and for which he invented about a billion new technologies.
But this was different. Bigelow and her movie benefited from the fact that one-fifth of all Academy voters are actors; they took one look at Avatar
and saw the end of their profession right there on the screen before them, and they certainly weren’t going to sing hosannas to the force driving them into obsolescence. So while Bigelow did kind of score a politicized affirmative action victory, it wasn’t because she had broken through a barrier and deserved a special salute.
It was, rather, that she was singled out for attention that wasn’t entirely deserved because her brand of small, intense, character-driven filmmaking, with splendid unknown actors burning brilliant holes in the screen, was deemed in need of a shot in the arm. These were Oscars that looked back with rueful nostalgia to cinema’s golden past—and yes, horrifying though it is for us not-wanting-to-be-middle-aged people to think of it, the 1970s films that The Hurt Locker evokes are now three decades in the past—rather than gazing proudly into cinema’s visionary future.
And you know what? It is, actually, a disgrace that it’s taken 83 years for a woman to win an Oscar in directing. I say this with no irony. Wonderful, liberal, creative, noble, politically correct Hollywood really does have an almost hilariously retrogressive attitude toward female directors. There are exactly two—Nora Ephron and Nancy Meyers—with any serious box-office pedigree. Both are in their sixties, and both had to prove themselves as wildly successful writers before they could get a turn behind the camera.
Hollywood remains an industry governed by excess testosterone, in which studio executives, producers, and directors pride themselves on personal Lord of the Flies-like conduct—throwing paperweights at the heads of underlings, insisting on sex in exchange for bit parts, plagiarizing the work of others—that would have them cashiered in any line of business and have them permanently slammed in the brig if they came anywhere near an actual hurt locker. They don’t have sensibilities; they have instincts, and their instincts tell them they should make boy movies and boys should direct those boy movies. They continue to run Hollywood because they were elevated to positions of people who behaved the same way themselves.
The destruction of that world by the centrifugal forces of new media cannot come soon enough, and band-aids like Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar are too little, too late.