A Good Year for Directors Who Aren’t Straight White Men

     December 30, 2009

Tom Ford, Lee Daniels, and Kathryn Bigelow.jpg

The position of director has long been dominated by heterosexual, Caucasian males in Hollywood. For evidence of this, one need only look at the Academy Award for Best Director nominations over first 81 years of the award’s existence. Only three times have female directors received nominations (Lina Wertmüller in 1976, Jane Campion in 1993, and Sofia Coppola in 2003) and only once has an African-American director been nominated (John Singleton in 1991). Homosexual directors have had more luck, with such notable openly gay directors as Rob Marshall, Gus Van Sant, and Pedro Almodovar gaining nominations, while John Schlesinger and George Cukor even won the award. Still, directing in Hollywood is not a particularly diverse game. So it is noteworthy when, as Variety points out, “it’s possible the best-director noms might not include a single English-speaking, Caucasian, straight male”.

For a look at the directors who might instead seize this year’s Oscar nominations, including Kathryn Bigelow, Lee Daniels, Tom Ford, Lone Scherfig, and Rob Marshall, hit the jump.

Kathryn Bigelow image (1).jpgKathryn Bigleow, The Hurt Locker

It makes sense to start with Bigelow, as it is her film which has the most buzz going into Oscar season. Bigelow has long been one of the premier female directors in Hollywood, perhaps most renowned as the creative force behind Point Break. But with The Hurt Locker, her critical cache has never been higher. The film and Bigelow have already been identified as the best picture/director pair of the year by regional critics’ associations in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Washington DC, Detroit, San Francisco, and Austin among others. Both The Hurt Locker and Bigelow are all but guaranteed an Oscar nomination come February, and Bigelow has a very good chance at being the first female to ever win Best Director.  Here’s an interview Steve did with Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker.

Lee Daniels, Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire

Lee Daniels (1).jpgAs a director, Daniels is relatively new to Hollywood. His only prior directorial feature, Shadowboxer, received tepid reviews, but prior to that he produced the Academy Award-winning Monster’s Ball and the critically acclaimed The Woodsman. With Precious, he reclaimed his favor in the critics’ eyes for his gritty portrayal of the hardships of a downtrodden, black teenage girl living in Harlem. Daniels’s work must also be noted for his ability to draw out great performances from perhaps unexpected places, as Gabourey Sidibe, Mo’Nique, and Mariah Carey are all attracting Oscar buzz due to their work in Precious. The film has also been a significant financial success, having sold nearly $40 million in tickets on a $10 million budget. As an openly gay black man, Daniels could certainly diversify the awards if he earns a well-deserved Oscar nomination.

Tom Ford, A Single Man

Tom Ford image.jpgLike Daniels, Ford is another openly gay newcomer to Hollywood, although directing is the man’s second career. Ford’s first love is fashion design, as he is credited for reversing the fortunes of Gucci in the mid-nineties and now runs his own fashion line, Tom Ford Beauty. Surely Ford’s experience in fashion informed the visual detail evident in A Single Man. Collider’s own Matt Goldberg, who included the film in his top ten of the year, noted, “In his debut feature, director Tom Ford told a story without words.  There is dialogue and it’s well written, but the tale of A Single Man is spoken with light, color, close-ups, facial expressions, beautiful music, and a stunning performance by Colin Firth as the grief-stricken George Falconer.” Reportedly, The Weinstein Company won the bidding war for A Single Man at the Toronto International Film Festival by guaranteeing Ford an Oscar. If the Weinsteins wish to come through on said promise, they would do best by letting Ford’s work speak for itself.  Here’s a recent interview we did with Tom Ford.

Lone Scherfig, An Education

Lone Scherfig.jpgThough her name is probably the least recognizable on this list, she may not be so anonymous for much longer. An Education represents her introduction to Hollywood, but Scherfig has been directing in her home country of Denmark for more than two decades. Scherfig earned some international renown in 2000 with Italian for Beginners, a film made according to the specifications of the Danish avant-garde filmmaking movement, Dogme 95. Guided by the influences of her Danish brethren, Scherfig’s restrained direction of An Education produced one of the most acclaimed pictures of the year. Of particular note is the performances Scherfig elicited from her actors: lead Carey Mulligan is currently among the favorites to win Best Actress after rave reviews, while Alfred Molina and Peter Sarsgaard are both serious contenders for Best Supporting Actor.  Here’s an interview Steve did with Lone Scherfig for An Education.

Rob Marshall, Nine

Rob Marshall image.jpgMarshall broke onto the scene in a big way in 2002 with Chicago, the hit musical which won the Academy Award for Best Picture and earned Marshall an Oscar nomination for Best Director. Though the association between musicals and homosexuals is perhaps condescending, the openly gay Marshall brought an undeniable flair and energy to Chicago, in many ways reinvigorating the movie musical genre for the modern age. Admittedly, Marshall seems to have faltered since then, with Memoirs of a Geisha flopping in 2005, and this year’s Nine premiering to lukewarm reviews. Still, Nine continues to attract awards attention, and Marshall could once again find himself on the shortlist for Best Director. Looking to the future, Marshall was recently handed the reins to one of cinema’s biggest franchises as the director of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, set for release in the summer of 2011.

While these five names will almost certainly not be the five nominated for Best Director come Oscar time, I’d bet my life that at least one will match; maybe even two or three. This is a good thing. I do not wish to belittle the work of any straight white male director, as there is much to celebrate this year from that demographic. However, I think it is important that it be made easier for other, more neglected viewpoints to be shared with the world in cinematic form.

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