Sexism Pushes Its Way Into the Oscar Campaign

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by Melissa Silverstein
December 21, 2012 6:47 PM
22 Comments
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In the last week the screws have really been tightening in this bizarre world of Oscar campaigning, and Kathryn Bigelow and her film Zero Dark Thirty are the recipients of what is referred to a "whispering campaign."  To me there is nothing quiet about it.  It is loud and clear and smells like shit.

First, the movie and the torture scenes were condemned by several US Senators including Dianne Feinstein and John McCain who took the unprecedented step of writing a letter to the distributor Sony saying that the film was "grossly inaccurate and misleading."  They of course have access to information I don't have, but at the same time I also read that Michael Vickers a senior level official at the CIA was being investigated for giving them access to high level info.  You can't have it both ways.   Lots of folks in DC and the media have gotten into the conversation about whether the movie shows that the torture led to actionable evidence towards the capture of Bin Laden.  People are divided.  But the good news is that people are talking about this topic which many folks in this country would like to deny ever happened. 

Even though Zero Dark Thirty is based on real reporting let's not forget that it is a drama.  If it wasn't a drama it would be called a documentary.  Argo is also based on real events but took dramatic license and added scenes like the airport chase at the end.  Mary Todd Lincoln is said never to have gone to Congress but there was Sally Field sitting in the gallery when the Congress was debating on the Emancipation Proclamation in Steven Spielberg's Lincoln.

But that's not even the stuff that's bothering me.  It's this Hollywood Reporter piece entitled The Unorthodox Relationship Between Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal.  The article written by Kim Masters (who is usually pretty good) says that Mark Boal was basically the co-director and that Kathryn Bigelow defered to him.  It also talks about how she was model, and tells a story of date she rebuffed, and the fact perplexing fact that no one can figure out the relationship between Bigelow and Boal.  Are they dating?  Did they date?  Like who the fuck cares?  No one talks about male directors this way.  No one talks about them being models and the fact that they are pretty.  Because being a male director is not about how you look.  It's about your work, and that's what it should be for Kathryn Bigelow.

I guess we should expect push back.  When you threaten the status quo people get freaked out.  But Kim Masters has a quote in her piece that made me want to hurl.

What struck some observers, however, was the degree to which the 61-year-old Bigelow, the only woman to win an Academy Award for best director, listened to her far younger and less experienced partner.

So he controlled her and she let him disrespect her.  Whoa sister.  At least Amy Pascal stood up for her the only woman in the story to do so.  She said: that Boal and Bigelow have "'a unique partnership, very unusual' and calls Zero Dark Thirty 'a staggering achievement.'"

The thing about this whole story and why it's so important to watch is because one day there will be a critical mass of women directors and that no one will care who she was married to and who she may have dated and whether the screenwriter weighed too much power on a set.  But now, it's just her, and, oh yeah, she's pretty and everyone has noticed including such irrelevant folks as Brett Easton Ellis.  It goes back to how we treat our female political leaders.  How many times did people comment on Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz' hair and ignored the awesome stuff coming out of her mouth? How many people dismissed Gloria Steinem back in the day because she was pretty.  They all rue that fucking day.

The issue is that Kathryn Bigelow is a girl in a world full of boys.  She's a round peg in a square hole.  After a diverse and to be honest at times lackluster career, she hit one out of the park and now has another home run.  That's not supposed to happen.  As Anne Thompson said on Oscar Talk today, "a woman director of power is threatening to the male power structure." 

And this woman is threatening to burn their fucking house down.  And that's why I love this story.

The Unorthodox Relationship Between Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal (Hollywood Reporter)

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22 Comments

  • Kai | January 17, 2013 9:24 PMReply

    I think there are feminist underpinnings to all this. Hurt Locker v Avatar had a great narrative: underdog film battling against big studio film - a narcissistic, self-important director (Cameron) making coded, passive-aggressive remarks about his ex-wife. It was Cameron's award to lose, and Bigelow's film was not only wonderful - well-made, acted and directed, she was graceful and elegant, refusing to be drawn into any negative dialogue - and it was time for a woman to win the Oscar(s). This time, with ZDT, Mark Boal is the narcissistic, boastful jerk and KB refused to shut him down. This time, she didn't/couldn't distance herself from the man who was undermining her far more subtle ideas. Everything she said in her editorial IS in the film - one just has to watch the film more carefully. KB has never, ever been about self-promotion. Graceful and elegant as she was then she has refused to speak out against MB, just as she never spoke out about JC. KB doesn't shout, she never has. Despite all the rhapsodizing about the advances of women in the film industry when HL beat A, not much has changed. KB has always been judged by her beauty and by her relationships with the men with whom she worked or works with or married or dated. Sad.

