Monday, March 8, 2010

Why Kathryn Bigelow's big Oscar win might not be a real victory for women.

"Where did we go right?" - Zero Mostel in The Producers

After botching the theatrical release and nearly shooting themselves in the foot in the final lap of the Oscar season, Summit Entertainment still managed to stumble their way into their first Best Picture winner at a relatively early age. Congrats to The Hurt Locker. It wasn't my favorite of the ten and it's a little overrated, but that's not the fault of the filmmakers or the film. This is the second year in a row that the Best Picture winner was a movie that almost went directly to DVD due to studio disinterest or regime politics. The irony is that had Avatar not become a true phenomenon and The Hurt Locker just been another movie in the running, it probably would not have won (Precious probably would have won out). But because the $11 million little indie-war drama was positioned as the antithesis of the 'biggest movie of all time', it kept the momentum completely on the strength of its fabricated David vs. Goliath narrative. The movie's quality and those who have loved it since the beginning of last year is what got it to the nomination stage, but it was the perceived 'big film vs. little film' and 'girls vs. boys' that propelled it over the top.

"First I would like to thank the Academy for showing it can be about the performance and not the politics." - Mo'Nique upon winning Best Supporting Actress for Precious.

It's the latter part that I find troubling. While it's terrific that the previously-undervalued Bigelow became the first female to win Best Director, it's more than a little depressing that such a big deal must be made of it. As I've always said, progress comes when you don't have to talk about it. The gimmick of having Barbara Streisand present the award was a little cheap, as it would have made it awkward beyond words if anyone other than Bigelow had won. For that reason alone, I was almost hoping that Streisand would be forced to announce Quentin Tarantino as the winner. Of course, I felt the same way about Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg presenting the Best Director award back in 2007 ("And the Oscar goes to... Paul Greengrass?!"). Kudos for Streisand for pointing out that Lee Daniels also would have made history had he won for Precious. On the other hand, how refreshing that a black man was nominated for Best Director and we more or less forgot about the color of his skin during the campaign season? Progress comes when we don't feel the need to mention it.

What bugged me most about the awards season is how so many pundits tried to turn James Cameron into the big male bully and Kathryn Bigelow into some helpless female victim of his male oppression. Cameron has been nothing but gracious during the entire Oscar season, and I believed him when he said over and over again that he was rooting for his friend, colleague, and former spouse (I'm guessing he voted for her). But the pundits wouldn't have that, because the battle of the combative exes was a much juicier story and an easier one to sell. So the story had to be that Cameron was the scorned ex-lover who was scheming behind the scenes to deny his more artistically-inclined ex-wife her moment of glory. So the entertainment media played up Kathryn Bigelow as a woman whose time had come vs. Cameron as the ego-centric madman who was trying to steal her just-deserts with his big, scary, expensive, and (worst of all) popular Hollywood movie. As a result, the media at large basically turned the hard-ass director of Point Break and Strange Days into yet another damsel in distress. Thus, it's hard to argue that she was awarded her Oscar last night based on the merits of her work alone, when so many seemed to be merely 'giving' it to her out of their own sense of history, obligation, and wanting to 'get back' at James Cameron for his imagined crimes. She's not the first person to win an Oscar based as much on politics as the work itself, but it's disappointing that the media circus rendered a worthwhile achievement into something approaching a charity case.

Which is an absolute shame because, if it needs to be said, she was absolutely deserving of winning. Not because she's a woman and not because she's a woman who makes stereotypically 'guy' movies, but because The Hurt Locker was a damn good movie and she was the primary reason it worked as well as it did. And, to be honest, I was rooting for her because I've been a fan for years (I even liked K-19: The Widowmaker) and am thrilled that she'll be working more frequently as a result of her 'historic' win. But saying that she should have won purely because she was a woman is every bit as sexist as saying that she should have lost for the same reason. And, because this also needs to be said, the fact that it took 82 years for the Academy to give the Best Director award to a female filmmaker should be cause for shame and embarrassment, rather than self-lionizing accolades.

Scott Mendelson

15 comments:

Byron the afro-filmviewer said...

Excellent post.

Deaf Indian Muslim Anarchist! said...

I disagree with you. Gender, race, sexuality, disability will always be discussed in our society. There IS real progress when people talk about it. To ignore it is to deny that sexism or racism even exist in the 1st place.

