Much will be written tonight and this week and in the future about the Academy Award win by Kathryn Bigelow for Best Director, and that is no surprise. It is a historic night, and a historic win.
Normally, I sit the Oscars out altogether. I don’t spend energy thinking about them ahead of time, I don’t liveblog them, I don’t spend time and energy prognosticating what will happen, and I don’t pour over the results with a fine-tooth comb. That’s just me. I tuned out of the Oscars when I was very young, pretty much as soon as I realized that the films I love and cherish are rarely the films that are honored. As I’ve gotten older, it’s less about that than it is about the idea that art is not a horse race. I don’t believe in the competition, and so rather than hammer that all year every year, I just let those who want to enjoy all the pomp and circumstance do so, and keep my own Grinchy comments to myself.
This year, though, I’ve chosen to write about one of the wins in particular because I think there is a real significance, one that is not just symbolic, and one I hope resonates through our entire industry in a permanent way. If I have ever been proud of the Academy, I am proud of them tonight. I look at Kathryn Bigelow up there on that stage, winning that award, and I can’t help but think that our industry just got a little bigger, and that moves me in a way that has nothing to do with a simple award.
I hate the way women are put in a box, both as audiences and filmmakers. There are few terms that set me on edge as much as “chick flick.” What you’re really saying when you say that is “stupid piece of garbage that men are too smart for,” and that’s just not true. Good movies are good movies, and bad movies are bad movies, and the notion of assigning a gender to a film and assuming that any member of the audience doesn’t get it because of a configuration of chromosomes just makes me mental. There is a strange phenomenon for girls as they grow up in our pop culture, where time after time they are asked to identify with a male lead in a film, and the assumption is made that they will just roll with it, while anytime a film has a female lead, the assumption is that little boys can’t possibly identify with that. This attitude is institutionalized, and it just gets worse as we get older.
Kathryn Bigelow’s win tonight underlines that idea in a big way. Her movie may not have made anywhere near the box-office that “It’s Complicated” made for director Nancy Meyers, but Bigelow was recognized this year because of the film. Not because of her gender. “The Hurt Locker’ happened to be directed by a woman, and that’s the way it should be. She’s a storyteller. You look back at her career, and it’s not the career that female filmmakers are supposed to pursue. She has always been attracted to stories about characters who live on the edge, people who push themselves to extremes. She’s made movies that interest her, movies that stand defiantly outside any easy box, and as a result, this win tonight feels like it is more than a win for her, and more than a win for women in general. It is a win for the demolition of assumptions based on gender or race or background. It is an message that storytelling is about being true to yourself and the story you want to tell, and I sincerely hope that all over the world, every young person who wants to grow up and direct is looking at the awards tonight and thinking, “That could be me.” Male, female, white, black, of any race or religion or background… you can tell your story. And you do not have to be in a box.
There’s a young woman in Austin, TX, named Emily Hagins who first started attending Ain’t It Cool events when she was legitimately a kid. And she fell in love with film right in front of the AICN crew over the years, leading to her making her first film, “Pathogen,” at the age of 12. That amazing process was captured in a documentary called “Zombie Girl,” and while “Pathogen” is pretty much what you’d expect from a zombie film directed by a 12-year-old, the thing that amazes me about Emily is that she did it. She made a feature-length movie at that age. She wrote it. She planned it. She managed to mobilize her collaborators, many of them in the same age range as her, and get the thing done. And what I love most about her film, and about her in general, is that she made a movie that absolutely reflects her own love of genre, the things that interest her most. She never once considered that she should make a “girl’s” film. She just made a film. Period.
I hope that because of this win, another Emily Hagins decides tomorrow to make a film that has nothing to do with being a “girl’s” film. And then another. And another. I hope there are hundreds of them. Thousands of them. I hope there comes a point where we look back at this moment and marvel that it took 82 ceremonies before a woman made a film that won Best Director, and I hope there comes a point where it seems like no big deal.
But it is a big deal. And I salute Kathryn Bigelow tonight for doing it on her terms, in her way. I wish more storytellers were as true to their own voice as she is, and I hope this sends the right message, loud and clear, to everyone who loves the art of film. Everyone’s voice matters. Be true to your own voice. And just as people celebrated a political milestone in our last Presidential election, another milestone falls tonight. Game’s on, boys, and the rules have changed. And thank God for that.
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