  • Donella | January 16, 2013 6:41 PMReply

    I listened to the commentary and documentary on Near Dark, Bigelow's vampire flick seldom seen but highly rated. The sexist crap she endured from her male Hollywood overlords was pretty clear.

  • Tyler Foster | January 11, 2013 1:12 PMReply

    But, wait, if we're celebrating Bigelow's accomplishments as a director, wouldn't it be ENTIRELY relevant if Boal was practically a co-director? The concept of them having a relationship off-set is totally irrelevant bullshit, and I can believe that the timing and tone of the piece is a political move that (successfully) knocked ZDT off the Best Director list. Yet, by the same tactic that you say no man would have a non-scandalous, potentially hypothetical relationship used against him, it seems to me like any director WOULD have the idea that they did significantly less of the directing than advertised held against them. Maybe the idea is that you're disputing that as truth and I'm just not getting it, and again, the piece seems kinda like a smear job, but even in that instance, the solution is to present evidence that it isn't true, no?

  • Bernstein | January 16, 2013 11:59 PM

    I think youre being kindof short sighted about this. Its not about her being a woman. This same critique can be made about lincoln with spielberg and tony kushner and i think theyre both valid arguments.

  • Tyler Foster | January 11, 2013 1:24 PM

    The THR piece is more balanced than you give it credit for. Masters quotes a couple of sources on page 2 that say Bigelow overruled Boal all the time, despite his input. It's also hardly focused on their romantic relationship at all. I wrote the above comment thinking the timing of the piece was suspect, and guessed from what you wrote that the article would be more nosy, but now that I'm reading it I guess I don't know what the fuss is.

    Which is not to say Bigelow doesn't deserve the nom way more than Zeitlin.

  • Marian | January 10, 2013 5:08 PMReply

    @Anonymous – I saw the Charlie Rose interview too. In my perception, in that interview Mark Boal consistently belittled Kathryn Bigelow and denied her an equal voice. In contrast, she continued to be gracious and generous towards him - brava! The photograph that accompanied this article also reinforced the perception that Kathryn Bigelow was a secondary, lesser, author (in spite of some of the text that argued against this) and Mark Boal was 'the man' http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/zero-dark-thirty-kathryn-bigelow-404485. I think that collectively almost all the publicity has worked to convey this perception – and that's why he has an Oscar nom and she hasn't. Awful.

  • Everette | January 10, 2013 3:42 PMReply

    I'm a vet. This is important because you need to look past the sexism slant and start to look at the body of Bigelow's work. While she is lauded by many in the media as creating realistic military films, that is not the case in the military community. Many people think her films are realistic depictions, which they are certainly not. I feel like maybe these filmmakers should be held to a higher standard.

  • rachel feldman | January 10, 2013 3:09 PMReply

    Melissa. Great article. Such a shame. It's a wonderful film, beautifully directed and political nonsense should have nothing to do with acknowledging her skill, talent and craft. Bravo to KB and so sorry you don't have the nomination you should have. At least we have honored you at the DGA.

  • Anonymous | January 8, 2013 2:29 PMReply

    Please watch the Charlie Rose interview where Boal hijacked the interview and Rose ended up basically interviewing him, ignoring Bigelow. Boal showed absolutely no respect for his director (and admittedly, Charlie Rose should have known better). It would be like if Charlie Rose ignored Spielberg and just talked to Lincoln screenwriter Tony Kushner (which would NEVER have happened). You can hear Bigelo off screen (and why is she off screen? she's the DIRECTOR) try to interject but Boal wouldn't let her speak and get camera time. Incredible.

  • Tigerbos | January 7, 2013 8:11 PMReply

    Last I heard, he caught enough flak from his comments and made a retraction and an apology. I'm sure that Kathryn Bigelow paid no attention to his comments. If a woman is going to make it in the film industry, she's going to have to be thicked skinned. Apparently she is. Still, I'm really sick of the misogyny in the film industry and from males in general who for some reason judge women solely on their looks and not their talent and are so dismissive of anything relevant a woman does.

  • Catherine J | January 6, 2013 5:54 AMReply

    You are spitting in the wind, Flow, but some of us are spitting alongside of you! The film industry is a powerful institution, still run by men - not always the kind any of us would like to work for, where Bigelow has spent decades neatly side-stepping all the issues in order to do the kind of creative work she wants to (within limitations). Sometimes I'd like her just to say what she really thinks - most of the time I'm very grateful she manages to keep a lid on it in a way I could never do.

