At a luncheon Monday at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Los Angeles, 163 of 2017's 172 Academy Award nominees gathered for the annual "class photo," six rows of people arrayed in a semicircle around an oversized gold Oscar. What is the main thing you see in the photo? Suits. Mostly grey or blue. Men's. Once again, the question arises: Where are the women?
Every year, we're guaranteed 10 women nominees, the contenders for best supporting and lead actress. The same goes for male actors, so in terms of parity, that's a wash. But there are also 197 non-acting nominees this year. How many of them are women? A mere 38, or about 19.3 per cent.
No women were nominated for best director. No women for best cinematographer, either, though that's nothing new – no woman has ever been nominated in that category. One woman was nominated for screenwriting, Allison Schroeder for Hidden Figures – and that's in a category that nominates at least 10 people (five for original screenplay, five for adapted), and often more, if there are co-writers.
The Hollywood Reporter noted some progress: Nine out of the 30 producer nominees are women, including Adele Romanski and Dede Gardner (Moonlight), Donna Gigliotti and Jenno Topping (Hidden Figures), Kimberly Steward and Lauren Beck (Manchester by the Sea), Carla Hacken and Julie Yorn (Hell or High Water) and Angie Fielder (Lion). That's a record, but with a caveat: For most of the Academy's history, there were only five best picture nominees. This year there are nine, upping everyone's odds. The Hollywood Reporter even suggested it might be time for a new hashtag campaign: #OscarsSoMale.
The sole category that does have parity – outside the standard "women's categories," makeup and costume design – is a telling one: Documentary short. You don't need hefty studio backing to make a doc short; you don't need someone to believe in you enough to hire you and give you a budget. All you need is a camera, a credit card and a story. It's a so-called "smaller" category. Woman-sized.
Why do the numbers of nominees for an awards show matter? Because what we choose to honour doesn't only tell us who excelled; it tells us who we are. If women aren't integral to our storytelling, it skews the perspective of which stories are "worth" hearing, and how they're told.
At this point, you're likely smacking your head, thinking you've heard all this before. Listen, I would give anything not to be still writing it. But the statistics keep forcing me to, like some film-columnist Ancient Mariner with a dead Oscar hanging around my neck.
According to San Diego State University's Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, which compiles the figures annually, women directed 7 per cent of the top 250 box-office films of 2016, a 2-per-cent decline from 2015. Of those same films, women performed 17 per cent of the non-acting jobs – again, down two points from 2015.
Another study, this one from the University of Southern California, analyzed the gender of the directors of the 1,000 top-grossing films of the past 10 years and found something startling: 80 per cent of the female directors made only one movie in that span. (By contrast, 54.8 per cent of the men directed just once in the same time frame.) It didn't matter how well or poorly their films performed. What mattered, it seems, was that someone in power had given a woman director a shot – one shot – and then brushed off their hands, satisfied that was done, and went back to hiring men.
You think I'm exaggerating? The study also found that over the past 10 years, the share of films directed by women has experienced no significant statistical shift. The gap is so institutionalized, nothing seems to close it. And it moves on down through every department, because women directors are more likely to hire women crew. Without work, women can't get experience; without experience, they can't get work. And so it goes.
I've seen a lot of movies, and I believe there are certain things we see only if a woman puts them there. Details, such as how a woman who lives alone would know how to zip up a tight dress by using a fork, as writer/director Maren Ade shows us in Toni Erdmann. Textural things, such as the light shining through the tiny hairs on Dakota Johnson's thighs, which director Sam Taylor-Johnson included in Fifty Shades of Grey, adding an intimacy we don't often see in sex scenes.
Significant things: The director of the miniseries The Night Manager, Susanne Bier, not only made the lead investigator a woman (in John le Carre's source novel, it was a man), she cast a very pregnant Olivia Colman, which deepened the life-force/death-force dichotomy in the show immeasurably. And entire plots: It's unlikely that a man would have written and directed Maggie's Plan, about a woman who wants to give her new husband back to his ex-wife. (Although if a man had written a script as tight and funny as Rebecca Miller did, I bet he would have received an Oscar nod for it.)
As Jill Soloway, the creator of the TV series Transparent, said in a video that aired this past Tuesday at the Maker Conference in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif. (its theme is #BeBold), "The show is this incredible opportunity for me to think about things that matter to me as an artist, like gender, politics, feminism, Judaism, God, love, shame." That's her list, her perspective.
We're only getting to see it, Soloway continues, because despite her many successes writing for Six Feet Under, no one would hire her to make her own show. Instead, networks and producers gave her these notes: "Could you make your hero a rootable male?" and "I find her dialogue castrating." Eventually, Soloway took a loan from her agent, made the film Afternoon Delight (starring two women) and won a directing award at the Sundance Film Festival. Only then did Amazon give her show a shot. Now, she's the third woman ever to win an Emmy for directing a comedy series.
The simple fact is, work gets you work. Chances beget chances. In 2012, Colin Trevorrow made a small film called Safety Not Guaranteed. It grossed just over $4-million (U.S.). But then Steven Spielberg caught it, and – his words – saw himself in Trevorrow. He hired him to direct a very large film, Jurassic World. It grossed more than $650-million.
You know what else came out in 2012? Zero Dark Thirty, directed by Kathryn Bigelow. It grossed more than $95-million. Bigelow is the only woman to have ever won a best director Oscar, for 2008's The Hurt Locker. But if Spielberg saw himself in her, he hasn't said so. And she's not directing Star Wars: Episode IX, either. Colin Trevorrow is.