What the director's Oscar means for female directors in Hollywood

By Nicole Sperling
Updated March 12, 2010 at 05:00 AM EST

If she heard tinkling glass from the ceiling she’d just shattered, Kathryn Bigelow never acknowledged it. Standing on the stage of the Kodak Theatre Sunday night as the first woman ever to win an Oscar for directing, Bigelow, 58, thanked her screenwriter, her producers, and her agent, but she raised no girl-power rallying cry, made no feminist fist bump. The sole reference to her gender came near the end of her acceptance speech, when she dedicated her award for The Hurt Locker to the ”women and men” serving in overseas wars. She put women first.

In the 82-year history of the Academy Awards, only three women?Lina Wertmüller (Seven Beauties), Jane Campion (The Piano), and Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation) — had been nominated for directing prior to Bigelow. During those last eight decades, women have reached the peak of virtually every other profession in Hollywood. Yet women constitute only 13 percent of the Directors Guild of America. That total includes TV and commercial directors; film directors are an even smaller minority. ”We’re a little bit of an outcast group, because there’s just not as many of us,” says Karyn Kusama (Girlfight), who says she felt liberated by Bigelow’s win. ”It’s a really big moment for women directors. There’s a sense sometimes of never getting to the inner circle, and I feel like Kathryn just made the circle a lot bigger. I feel like now we can all take a deep breath and exhale and feel like, ‘Okay, we might all stand a chance.”’

Bigelow has never copped to whether being a woman made her career more difficult. ”I think it’s just hard for men or women to get a movie made,” she told EW last year. ”Especially a movie that isn’t bottom-line-driven.” Over her nearly 30-year career, Bigelow has channeled her energy and intellect not into romantic dramas but into kinetic and often hypermasculine films such as Point Break, Strange Days, and, of course, last year’s war-zone drama The Hurt Locker. ”Kathryn’s never really played by Hollywood’s rules,” James Cameron told EW in December. Bigelow and Cameron were divorced 19 years ago, but the Avatar director has been a great supporter. ”She’s smart about casting. She’s smart about script. She’s highly prepared. But her strongest suit was just to be uncompromising.” Bigelow has always maintained that her gender should not be an issue. Backstage on Oscar night, with statuettes for Director and Picture, she said, ”I’d love to just think of myself as a filmmaker. I long for the day when a modifier can be a moot point.”

That echoed a comment that Barbra Streisand, who presented Bigelow with her trophy, made on stage 17 years earlier. In 1993, before presenting the award for Best Director, Streisand began with a challenge. ”Tonight the Academy honors women and the movies,” she said. ”But I look forward to the time when tributes like this will no longer be necessary, because women…will be honored without regard to gender but simply for the excellence of their work.” Now, perhaps, they will be.