Geoffrey Macnab: Hollywood remains as male-dominated as ever

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The Independent Culture

In theory, the Best Director Academy Award is gender-neutral. It is therefore astonishing that it has taken more than 80 years for it to be awarded to a woman. Kathryn Bigelow's triumph on Sunday exposed just how male-dominated US film-making remains, especially when it comes to directing.

There have been many female power-brokers in Hollywood. Over the last decade, Sherry Lansing at Paramount, Stacey Snider at Universal and Amy Pascal at Columbia have all been studio bosses. And long before the first Oscar awards in 1929, Mary Pickford, the co-founder of United Artists, produced and starred in her own movies. But she didn't direct.

Scan the list of Best Director nominees since the late 1920s and you'll notice that women directors have hardly ever even been in the running. In 1976, Lina Wertmüller became the first woman ever to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Director for Seven Beauties. Jane Campion and Sofia Coppola emulated the feat for The Piano and Lost In Translation respectively, but they're the only ones apart from Bigelow to have made it on to the shortlist. You could add to that list Dutch film-maker Marleen Gorris, who won her Best Foreign Language Film Oscar for Antonia's Line in 1995. Even so, set against the hundreds of male nominees and winners, a tally of four or five is infinitesimal.

There have been some very talented female directors who surely warranted nominations. Names that spring to mind include Dorothy Arzner for the musical Dance, Girl, Dance in 1940 and actress-turned-director Ida Lupino for films like The Outrage (1950) and The Bigamist (1953). Nonetheless, there are very few female directors at work in Hollywood. A decade ago, Time magazine reported that men directed 90 per cent of the top 250 movies released in 2001. Ten years on, not much appears to have changed.

There are some regions in which women directors seem to thrive. Denmark, for example, has seen the emergence of such film-makers as Lone Scherfig and Susanne Bier, while in war-torn Lebanon, many of the best directors are women.

But the very fact that it's so easy to name-check female directors who've won major awards underlines how few of them there are. Bigelow's well-deserved Oscar is therefore likely to cause just a measure of embarrassment. What it highlights is not just her brilliance, but the innate sexism in the system. One female winner in 82 years isn't exactly a record to crow about.