This Sunday, at the 92nd Academy Awards, zero women were nominated for Best Director. This is, depressingly, nothing new, as the Oscars have given said honor to a grand total of five (white) women over the space of close to a decade, only one of whomever actually took home the trophy. This is an aggravating spectacle every year but it was especially egregious for the 2019 season because women directors knocked it out of the park in various high-profile ways with critically and commercially successful films that entirely fit within the smothering constraints of what the Academy dictates to be ‘Oscar-worthy.’ While the ceremony itself tried to deal with its systemic racism and sexism issues by having hosts joke about it or call attention to the problem or make vaguely pro-women statements to polite applause, it was Natalie Portman who caught our eye in particular. She walked the red carpet in a gorgeous dress and matching cloak, the latter of which was embroidered with the names of several overlooked female directors, from Mati Diop to Marielle Heller to Celine Sciamma. It was a beautiful statement, one that highlighted the oft-overlooked political power of fashion and brought a small tear to my oft-watering eyes. It was a small moment but an appreciated one.
NATALIE PORTMAN HAS ‘SCIAMMA’ ALONG WITH ALL THE OTHER WOMEN DIRECTORS WHO WEREN’T NOMINATED ON HER DRESS??!!!???! QUEEN SHIT pic.twitter.com/D2innFwW7v— lauren 🥤 (@sawyerscazzie) February 10, 2020
Of course, we also can’t have nice things, and soon some of the more legitimate criticisms of Portman’s actions were overwhelmed by, frankly, deeply misguided snark that missed the forest for the trees.
The always candid Rose McGowan claimed that this form of activism made her sick and declared her to be a fraud. Others said it was mere showboating and not backed up by any action, drawing attention, quite fairly, to Portman’s own record of working mostly with male directors. Ricky Gervais, of course, offered his unsolicited smarm, while YouTube misogynists have made her their new target (I suppose they’re simply warming up for their inevitable screeds against Jane Foster being the new Thor). The overall mode was one of deep skepticism that talk over action wasn’t and would never be enough. That’s certainly true, but why did Portman get so much flack for what was intended to be a small moment of visual flair?
This Oscar season wasn’t necessarily one with a focus on politics, at least in terms of what happened on stage during acceptance speeches. The most stridently political voice of the past few months was Joaquin Phoenix, who called out the systemic racism of the business and his own white privilege during the Baftas, then made a more wide-reaching, if highly rambling, speech at the Oscars where he gave a more general message on communal kindness and his opposition to animal abuse. He certainly faced criticism and mockery from some for his strange brand of earnestness but he still got way more credit than Portman did. Granted, she did something much more minor in comparison to Phoenix’s season-long victory lap, but I never saw anyone claiming that Phoenix’s activism literally sickened them.
First, let’s take a deeper look at Portman’s record of working with women directors. It’s true that there aren’t many in her filmography, alas, but that doesn’t tell the full story. Portman has advocated for women directors a lot over the past decade and put her name to a lot of projects that, sadly, didn’t work out. She was the one who fought for Patty Jenkins to direct Thor: The Dark World, and when Jenkins stepped back, only to be replaced by a man, Portman’s frustrations were well-documented by the press. This was reportedly one of the reasons she didn’t want to return to Marvel for a third film. Portman also hired Lynne Ramsay for Jane Got a Gun, a production whose disasters became notorious and put Ramsay in director jail for around six years. She was, of course, replaced at the last-minute by a man. She’s spent the best part of two or three years trying to get Broncho Belle, a bull-rider drama with Anna Rose Holmer off the ground, but to no avail. In terms of short films, music videos, and advertising, she’s collaborated with directors like Holmer, Sofia Coppola, and Mira Nair. She even wrote, directed, and starred in her own film, A Tale of Love and Darkness.
Yes, this isn’t a great record in comparison to some actors, but it does speak more honestly as to how difficult the system is for women directors. Doesn’t it speak volumes to the decades of bias and industry ignorance in place that not even Oscar-winning Marvel and Star Wars actress Natalie Portman can get producers on her side for works by women directors? We’ve seen the data on how tough it is for women directors to even get a meeting with producers and studios. Having a big name in your corner can certainly open a lot of doors but it’s no guarantee, even if you’re Natalie Portman. Even she herself noted this in a statement she released to Variety, saying, ‘I have had the experience a few times of helping get female directors hired on projects which they were then forced out of because of the conditions they faced at work. So I want to say, I have tried, and I will keep trying. While I have not yet been successful, I am hopeful that we are stepping into a new day.’
I get why people are sick of milquetoast protests that look good but don’t do much else. Portman is doing the work, however, and frankly, we needed more reminders to the world on Sunday that this sexist crap keeps happening. The thing I loved the most about Portman’s cape was the iconography it created. Female directors are seldom discussed in the way male ones are, and they are consistently denied the auteur label, even when it is appropriately fitting. We don’t refer to women directors by their last names in the way we do for Scorsese, Tarantino, Hitchcock, etc. You can buy pillows with David Lynch’s face on them but it’s only in recent years, thanks to the work of companies like Girls On Tops Tees and tees-en-scène that women and non-binary directors have been given the same level of pop-culture focus. Portman wasn’t just highlighting the absence of women directors in the major Oscar categories this year: She was using her professional and creative clout to turn what is often the most mundane aspect of an actress’s job — the red carpet cycle — as a means to allow women directors a moment to be truly iconic.
Diop. Sciamma. Heller. Scafaria. Gerwig. Wang.Har’el. Matsoukas.
Remember the names and wear it with pride.
Besides, she got people talking about those directors, which is a whole lot more than the Oscars did.
Header Image Source: YouTube // Global News