  • FLow | January 4, 2013 12:42 PMReply

    Thanks for the column. It bugs the crap out of me that people somehow think that strutting around asserting yourself, is what "powerful" direction looks like. Tuning into the situation, deep listening, centering yourself so that you can trust that the thoughts crossing your mind are coming from a more inspired place than just your own damn ego. Oh well. I am spitting in the wind.

  • Joel | December 25, 2012 5:26 PMReply

    The Emancipation Proclamation was just that. A presidential proclamation. The thirteenth amendment - which is featured in the movie Lincoln - was the piece of legislation that was debated in the halls of Congress. Funny that you wouldn't get it right when challenging its veracity.
    Historically based movies have been criticized since the beginning of the art form for their departures from reality. The furor over Bigelow's movie has nothing to do with gender. It has to do with factual distortions completely changing the meaning of history and defending indefensible military policy that had no bearing on the resolution of events. It was irresponsible and immoral- end of story.

  • Grif | December 23, 2012 2:32 AMReply

    For anyone interested, here is a director's roundtable with Katherine Bigelow http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/envelope/moviesnow/la-en-directors-roundtable-oscars-2013-dto,0,6140568.htmlstory

  • jg | December 22, 2012 3:51 PMReply

    The woman promotes torture propaganda, called out as complete fabrications by senators on the intelligence committee, and all you people care about is that she has a vagina? The militarism, torture lies and war propaganda are far more significant in some other places. I would expect more from Indiewire, but is it really a step up from Entertainment Tonight?

  • Bobby | December 22, 2012 2:42 PMReply

    Why do people keep talking about Bigelow's looks? She's just not that attractive. And who cares? She's directing a freaking movie. It's called being "behind" the camera.

  • devils advocate | December 21, 2012 11:19 PMReply

    Boal is the sole writer and a capital p producer on the movie so it's not that big a deal to say that he has a larger creative role in the film. Plus it is widely known that Bigelow's directing style is on the laissez faire side of things. She isn't David Fincher. And while that's not a bad thing, it will inevitably lead to claims that Boal does more than your standard writer. There just aren't a lot of directors whose spouses are at the creative level that Boal is and her two best films by far are the last two; the ones that Boal wrote.

  • BONDGIRL | December 23, 2012 11:04 PM

    Bullshit. Clint Eastwood is a laissez faire director too, but you didn't see anyone saying Paul Haggis (moreso than Eastwood) was the reason Million Dollar Baby did well at the Oscars, didja? No.

  • DarMiller137 | December 21, 2012 8:03 PMReply

    I have no doubt this movie is excellent. She is a highly talented director and this movie may deserve an Oscar. But the CIA will only ever tell you what they want you to know and Hollywood has a history of producing propaganda (intentionally or not). I was unaware we had Senators decrying this movie as inacurate. I don't think we can dismiss them so easily. And this feels like one of those backwards articles. Feinstein is herself a woman and the Steinem point is ridiculous--how many women weren't listened to because they were not considered attractive or sexy? Bigelow is also not in a place to complain too loudly about sexism. The film she won an Oscar for was hypermasculine and possibly the rest of the females writers etc... in Hollywood are having a much harder time of it because they are unknown. Brett Easton Ellis is an idiot, so what? Yes, Hollywood is sexist. We all already knew that. I'm not certain Bigelow is helping that.

  • Corvo | December 21, 2012 7:12 PMReply

    It's a fascist movie, that's for sure. Bigelow is a director embedded. She stands on the side of power. Feminists who defend her only because she's a woman miss totally the point. Even Leni Riefenstahl was a woman.

  • Jlrzt | December 21, 2012 10:11 PM

    I think it's totally legitimate to defend the fact that she is a woman, because she is a woman, in a sphere dominated by men. That is feminism. I don't agree with Michelle Bachman's politics, but I respect the fact that she was so outspoken in her field (and I would defend her right to be in that field). This article isn't saying her film is amazing because she is a woman, it is saying that she is getting criticized and scrutinized for being a woman, and shouldn't be.

    Feminism doesn't mean that every woman who manages to get to a prominent position represents all women anywhere, just the same as we don't expect all men to represent all male views. It's feminist to champion the fact that there are women we disagree with.

  • No | December 21, 2012 10:05 PM

    WHOA! That's a charge and a half. What makes this film "fascist"? Its portrayal of torture? If you're going to make such a charge, make your case. Why is it a fascist movie?

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