In the 94 years that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been handing out Oscars to the Hollywood elite, a grand total of eight women have been nominated for Best Director. To put that into perspective, Martin Scorsese has received more nominations in this category than all the women combined. Only two women have won the prestigious prize, with Nomadland’s Chloe Zhao making history last year by becoming the first woman of color to do so (as well as the first to be nominated.) This year, history was made again as Jane Campion, the director of the startling Western drama The Power of the Dog, became the first woman director to be nominated more than once in this category. The first time a man received multiple Best Director nominations was in 1930 and that guy, Frank Lloyd, pulled it off by being nominated twice in the same year.
The never-ending battle for gender parity in the film world has been one of maddeningly incremental progress, frequently a case of one step forward and two steps back. In 2020, the number of top-grossing films directed by women fell, even as figures like Zhao, Emerald Fennell, and Regina King received vast critical acclaim for their work. It’s indicative of much that Campion is the first woman to have multiple Best Director nominations in close to a century, but that shouldn’t negate how well-deserved and long-overdue this honor is for a truly phenomenal filmmaker.
Campion is indisputably one of her generation’s finest filmmakers and yet her name is seldom included as frequently in these conversations as her male counterparts, even though she’s an Oscar, Palme d’Or, and Silver Lion winner. It’s a disheartening omission but not an especially surprising one. Female directors don’t get held up as such in the way that men are. While you’re likely to find Campion listed as the greatest woman filmmaker of all time (the BBC declared The Piano to be the best movie ever made by a woman), mixed-gender lists put her far lower. There’s a cultural notion that women only make stories for women while men’s work is universal. Such ideas dismiss the unifying ideas of female-driven narratives but also position them as somehow unimportant in the grand scheme of art. Campion has spent her career fighting that by telling layered, prickly, and often radical stories of women in search of more than what the world will allow them.
Fittingly for a filmmaker who made an adaptation of the Henry James novel The Portrait of a Lady, Campion’s filmography is defined by its depictions of women and dissections of what it means to be one at any given moment in history. It’s notable that it took until last year for Campion to make a film with a majority male perspective. Until then, her protagonists were women searching for a certain kind of freedom across time and genres, from Victorian England to the grimy noir of New York City. In The Piano, her breakthrough romantic drama that saw her become the second-ever female Best Director Oscar nominee, the mute Ada McGrath turns to her music to find a form of expression that will allow her to contest the marriage and life she has been forced into. Holy Smoke!, one of her most underrated films, sees a naïve young woman look for spiritual guidance before falling into a parodic battle of the sexes with an older man hired to undo the supposed brainwashing she’s endured. The deeply prickly lead of her debut, Sweetie, looks for clarity amid a tyrannical domestic life that includes a mentally ill and obscenely spoiled sibling.
Moreover, Campion’s women are frequently bound by a sense of the erotic. Few working directors make films so steeped in sensuality as Campion, and so uniformly focused on female pleasure at that. Whatever the female gaze is, and academics have argued about that for decades, Campion possesses it, utilizing it with such force that she’s helped to realign audiences’ focus away from a default male ideal. Take, for instance, In the Cut, a bleak erotic thriller that was once derided as her biggest flop. Many critics saw the drama’s plot of a woman descending into a torrid affair with a potentially murderous cop as needlessly tawdry. What they missed (and what many have discussed with the film’s long-overdue reassessment) is the ways that those sex scenes define the catch-22 of female desire: how do you look for satisfaction when you live under the stranglehold of patriarchy and doing so could very well put your life at risk? Campion uses eroticism as a way to take on issues like this but sometimes, in her films, sex is just sex, and we’re all the better for it!
The Power of the Dog may stand unique in her filmography as her first feature focused primarily on a male protagonist, it’s fully within the boundaries of her tales of women in search of liberation. George Burbank, as played by Benedict Cumberbatch in perhaps his greatest performance, is the most purely distilled embodiment of masculinity at its cruelest and most insidious. A rancher who seemingly embodies the all-American cowboy ideal, he lords over his domain – and his meek brother – with an iron fist, growing all the more tyrannical when Rose (Kirsten Dunst) moves into his home alongside her sensitive son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee, giving the best performance of 2021). He seems furious that anyone would seek to disturb his dictatorial grasp over a life that nobody seems equipped to thrive in. Gentleness is to be snuffed out, preferably in as callous a manner as possible.
Such men are familiar presences in Campion’s work, albeit mostly in far less aggressive ways: The stilted stoicism of Ada’s husband slowly giving way to petulant abuse; the callous gaslighting of Gilbert Osmond in The Portrait of a Lady; P.J. Waters’ condescension evolving into a pathetic obsession in Holy Smoke! George’s closest contemporaries in Campion’s work can be found in In the Cut, where every male character is some variation of terrifyingly toxic, desperate to own women or destroy them. While his own motives are not sexual, the calculated giddiness with which George seeks to break Rose’s spirit is similarly forceful. He still wants to deny a woman’s right to her own destiny, something Campion has spent decades exploring, and the character’s spiral into alcohol and loneliness is almost Shakespearean in its tragedy. In The Power of the Dog, empathy is given to George for his own plight, a man as smothered by masculine demands as he is empowered by them, but he is not excused for it. Campion has heroines but seldom heroes. Her men are as broken by masculinity as anyone in Scorsese’s filmography. In many ways, she feels like his cinematic sibling, two halves of a double bill on the ways that the world sets men up to suffer.
The Power of the Dog is currently a frontrunner to take home Best Picture. At the very least, being the most nominated film of the 2022 Oscars will ensure that Campion’s legacy among mainstream audiences is given a much-needed boost. Perhaps this will finally give some industry figures the push to see her as one of the greats and not someone whose masterful output is forever seen as second best to the guys.