Kathryn Bigelow made history Saturday when the director of "The Hurt Locker," a tale of risk junkies defusing improvised explosive devices in Iraq, became the first woman to receive top honors from the Directors Guild of America (DGA).
Prospects are good that she'll make history once again March 7 at the Oscars. In a battle-of-the-exes twist, Bigelow could take the prize over former husband James Cameron, whose "Avatar" is the top-grossing movie of all time.
Her Academy Award nomination was announced Tuesday. Because it's so rare that the DGA winner doesn't go on to win an Oscar -- only six times in 61 years -- odds are Bigelow could be the first female director in the academy's 82-year history to crash the celluloid ceiling. It's a feat that the three prior nominees -- Lina Wertmuller ("Seven Beauties"), Jane Campion ("The Piano") and Sofia Coppola ("Lost in Translation") -- failed to accomplish.
"This is Sally Ride, first woman in space, big," Melissa Silverstein declared on her Women & Hollywood blog on Sunday (www.womenand hollywood.com). "This is Sandra Day O'Connor, first female on the Supreme Court, big. This is Billie Jean King beating Bobby Riggs big."
OK, definitely a watershed moment. But Bigelow's Oscar nomination and possible win likely won't represent any substantive change for women in Hollywood. When Hattie McDaniel became the first African-American to win an Oscar (for 1939's "Gone With the Wind"), it did not immediately open the door for other black actors. After Wertmuller became the first female director nominated, 17 years passed before Campion became the second.
Yes, Bigelow's movie about how warriors get addicted to the rush of war is truly great. But 2009 was by most measures only a good year for female filmmakers, who are consigned mostly to romantic comedies and biopics.
According to Martha Lauzen, a communications professor at San Diego State University, movies directed by women totaled 9 percent in 2008. Seventeen of the top 250 box-office movies in 2009 were directed by women, a jot under 7 percent.
Since 1998, the number of female filmmakers has held between 7 and 10 percent, said Lauzen, who for nearly 20 years has tracked employment of women in the film industry.
"We have to celebrate Bigelow's achievement," said Jeanine Basinger, professor of film history at Connecticut's Wesleyan University.
"If Bigelow wins, it's a breakthrough," she said. "Still, as a film historian, when I contemplate the minuscule numbers of women directors today as compared with the more equal numbers of women and men during the silent era, I am always surprised.
"There used to be no gender bias in filmmaking, nor was there the gender specificity we see today," she said.
What Basinger refers to is that, notwithstanding "The Hurt Locker," most of the films from women in 2009 are romantic comedies (such as Anne Fletcher's "The Proposal" or Nancy Meyers' "It's Complicated") or biopics about founding mothers of 20th-century culture (Anne Fontaine's "Coco Before Chanel" and Mira Nair's "Amelia," about aviator Amelia Earhart).
Unless you're Woody Allen, rom-coms aren't taken seriously by the academy. And unless you're a foreigner -- such as Dutch director Marleen Gorris, who won best foreign film in 1995 for "Antonia's Line," or German filmmaker Caroline Link, who won the foreign prize in 2002 for "Nowhere in Africa" -- the academy doesn't honor biopics seen from a female perspective. "Gandhi" is Oscar-worthy, not "Coco."
The cause lies not in women's lack of talent, but in the academy's general bias against movies about the female experience. Bigelow, who specializes in genre movies about men addicted to danger (see "Point Break"), is more in the academy's traditional mold.
As Basinger said, the greatest thing about a prospective Bigelow win would be "that it says that a good film is not defined by the gender of the filmmaker."