Tuesday morning’s Oscar nominations provided plenty of surprises, but one development proved depressingly familiar: As many predicted, this year’s eight Best Picture contenders and five Best Director nominees included exactly zero films directed by a woman. No Marielle Heller. No Josie Rourke. No Karyn Kusama. No Debra Granik. No women at all.
After Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird proved a strong contender last year, it can’t help but feel a little like the Academy is going backwards. But in hindsight, it’s clear all the ways that Lady Bird provided a perfect standard for supporters to rally around. The film was almost universally beloved, boasting for a time a perfect Rotten Tomatoes score, and just as importantly, it had an easy-to-follow Oscar narrative: an actress known for ramshackle indies making her solo directorial debut with a lovingly composed coming-of-age tale inspired by her own teenage years. (That Gerwig had co-directed a mumblecore film years before was one of those things that gets smoothed away in Oscar discussions; it was just easier for everyone to treat Lady Bird like her first “real” directorial effort.) Lady Bird went home empty-handed on Oscar night, a sign the Academy still wasn’t quite ready to warm up to female-driven stories, but it still pulled in five nominations and was in the Best Picture conversation all season long.
This year’s bounty of female-helmed movies haven’t enjoyed the same benefits. The top contender was probably Can You Ever Forgive Me?, which managed acting nods for both Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant, as well as a screenplay nomination. That screenplay might explain part of the reason CYEFM didn’t ascend into the top tier of the year’s contenders: It’s credited to Jeff Whitty and Nicole Holofcener, and the latter was set to direct the movie back when it was going to star Julianne Moore; director Marielle Heller didn’t join the project until after the Moore-Holofcener version fell apart in 2015. And, as Heller told Vanity Fair’s “Little Gold Men” podcast, she’d purposefully chosen the film because it was very different from her debut, Diary of a Teenage Girl. Heller’s direction was widely praised, but it was hard to position her as the singular voice and vision behind the film, or to fit the movie into a grabby story about her career arc — the kind of stuff that feels like it shouldn’t matter, but often does in award campaigning.
Other female directors in the race could make a strong case to be seen as their film’s main creative forces. Mary, Queen of Scots’s Josie Rourke is the artistic director of the British theater Donmar Warehouse, and from the casting to the characterization, the movie bore the fingerprints of a longtime stage pro. (Even if with this film too, the screenplay was credited to someone else.) Period pieces about British royalty are catnip to Oscars voters, and the film did score two nominations, in Costume and Hair & Makeup. But Mary had the burden of competing in the same year as The Favourite, which added its own modern spin to a story of a Stuart monarch, and was pretty much universally regarded as the better film.
Like Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Karyn Kusama’s Destroyer was positioned as an acting vehicle, and star Nicole Kidman earned a Golden Globe nomination for her transformative turn as a bitter Los Angeles detective. But the film itself got a polarizing reception, and critics and voters alike agreed the film itself didn’t quite live up Kidman’s central performance.
Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace got better reviews — in fact, it got some of the best reviews of the year — and she’d previously helmed the Best Picture nominee Winter’s Bone, but that summer indie was distributed by Bleecker Street, whose movies have had trouble cracking the Oscar race. A similar situation occurred with Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here, which earned accolades when it premiered at Cannes in 2017, but couldn’t crack the conversation when it was released Stateside. Neither could Josephine Decker’s experimental coming-of-age film Madeline’s Madeline. Tamara Jenkins’s Private Life looked for a time like could break out at the Golden Globes, where the HFPA reportedly loved it, but that came to nothing. These four films earned a combined 12 Independent Spirit Award nominations, but voters in most of the other precursors largely ignored them, and Oscar followed suit.
Ultimately, it’s one of those situations where you can zoom in and find a good reason why each individual film wasn’t nominated, but from a wide-angle view the trend is still troubling. Can You Ever Forgive Me? replaced its original director, but so did Bohemian Rhapsody. Mary Queen of Scots got bad reviews, but again, so did BoRhap. Private Life was a Netflix film, but so was Roma. Destroyer didn’t get much love outside its central performance, but neither did Vice. Granik, Ramsay, and Jenkins all took a lot of time between their last film, but the same issue hasn’t hurt Alfonso Cuarón, whose Gravity was released back in 2013. And besides, that’s more a symptom of their lack of attention than a cause.
The real issue with this year’s field of female filmmakers is less anything to do with the individual films, and more that, as AwardsDaily’s Sasha Stone memorably put it, “No one can agree on one and there can only be one.” Female representation right now is at a point where a woman can get nominated for Best Director, but only if she’s a clear standout whose work is head and shoulders above that of her male peers. If there are a bunch of women who are just kind of in the mix, like this year, it’s easy for voters to claim that none of them were quite good enough. Though there were bright spots elsewhere on the ballot — Black Panther’s team of black women scored well in the craft categories, and the female directors of RBG and Free Solo are front-runners in Documentary Feature — but in general, this year was on par with the past two when it came to recognizing women: The Women’s Media Center reports that 25 percent of the behind-the-scenes nominees were female. The fact that that is good news — it used to be a lot less — is a sign of how far the Academy still has to go.