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The Nomadland helmer is only the second female filmmaker to take the prize in 78 years.

By Joey Nolfi
February 28, 2021 at 10:59 PM EST
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Chloé Zhao has made another major pit stop on her historic journey through awards season.

The Nomadland and Eternals director made history at Sunday night's Golden Globes ceremony, where she became the first Asian woman — and only the second woman overall — to win Best Director at the Hollywood Foreign Press Association's annual awards show.

"I especially want to thank the nomads who shared their stories with us," Zhao said while accepting her award, before sharing a quote from Bob Wells, a nomad who portrays a fictionalized version of himself in the film: "'Compassion is a breakdown of all barriers between us, a heart-to-heart bonding. Your pain is my pain. It's mingled and shared between us.' This is why I fell in love with making movies and telling stories, because it gives us a chance to laugh and cry together, and a chance to learn from each other and have more compassion for each other."

Even before her victory, Zhao's nomination was historic in two distinct ways, marking the first time an Asian woman competed in the traditionally male-dominated category as well as the first time the HFPA nominated more than one woman for the prize in a single year. Zhao was joined by Promising Young Woman's Emerald Fennell and One Night in Miami's Regina King among the current set of nominees.

Nomadland, starring Frances McDormand as a woman traveling rural America in her van amid the fallout of her small town's economic demise, generated intense early heat on the precursor scene, winning Venice's Golden Lion and the TIFF People's Choice Award during the fall festival rounds. It has since become a frontrunner in the race for major Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director.

"I always used to make that joke that when you feel a bit lost, you go west," Zhao previously told EW of the film. "That's sort of a historic movement that people do. There's that pioneer spirit of that land, and it's also full of tension in a way. It feels both new and old because it's now predominantly farmland. It's ranching land, and it's too rugged to build and to grow, so there are things that are there, lying around from a hundred years ago."

She continued, "There's something about that piece of landscape in a country that's so young, and the things we talk about are so of today. To escape into the heartland and the American West is a very rejuvenating experience for me every time I go. I just feel like I'm part of something bigger."

Over the last 10 years, five Golden Globe Best Director winners have gone on to win the equivalent Oscar: Alfonso Cuarón (for both Roma and Gravity), Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water), Damien Chazelle (La La Land), and Alejandro G. Iñárritu (The Revenant).

Prior to this year's set of nominees, Selma's Ava DuVernay — who spoke out against the HFPA's lack of Black voting members earlier this week — was the Golden Globes' most recent female Best Director nominee. Before DuVernay, eventual Oscar winner Kathryn Bigelow (2008's The Hurt Locker), Sofia Coppola (2003's Lost in Translation), Jane Campion (1993's The Piano), and Barbra Streisand (1983's Yentl and 1991's The Prince of Tides) were the only other female directors to be nominated by the HFPA, with Streisand the sole winner.

Last year, social media erupted with criticism for the HFPA after the Globe nominations didn't contain a single individual notice for a female director — including Little Women's Greta Gerwig — despite no titles directed by women racking up significant, widespread precursor attention from the industry on last year's awards circuit.

When it comes to the Oscars, Bigelow remains the only female Best Director winner in Academy history. Gerwig also missed out on a nod at last year's Oscars, though she scored recognition for directing Lady Bird in 2017. Coppola, Campion, and Lina Wertmüller (Seven Beauties) round out the Oscars' list of female directing nominees since the group's inception.

Nomadland is currently streaming on Hulu.

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