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Scott Mendelson

Scott Mendelson

Posted: March 8, 2010 07:25 PM

Does the Narrative Behind Kathryn Bigelow's Big Oscar Win Mar the Event's Power as a Feminist Triumph?

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"Where did we go right?" - Zero Mostel in The Producers

After botching the theatrical release and nearly shooting themselves in the foot in the final lap of the Oscar season, Summit Entertainment still managed to stumble their way into their first Best Picture winner at a relatively early age. Congrats to The Hurt Locker. It wasn't my favorite of the ten and it's a little overrated, but that's not the fault of the filmmakers or the film. This is the second year in a row (after Slumdog Millionaire) that the Best Picture winner was a movie that almost went directly to DVD due to studio disinterest or regime politics. The irony is that had Avatar not become a true phenomenon and The Hurt Locker just been another movie in the running, it probably would not have won (Precious probably would have won out). But because the $11 million little indie-war drama was positioned as the antithesis of the 'biggest movie of all time', it kept the momentum completely on the strength of its fabricated David vs. Goliath narrative. The movie's quality and those who have loved it since the beginning of last year is what got it to the nomination stage, but it was the perceived 'big film vs. little film' and 'girls vs. boys' that propelled it over the top.

"First I would like to thank the Academy for showing it can be about the performance and not the politics." - Mo'Nique upon winning Best Supporting Actress for Precious.

It's the latter part that I find troubling. While it's terrific that the previously-undervalued Bigelow became the first female to win Best Director, it's more than a little depressing that such a big deal must be made of it. As I've always said, progress comes when you don't have to talk about it. The gimmick of having Barbra Streisand present the award was a little cheap, as it would have made it awkward beyond words if anyone other than Bigelow had won. For that reason alone, for purely black-comic value, I was almost hoping that Streisand would be forced to announce Quentin Tarantino as the winner. Of course, I felt the same way about Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg presenting the Best Director award back in 2007 ("And the Oscar goes to... Paul Greengrass?!"). Kudos for Streisand for pointing out that Lee Daniels also would have made history had he won for Precious. On the other hand, how refreshing that a black man was nominated for Best Director and we more or less forgot about the color of his skin during the campaign season? Progress comes when we don't feel the need to mention it.

What bugged me most about the awards season is how so many pundits tried to turn James Cameron into the big male bully and Kathryn Bigelow into some helpless female victim of his male oppression. Cameron has been nothing but gracious during the entire Oscar season, and I believed him when he said over and over again that he was rooting for his friend, colleague, and former spouse (I'm guessing he voted for her). But the pundits wouldn't have that, because the battle of the combative exes was a much juicier story and an easier one to sell. So the story had to be that Cameron was the scorned ex-lover who was scheming behind the scenes to deny his more artistically-inclined ex-wife her moment of glory. So the entertainment media played up Kathryn Bigelow as a woman whose time had come vs. Cameron as the ego-centric madman who was trying to steal her just-deserts with his big, scary, expensive, and (worst of all) popular Hollywood movie. As a result, the media at large basically turned the kick-ass director of Point Break and Strange Days into yet another damsel in distress. Thus, it's hard to argue that she was awarded her Oscar last night based on the merits of her work alone, when so many seemed to be merely 'giving' it to her out of their own sense of history, obligation, and wanting to 'get back' at James Cameron for his imagined crimes. She's not the first person to win an Oscar based as much on politics as the work itself, but it's disappointing that the media circus rendered a worthwhile achievement into something approaching a charity case.

Which is an absolute shame because, if it needs to be said, she was absolutely deserving of winning. Not because she's a woman and not because she's a woman who makes stereotypically 'guy' movies, but because The Hurt Locker was a damn good movie and she was the primary reason it worked as well as it did. And, to be honest, I was rooting for her because I've been a fan for years (I even liked K-19: The Widowmaker) and am thrilled that she'll be working more frequently as a result of her 'historic' win. But saying that she should have won purely because she was a woman is every bit as sexist as saying that she should have lost for the same reason. And, because this also needs to be said, the fact that it took 82 years for the Academy to give the Best Director award to a female filmmaker should be cause for shame and embarrassment, rather than self-lionizing accolades.

 

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