Oscar: Women Directors

seven beauties

For decades, women’s achievements in the various branches of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) were not much better or more prevalent than those of African American artists–or other ethnic minorities. 


Furthermore, in the women’s case, contrary to popular notion, there was actually a backlash against them, compared to their more visible status in Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s, at the height of the studio system.


To begin with, in its entire history, the Academy has had only three female presidents: Bette Davis in the 1940s , Fay Kanin, and Cheryl Isaac Boone. 


It may have been a Freudian slip, but it’s indicative that when the Oscar announcer, Hank Sims, introduced Fay to the TV viewers, he mistakenly referred to her as Mr. Fay Kanin.


In 89 years, only three women have been nominated for the Best Director Oscar, and only one, Katryn Bigelow, actually won, for The Hurt Locker.  


Sofia Coppola

In 2003, Sofia Coppola was singled out as writer and director for “Lost in Translation,” which was nominated for Best Picture. She lost the directing Oscar to Peter Jackson (“Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King”) but at least won the Original Screenplay Oscar.


Ironically, the first two female nominees were foreigner, nominated for foreign made films. Italian filmmaker Lina Wertmuller was the first to receive the directing nod for her controversial and popular WWII saga, “Seven Beauties,” in 1976.


Seven Beauties

The film’s title “Seven Beauties” (“Pasqualino Settebellezze”) refers to the protagonist’s nickname (“Settebellezze”) for having seven ugly sisters. Written and directed by Wertmuller, the film stars Giancarlo Giannini in an Oscar nominated role as Pasqualino, a soldier who deserts the Italian Army. 

After being captured, he is sent to a concentration camp where Pasqualino tries to seduce the obese female commandant (Shirley Stoler) in an effort to save his life. Pasqualino is then put in charge of the barracks and has to select six men to be killed; under pressure, he shoots his best friend.


Earlier, Pasqualino kills the pimp who had turned his sister into a prostitute to save the family honor. Pasqualino later prostitutes himself and upon his return to Naples finds that his seven sisters have survived and become prostitutes.

Shirley Stoler’s character was inspired by Ilse Koch, known as the “the Bitch of Buchenwald,” the wife of camp’s commandant Karl Otto Koch, who took sadistic pleasure in torturing inmates.

Giancarlo Giannini had starred in three other Wertmuller films: “Love and Anarchy,” “The Seduction of Mimi,” and “Swept Away.” He also made several English-speaking pictures in Hollywood and in Europe; most recently, he was seen in the Bond feature Casiono Royale,” opposite Daniel Craig.


The film was controversial at the time for its graphic, grotesque depiction of concentration camp scenes, as well as some surreal imagery that invited comparisons to Fellini. 

“Seven Beauties” was also nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film and Best Original Screenplay.


Rocky, Rocky

 In 1976, the Best Actor Oscar went to Peter Finch for “Network,” which also won Original Screenplay for Paddy Chayefsky. John G. Avildsen won the Directing Oscar for “Rocky,” which won Best Picture. The Foreign-Language Film winner was “Black and White in Color.”


Discriminating Against Women

Several women-directed films were nominated for Best Picture, but their helmers were not.

“Children of a Lesser God” was nominated in 1986, but not its director, Randa Haines.

“Awakenings” was a 1990 Best Picture nominee, but its helmer Penny Marshall was totally ignored.

 Streisand Scandal

Barbra Streisand, the driving force behind “The Prince of Tides, which grossed over $70 million, was also denied a 1991 Best Director nomination. The omission of Streisand was interpreted as a slight against women directors in general.

Producer Lynda Obst (“The Fisher King”), explained: “When you’re celebrating a woman behind the camera, that’s a woman in power, and people are still uncomfortable with that.” “Streisand’s snub by the Academy may be less sexism than Barbarism,” wrote Newsweek: “Many in Hollywood consider her self-absorbed, difficult and controlling.”

Streisand did receive a nomination from the Directors Guild, which usually portends Oscar nomination. But in 1991, John Singleton, the 23-year old black director of “Boyz N’ the Hood”‘s fame, took Streisand’s slot. To some, this act suggested the industry’s political correctness at the moment, as though saying: blacks, yes, women, no.

Streisand, however, refused to let the Academy rain on her parade. She told the Los Angeles Times: “I can’t honestly say that I was wronged in any way, since there are a lot of good movies in contention.” At the same time, she allowed that sexism is still a problem: “It’s as if a man were allowed to have passion and commitment to his work, but a woman is allowed that feeling for a man, but not her work.”