Oscar: is Kathryn Bigelow's victory a win for women?

Is she an anomaly, or is Hollywood really changing?

Updated - March 10, 2010 12:22 am IST

Published - March 10, 2010 12:19 am IST

Director Kathryn Bigelow accepting the Oscar on Sunday. - Photo: AP

Director Kathryn Bigelow accepting the Oscar on Sunday. - Photo: AP

After every Oscar ceremony, observers traditionally attempt to distil a zeitgeisty trend from the proceedings, and the one available here would appear to be obvious. On Monday, on International Women's Day in fact, we woke up to hear that Kathryn Bigelow had become the first woman to win the best director award in the Oscars' 82-year history.

Women have, of course, been extravagantly admired as prizewinning actors at the Oscars and always been expected to provide the glamorous media faces of the Academy Award ceremony, the red-carpet icons and fashion queens. But never before has a woman actually been distinguished for being at the creative and administrative helm: and it is difficult to tell if there is really any feminist meaning to this, or if Bigelow is a Thatcherite anomaly. Either way, for her to have won so massively with such a male-orientated film in such a male-orientated industry is a significant victory. And the fact that so little fuss is made about it is, arguably, a heartening sign — an indication that the academy will be unself-conscious about picking a woman next year, or the year after that.

The Hurt Locker itself was a classic Oscar landslide: like Slumdog Millionaire last year, the consensus tipping-point was reached that this film was a very good thing, propelled by great reviews and also, perhaps, by its perceived underdog status. Quite suddenly, as if by some mysterious chemical reaction, everything went its way and Avatar, the hugely hyped box-office behemoth, was disappointed.

The Hurt Locker really is a brilliant film about the strain, fear and sheer boredom of war, but also, like many anti-war films, it also provides a lot of the old-fashioned excitement that is generally associated with action films. Jeremy Renner, playing the sociopathic, cigarette-smoking bomb-disposal technician, terminally addicted to the army life, does bear a strong visual resemblance to Marine Lance Corporal James Blake Miller, who became famous in the U.S. after being snapped by news photographers in Falluja in 2004, smoking a cigarette in an unconscious “Marlboro man” pose.

Everything about this film is intensely male; there is a sweaty, sour and defeatedly masculine tang seeping out of every frame. Perhaps, in retrospect, it was not so startling for a woman director to have made it, and to have provided the shrewd perspective on this maleness.

Elsewhere, well, there was not too much to cheer about at the Oscars on the feminist front, or any other. Jane Campion, a brilliant director with her Keats movie Bright Star — the best film of her career — was nowhere to be seen. Jeff Bridges was a popular winner, though the sentimental Country & Western drama Crazy Heart was not his best work, all heart and no crazy. The prize for Sandra Bullock (surely the least deserving winner of the five nominees) seemed to tap into a robustly Palinesque admiration for tough-minded hockey moms everywhere, and any perceived liberal-feminist trend in the Bigelow prize has to be balanced by Bullock's unlikely triumph. Bullock has never been nominated before and has never exactly been an awards contender, but is instead notable chiefly for having garnered a guarded industry respect for being a solid box-office draw outside the U.S. She also won a Razzie this weekend for the unspeakable All About Steve , becoming the first performer to get an Oscar and a Razzie in the same year. Perhaps it won't be long before someone gets the Oscar and the Razzie for the same performance. The best supporting actor awards for Christoph Waltz and Mo'Nique were the right decisions, however.

It was an awful night for Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon and Jacques Audiard's A Prophet , confined to the best foreign film ghetto where they were defeated by the Argentinian thriller The Secret of My Eyes . The Haneke and Audiard films were both widely hailed as modern classics but ignored by an academy that is highly receptive to critical kudos where these opinions appear to be sympathetic to the U.S. military and U.S. concerns, but pretty indifferent otherwise.

This was a clunkingly disconcerting moment at the Oscars: a reminder, if we needed it, that the Academy Awards will always give us a vivid, muddled snapshot of the American mood, but no very compelling or focused view of what's happening elsewhere in the world of cinema. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2010

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