Kathryn Bigelow, Jessica Chastain and Amy Pascal, co-chairman of Sony Pictures
Kathryn Bigelow, Jessica Chastain and Amy Pascal, co-chairman of Sony Pictures

“A woman is like a tea bag; you never know how strong it is until it’s in hot water.”
 -- Eleanor Roosevelt

If you want to win an Oscar for Best Picture now, make an old fashioned Hollywood movie. But make sure it is easy on the eye, entertaining and not too challenging.  Don’t let there be any controversy attached to it. And never remind us of the complexities in human nature. Focus on the positive. People are good. People do good things. Isn’t the world a nice place to be?  On the flipside there’s Zero Dark Thirty, which has to be judged on its own merits as a film.  The facts about the torture — whether it happened, whether it didn’t — can be had at a different time. What we have before us is a work of art.

Zero Dark Thirty was so upsetting it seemed to go even beyond the torture debate. I began to wonder, would people have been so personally pissed off if the director of Zero Dark Thirty had been a man? Moreover, if the lead character had been played by George Clooney do you think it would have changed anything? Would the movie be less threatening? Would sticking to the status quo have enabled people to fall in line and accept it?  Would the critics have rushed to give it their top prizes to begin with but then abandon it just as fast when the water got too high?

I want to look at the state of things in American film, but specifically the Oscar race.  The ongoing disparity between films by and about men compared with those by and about women is worth discussing.  What is it about us in 2012 that makes us so desperately want to cling to the past? We love Mad Men because women and men were divided into power positions.  We watch Peggy take a little climb upwards but for the most part women can’t really go very far because the men rule that world.  Even Downton Abbey is a show about a time when the power of women was limited. It is the brilliance of that show, and of Mad Men actually, that they write female characters who are powerful beyond the roles society and culture assigns them. And yet, I can’t help but wonder why we have such a hard time adjusting to change?

The one film in the Best Picture race with a lead female, directed by a woman, has now been ejected from the winner’s circle completely.  There was no pity party thrown for Bigelow — oh sure, a few critics and bloggers kicked up a fuss but there were no awards given out after the torture controversy hit.  Zero Dark Thirty started the race winning the New York Film Critics award for Best Film then won in Chicago and then at some point it just stopped winning anything.  Even the Critics Choice, where it was supposed to win the major awards (they’re supposed to be CRITICS) couldn’t even manage to give it an award for Original Screenplay. It got only won Best Actress and Editing.  It did not win a single National Society of Film Critics award.  They seem to split two ways — snooty critics went for Amour and populist critics went for ArgoZero Dark Thirty? Did it even happen?

Before Ben Affleck became the cause du jour for not doing what Bigelow did, not claiming to be “history” but rather, just making a fun, funny movie about a fake movie, Bigelow was the one director that seemed like a lock.  I remember predicting her and having someone say “are you sure about Bigelow?” And I said, she’s a lock. Once the film starting winning I was glad I’d been right about that but now I look back on that exchange and I think, hmm.  You have to go all the way back to 2002 to find a director whose film won the New York Film Critics but didn’t get nominated at the Oscars and that was Todd Haynes with Far From Heaven.

Digging deeper, I find that almost all of the films up this for celebration are movies that are male-driven.  One of the reasons I love Lincoln as I do is that, even though it’s a film that takes place in 1865, Kushner and Spielberg give Mary Lincoln a full spectrum of human emotions, much to the annoyance of Fanboy Nation who like their women fuckable and off to the side.  A famous historical figure dealing with bi-polar Mary’s personal traumas were among the many burdens Lincoln carried.  The relationship is beautifully wrought in Lincoln and provides 2012 one of its best female performances. The other film that busts out of convention is Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild which gives over the entire film to the inner life of a small girl.  The film is about what happens inside her.  When was the last time you saw that in any Oscar movie?

Last year, the only film that had female characters with something to do other than decide which end she wants the dick placed in was The Help. That film, naturally, brought with it much of the same controversy Zero Dark Thirty is receiving. Boy, was The Help threatening all the way around. So much so that, even though it made $150 million and had a large mixed race cast, it was nominated for just four Oscars. The rest of the BP nominees were all about men.