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Kathryn Bigelow: Poised To Make History

 

With the announcement of Oscar nominations this morning and a definitive win at last weekend's Directors Guild of America Awards, helmer Kathryn Bigelow is poised to make history as the first women director to win a Best Director Oscar for her work on the intense Iraq War drama THE HURT LOCKER.

Bigelow is only the fourth woman director ever to be nominated in the 85 year history of the awards (her predecessors included Italian director Lina Wertmuller for SEVEN BEAUTIES, American indie darling Sofia Coppolla for LOST IN TRANSLATION and Australian director Jane Campion for THE PIANO). A win come March 7th would further open the door to women directors in Hollywood, although several (including Nora Ephron and Nancy Meyers) are already industry heavyweights.

Bigelow was born in San Carlos, California, the only child of a paint factory manager and a librarian. She broke into cinema via the art world, starting her creative life as a painter as a fellow at the Whitney Museum in New York. She entered the graduate film program at Columbia University, where she studied theory and criticism, eventually teaching at the  California Institute of the Arts. She finished her first short film, THE SET-UP in 1978. The 20-minute film portrays "two men (including actor Gary Busey) fighting each other as the semioticians Sylvère Lotringer and Marshall Blonsky deconstruct the violent images in voice-over. Even from her first effort, she strayed into territory usually reserved for men, turning on its head the idea of what a woman could bring to a film. Her first full-length feature was THE LOVELESS (1982), a biker movie which she co-directed with Monty Montgomery. Next she directed NEAR DARK (1987), which she co-scripted with Eric Red, who also co-wrote her 1990 breakthrough film BLUE STEEL. That film starred Jamie Lee Curtis as a rookie police officer who is stalked by a psychopathic killer, played by Ron Silver. 

 

Bigelow followed up that success with POINT BREAK, a 1991 political thriller which starred Keanu Reeves as an FBI agent who poses as a surfer to catch the "Ex-Presidents", a team of surfing armed robbers led by Patrick Swayze who wear Reagan, Nixon, LBJ and Jimmy Carter masks when they hold up banks. The critical and commercial success of that film gave her the biggest shooting budget of her career to date, the 1995 futuristic drama STRANGE DAYS starring Ralph Fiennes. The film was written and produced by her ex-husband James Cameron (the director of AVATAR and her competitor for Best Director honors this year).

 

She had a change of pace in 2000 with her most proto-feminist film yet, the drama WEIGHT OF WATER. The film, based on Anita Shreve's novel of the same name, is a portrait of two women trapped in suffocating relationships. The film’s serious tone and its lack of “action” made it a box office disappointment. Her follow-up project, K-19: THE WIDOWMAKER (2002), an action thriller  starring Harrison Ford about a group of men aboard the Soviet Union's first nuclear powered submarine, was also a financial and critical disappointment. It would be seven long years before Bigelow was given the chance to return to the director’s chair.

 

She has made a roaring comeback with THE HURT LOCKER, the story of a bomb detonation squad operating on the streets of Iraq. The film, which was first shown at the Venice Film Festival in September 2008 and released in the US in June 2009, has received near universal acclaim and is considered one of the frontrunners for the Best Picture Oscar. Featuring a bravura performance by lead Jeremy Renner (himself a first time Best Actor nominee) as a self-destructive technician who is addicted to the danger of his work, the film also sports fantastic supporting performances by Brian Geraghty and Anthony Mackie, and cameos by Guy Pearce, David Morse and Ralph Fiennes.

 

A win by Kathryn Bigelow will not only succeed in breaking through the glass ceiling of Hollywood recognition but will forever change the view of film executives about the kinds of film genres that women can exceed at. It will be a victory not only for aspiring women directors but for film audiences as a whole.

 

Sandy Mandelberger, Awards Watch Editor

 

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