For many decades, the film industry, especially the slice of it recognized by the Academy, has been heavily male-dominated. Of course, Oscars go to a leading and a supporting actress every year, but only a small percentage of creative positions in Oscar-nominated films have been held by women.
In the course of almost 30 years, only 10 films with female directors have been nominated for Best Picture, the majority within recent years, while only one in the 92-year history of the Academy has won the award. These productions prove that women are just as capable of creative storytelling and are just as deserving of recognition for their work on the big screen.
10 Nominee: The Piano – Jane Campion (1993)
Jane Campion wrote and directed this period piece set in the 1800s. The story revolves around Ada, a Scottish pianist whose family marries her to a man in remote New Zealand. Campion incorporated a deliberate level of discomfort surrounding the depiction of sexual harassment and violence against women, examining a lack of female autonomy in the modern-day reflected in a 19th-century character.
Both Holly Hunter and Anna Paquin, who plays Ada’s daughter, won Oscars for their roles while Campion was nominated for Best Director and won for her original screenplay. The Piano was the only Best Picture nominee to be directed by a woman during an 11-year period between 1993 and 2003.
9 Nominee: Lost in Translation – Sofia Coppola (2003)
After her directorial debut with The Virgin Suicides in 1999, Lost in Translation became the first of the youngest Coppola’s films to garner recognition by the Academy. The slow but provocative film centers on two Americans staying at a hotel in Tokyo, played by Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson. One is at the apparent end of a career while one is just beginning, but they bond over their cultural disconnection and feelings of isolation.
Murray was nominated for his leading role opposite Johansson, and Coppola earned herself nominations for Directing and Best Picture and won the award for Original Screenplay.
8 Winner: The Hurt Locker – Kathryn Bigelow (2009)
To this day, The Hurt Locker is the only Best Picture winner to have been directed by a woman. Kathryn Bigelow also won Best Director for her work in this film, the only woman to win the award in Oscars history.
Taking place during the Iraq War, the film follows a bomb technician in the U.S. Army, portrayed by Jeremy Renner, and his company’s rotation in Baghdad. The film has all the elements of a traditional war movie, but Bigelow brought a unique ability to create tension in all the right moments of each scene that won critics over.
7 Nominee: An Education – Lone Scherfig (2009)
An Education follows the love affair between Jenny, a well-read but inexperienced London schoolgirl, and David, an older man who offers to show her the world. The adventure causes Jenny to question, as any young woman would, the importance of staying in school and attending Oxford as she had planned.
In addition to the film’s Best Picture nomination, Carey Mulligan was nominated for her leading role while Nick Hornby was nominated for his adapted screenplay, which was based on a memoir by Lynn Barber. Director Lone Scherfig gained critical praise for her subtle but deliberate pacing and tone.
6 Nominee: Winter’s Bone – Debra Granik (2010)
Debra Granik both directed and co-wrote Winter’s Bone with Anne Rosellini. The film features Jennifer Lawrence in her breakout role, for which the actress was nominated for an Oscar. Granik and Rosellini were both nominated for their adapted screenplay.
The film finds Lawrence starring as Ree, a seventeen-year-old girl in the rural Midwest, and her fight to keep her family in their home. In a hauntingly heroic story, she navigates the treacherous politics of her extended family to find her father, who signed over their house as bail before disappearing.
5 Nominee: The Kids Are All Right – Lisa Cholodenko (2010)
Lisa Cholodenko directed as well as co-wrote the script for The Kids Are All Right, which sees a family upturned when their two teenage children make contact with their biological father. The film is considered groundbreaking in its depiction of a same-sex couple as part of a mainstream film, specifically those directed by women. Under Cholodenko’s direction, the film depicts some of the struggles that take place in a marriage and examines the institution with a sense of comedic realism.
In addition to Best Picture, Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg were nominated for their original screenplay while Annette Bening and Mark Ruffalo each received a nomination for their roles.
4 Nominee: Zero Dark Thirty – Kathryn Bigelow (2012)
Following the road from 9/11 to the death of Osama bin Laden in May 2011, Zero Dark Thirty centers on Maya, a determined CIA operative who spends her entire career hunting Bin Laden. While Maya is a fictional character, she represents the women who weren’t recognized but whose work was invaluable to the war on terror.
With her second Best Picture nominee, Bigelow brought her incredible sense of pacing and tension but added drama and character development (and more explosions). The film received a total of five nominations, including Original Screenplay for writer Mark Boal and Best Actress for Jessica Chastain.
3 Nominee: Selma – Ava DuVernay (2014)
In addition to being the only woman to direct an Oscar nominee honored at the 2015 ceremony, Ava DuVernay was also the only director of color whose film was nominated that year. Selma examines the trials faced by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the road to leading the historic Selma to Montgomery march for voting rights.
Considered the first major MLK movie, the film paints a striking picture of the hardships Black people overcame in order to exercise their rights as American citizens. DuVernay brought her signature unabashed storytelling to the production and was particularly praised for her presentation of the civil rights leader as a dynamic and remarkably human character.
2 Nominee: Lady Bird – Greta Gerwig (2017)
After co-writing and starring in several films, like Frances Ha and Mistress America, Greta Gerwig made her solo directorial debut with Lady Bird. The film touches on the idea of home and how experience molds our view of it and finds the mother-daughter relationship, with both its ups and downs, at the heart of it all.
Offering a female perspective to the often male-dominated coming-of-age genre, Gerwig received critical acclaim for her semi-autobiographical early 2000s period piece. Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf were both nominated for their roles while Gerwig picked up Directing and Original Screenplay nods.
1 Nominee: Little Women – Greta Gerwig (2019)
Greta Gerwig’s second Best Picture nominee garnered another Lead Actress nomination for Saoirse Ronan, Supporting Actress for Florence Pugh, and Best Adapted Screenplay for Gerwig. The film won the Costume Design award, but several critics deemed the Academy’s failure to recognize Gerwig’s direction a travesty.
Little Women offers a modern take on the timeless Louisa May Alcott novel and stars an ensemble cast. Gerwig’s script took on a nonlinear timeline and gave the 1860s-set story a contemporary tone. Even more amazing is that Gerwig was pregnant through almost the entire production process and kept it private during filming.
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