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The Long, Strange Trip for Women Who Have Competed for the Best Director Oscar

Jane Campion directing "The Power of the Dog"

The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences has for the first time tapped three funny ladies—Amy Schumer, Wanda Sykes, and Regina Hall—to co-host the Oscar ceremony on March 27. As Schumer sheepishly said when the news was announced on TV, “I better watch some movies.” She could watch some of the best of 2021, directed by women, some of them former stars themselves. That crop includes Rebecca Hall, whose “Passing,” set in the Roaring Twenties, tells the story of light-skin Black women who try delicately to pass as white.

At the same time, Maggie Gyllenhaal stepped behind the camera for the first time with “The Lost Daughter,” which stars Olivia Colman (up for Best Actress) and Jessie Buckley (up for Best Supporting Actress) playing the same characters at different ages on the screen; the film won several prizes at the Independent Spirit Awards last weekend. And while she may not be an actress, it's also refreshing to see Sian Heder’s “CODA” up for Best Picture. The film focuses on a family with three Deaf members who earn their keep catching fish, relying on their hearing teenage daughter, who interprets for her mom, dad, and brother. But when she decides to pursue a singing career, they are taken aback. 

All of this makes it time for a history lesson about who paved the way for directors like Hall, Gyllenhaal, and Heder.

Way back in 1977, the Oscars finally recognized the first-ever female director to earn a spot among the five competitors when Italian art house filmmaker Lina Wertmüller—known, in part, for her flashy, white-rimmed glasses—broke the Academy’s glass ceiling with her genre-bending World War II film “Seven Beauties.” She would finally claim an actual statuette in 2019, when she was bestowed with an honorary Academy Award for her career. It arrived in the nick of time, since Wertmüller died in December of 2021 at the ripe old age of 93. 

Her nomination was one small step for cinematic womankind that had and still is a slow-growing movement. The second female helmer to find a spot on the ballot was New Zealand director Jane Campion for 1993’s “The Piano.” She would be followed a decade later by Sofia Coppola for 2003’s “Lost in Translation.” Kathryn Bigelow took a bigger leap, however, when her 2009 Iraq War drama “The Hurt Locker” made her the first woman ever to actually win the prize. The icing on the cake? She beat out her ex-husband James Cameron, who also was her main competitor for his visual sci-fi extravaganza “Avatar.” 

Kathryn Bigelow on set of "The Hurt Locker"

In 2017, Greta Gerwig would become the fifth woman to be nominated after making her solo debut as a director with the coming-of-age comedy "Lady Bird." However, 2021 was a banner year for the ladies, as Chinese-born director Chloé Zhao (“Nomadland”) became the first woman of color to break into the directing category. She was also the first woman to collect four Oscar wins in a single year—Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay. And, for the first time, a second woman made the cut as well in the same year—British actress Emerald Fennell, who was up for her directing debut “Promising Young Woman.” It was a sign of progress for women in directing.  

As for 94th Oscar ceremony, Campion is back at age 67 and is the favorite to win trophies for Best Director and Best Picture for “The Power of the Dog,” her Western ode to toxic masculinity under expansive skies. Considering that her film collected the most nods with 12, she's likely to join Bigelow and Zhao as the third female helmer to win. Campion also is the lone woman to receive a second directing Oscar bid to date. It doesn’t hurt that her four main stars—Benedict Cumberbatch, Jesse Plemons, Kirsten Dunst, and Kodi Smit-McPhee—are all nominated as well. 

An early clue to this 2022 semi-breakthrough for women? The fact that female directors earned top festival honors last year—Julia Ducournau took the Palme d’Or at Cannes for her creepy body horror film “Titane,” which featured a female serial killer having sex with a car and then becoming pregnant. Ducournau is the second woman to win that award. The first? None other than Jane Campion for “The Piano.” As for Venice honors, the Golden Lion went to Audrey Diwan’s “Happening,” about a bright French schoolgirl in 1963 who seeks out an illegal abortion that could land her in jail. Here's hoping that this female-forward trend continues apace.

Susan Wloszczyna

Susan Wloszczyna spent much of her nearly thirty years at USA TODAY as a senior entertainment reporter. Now unchained from the grind of daily journalism, she is ready to view the world of movies with fresh eyes.

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