I do, however, agree with you about how the media is trying to pit this as a battle between James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow, which is just so annoying and offensive.

Like you, I've also noticed how gracious and supportive he has been toward her.

She deserves it and she broke the glass ceiling. Now she can inspire a whole new generation of female filmmakers (ME) to make it happen.

Chris said...

DIMA, the problem is the "FIRST WOMAN WINNER!!!!!!!!!!!!" actually overshadows her achievement of making a film voted by her peers and colleagues as the best of the year. Let's not vote or value milestones over the actual achievement.

Making too big of a deal (of course it should be noted/recognized, and she should be proud of that status)of her being the first woman winner can also create a situation where she can be viewed (unfairly obviously) as a charity case or affirmative action winner.

I can't help but think that if the Hurt Locker wasn't as good as it was, she might have won anyway. People subconsciously can get strung along by things like history, previous losses, overall career etc. over picking the best movie of the year

Scott Mendelson said...

I'm reminded of the big media frenzy over the 2001 Oscars, when everyone was screaming 'racial progress' when Denzel Washington and Halle Berry won Oscars in their respective categories. But for me, the real progress came in 2006, when Forest Whitaker, Eddie Murphy, and Jennifer Hudson were front-runners in their respective categories and absolutely no one discussed the two victories and one surprise defeat in terms of their race.

geha714 said...

I think you're using the Mo'nique quote out of context. She wasn't talking about Bigelow, but the attacks against her from some columnists and bloggers for not campaigning more actively, given the fact she was busy with her talk show. She says that the only thing voters should consider is the performance and nothing else. And personally, she is somewhat right.

Kyle Leaman said...

I agree with you Scott. The group I watched the show with had a hard time stomaching the talk, "Will we have our first female winner, our first black winner, or...or...three people who brought their own scripts to the screen". Ridiculous. Seriously? Way to make a win by either of the other three feel like they were taking away a historic moment from the other two. It's one thing for pundits outside the show to do it, but the producers doing it is another.

Kyle Leaman said...

I'm not trying to be overly critical about the Mo'Nique quote, but did it seem to anyone else that it bordered on arrogance? It's a great performance, most agree, but doesn't her quote seem to be saying that she thought her win was all because of the performance? As in, 'Yeah, this proves it's about how good I did"? Minor thing for me, but how does she know there weren't politics involved working for her?

Scott Mendelson said...

Nope, Geha, I knew what she was talking about and I agreed with it. It just seemed to be a logical way to bridge the piece into discussing 'outside politics' and there effects on the awards. Pardon me for trying to be artsy. :-)

Scott Mendelson said...

Monique's comment was a specific response to the many media pundits who honestly believed that she didn't deserve the Oscar purely because she wasn't actively campaigning for it. Had it been unsolicited, I might have agreed with you Kyle. But she was explicitly refuting a certain attack narrative (she won't campaign because they won't pay her to do so) that had been built around her work.

Kyle Leaman said...

I suppose it makes more sense in that context. Just struck me wierd watching it with my friends

Anonymous said...

Scott,
I agree that when things are being called out-mentioned-focused on it's more a sign of ongoing "groupism" than anything else. It would be great if more people got that. Kudos to Bigelow for generally being simply - a director.

Anonymous said...

As a black female, you don't need to feel embarassed on my behalf. In fact, please don't. You do not speak for me.

Rather than just stating an opinion about how Kathryn Bigelow's (or Halle Berry's, or Mo'Nique's) wins at the Oscars and the concomitant celebrations as "firsts" affects women's rights or black rights, perhaps you should ask a woman or a black person. And then listen.

Scott Mendelson said...

Monique's comment was a specific response to the many media pundits who honestly believed that she didn't deserve the Oscar purely because she wasn't actively campaigning for it. Had it been unsolicited, I might have agreed with you Kyle. But she was explicitly refuting a certain attack narrative (she won't campaign because they won't pay her to do so) that had been built around her work.

Kyle Leaman said...

I agree with you Scott. The group I watched the show with had a hard time stomaching the talk, "Will we have our first female winner, our first black winner, or...or...three people who brought their own scripts to the screen". Ridiculous. Seriously? Way to make a win by either of the other three feel like they were taking away a historic moment from the other two. It's one thing for pundits outside the show to do it, but the producers doing it is another.

Lauren said...

Brilliant and spot-on.

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