Striking contrasts in the choices of male and female awards contenders – and their potential impact on gender parity in Hollywood – have been uncovered by the Guardian.

The three youngest men likely to be in the race for next year’s best actor Oscar have never worked on a film directed by a woman, while the category’s frontrunner, Joaquin Phoenix, has worked with a female director only once during his 34-film career.

The picture is flipped for the female actors, with the youngest of the possible nominees working with female directors up to 75% of the time.

Meanwhile, Phoenix’s director on Joker, Todd Phillips – one of the youngest up for this year’s best director award – was found to be the only filmmaker likely to win an Oscar nomination who has never made a film with a female lead or co-lead.

The findings arrive as this year’s awards season prepares to begin, with the fight for the best picture Oscar in particular shaping up to be a battle of the sexes.

Proudly post-#MeToo female ensemble films Bombshell (about the sexual harassment of news anchors Megyn Kelly and Gretchen Carlson by Fox boss Roger Ailes) and Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women are expected to vie for the top prize with two male-dominated frontrunners: Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman and Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Saoirse Ronan and Eliza Scanlen in Greta Gerwig’s Little Women.
Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Saoirse Ronan and Eliza Scanlen in Greta Gerwig’s Little Women. Photograph: Columbia Pictures/Allstar

Critical backlash to both films has centred on their lack of exposure for women. – in the case of The Irishman, around the six words spoken in less than 10 minutes on screen by supporting actress Anna Paquin. Tarantino angrily defended his film after some queried the lack of dialogue given to Margot Robbie, particularly in comparison to the airtime afforded to shots of her feet.

Yet Tarantino, 56, performed well in the Guardian’s analysis of directors: 45% of his films feature a female lead or co-lead, compared with 20% for Scorsese. Both directors have made five films featuring women in leading roles, but Scorsese, now 76, has been more prolific and working for longer.

A graphic showing major male film directors who have movies with a female lead

The runaway leader among directors was Pedro Almodóvar, 70. Eighty-two per cent of his films feature a female lead or co-lead, while 50-year-old Noah Baumbach, 55-year-old James Mangold, 50-year-old Bong Joon-ho and 64-year-old Fernando Meirelles all bucked expectations, having respectively made films with female leads or co-leads 55%, 45%, 43% and 33% of the time.

Among the youngest three directors, Lulu Wang has made one film with a female lead or co-lead, as has Jojo Rabbit director Taika Waititi. However, Wang has only made two films while Waititi has completed seven. As mentioned, 48-year-old Todd Phillips’s 10 films feature only male leads.

This counterintuitive demographic trend was mirrored among the actors. One of the oldest – Jonathan Pryce, 72 – has worked with the highest percentage of female directors (14%), while Antonio Banderas, 59, and Eddie Murphy, 58, both scored moderately with 8%.

A graphic depicting major male actors and how many films they have done with a female director

This is the same proportion of mainstream films found to have been directed by women in 2018, according to a report issued by San Diego State University earlier this year.

Robert De Niro, 76, and Leonardo DiCaprio, 45, both scored below that average with 6%. However, their track records still beat those of the youngest actors – Taron Egerton, 30, Michael B Jordan, 32, and Adam Driver, 35, who have never worked with a female director.

Jordan was one of the first actors to commit to an “inclusion rider” – which involves a contractual clause demanding cast and crew diversity – after the concept was championed by Frances McDormand in her 2018 Oscars acceptance speech.

Driver broke through in 2012 with his role in Lena Dunham’s HBO show Girls. He stars in two films opening in the UK this weekend: Scott Z Burns’ The Report and Baumbach’s Marriage Story. The latter has won acclaim for its even-handed portrait of a crumbling marriage, as well as the equal billing afforded to Driver and co-star Scarlett Johansson, from the position of their names on the poster to companion trailers.

The careers of Driver, Jordan and Egerton combine dramas with franchise films, a genre traditionally slower to hire women in key backstage roles. Repeating our analysis with the highest-earning actors of 2019 produces similar findings: both the Forbes highest-grossing male stars – blockbuster staples Dwayne Johnson and Chris Hemsworth – have never made a film directed by a woman.

Joker, an origins story for Batman’s nemesis, is Phoenix’s first venture into superhero movies. His track record – just one film out of 34 made with a woman (Lynne Ramsay’s 2018 drama You Were Never Really Here) – was one of the Guardian’s more surprising findings.

More positive action by actors in committing to female-directed films is crucial for change, says Dr Stacy L Smith, founder of the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative: “Not only will more women have a chance to work behind the camera, and more male actors to work with them, [but] it should have ripple effects for who is working in the crew, the roles female actors can access, the critics pool and how films are evaluated and, ultimately, the accolades and awards women compete to win.”

A graphic depicting major female actors and how many female directors they have worked with

The youngest female actors analysed by the Guardian appear to be doing just this. At 26, Beanie Feldstein has made just one film directed by a man. Her 75% running total would rise to 80% with the inclusion of her next film, How to Build a Girl, Coky Giedroyc’s adaptation of the Caitlin Moran memoir, which premiered in September but is set for release next year.

Similarly, the percentage totals of 23-year-old Florence Pugh (29%) and 34-year-old Johansson (14%) would rise with the inclusion of next year’s Marvel prequel Black Widow, directed by Cate Shortland.

Feldstein’s Booksmart co-star, Kaitlyn Dever, 22, has made eight films directed by men and six by women. The youngest actor analysed, she was also the only one to offer on-record comment.

“In the past,” she said, “I was lucky just to have been chosen to be a part of these female driven projects, and moving forward in my career I will continue to seek out the opportunity to work with studios that support diversity and female expression. I think now, more than ever, we need stories told from the female voice.

The oldest female actor on the list, Meryl Streep, 70, who is an energetic advocate and funder for women in the film industry, has made 11% of her big-screen projects with female directors. Six of these seven films were made in the last 11 years, including her multi-award-winning turn as Margaret Thatcher in Phyllida Lloyd’s The Iron Lady (2011).

Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver in Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story.
Even-handed … Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver in Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story. Photograph: Wilson Webb/Netflix

Martha Lauzen, author of the San Diego State University report, highlights the role female screenwriters also play in tempting women to projects. “People tend to create what they know. Having lived their lives as females, women tend to create female characters. Having lived their lives as males, men tend to create male characters. There are, of course, exceptions but when you consider hundreds and even thousands of cases, patterns emerge.”

For Mia Bays, director-at-large of the Birds’ Eye View campaigning group, the Guardian’s findings should serve as a prompt for both audience and industry members as to which ponies to back. “For us this data is essential,” she said, “in encouraging all those who care about equality to be strategic. Birds’ Eye View and Women and Hollywood will be encouraging everyone to use the #VoteForWomen hashtag on Twitter and social media to encourage strategic voting throughout awards season. We’re hoping it will go viral as #OscarsSoWhite did a few years ago.”

The Guardian studied the 10 male actors and 10 female actors most likely to be nominated for major film awards in 2020, according to the Hollywood Reporter’s Scott Feinberg, and the 10 people most likely to be in the running for best director. The cut-off date for eligibility was the same as that for the Academy Awards: a US release date of no later than 31 December 2019.

The Farewell and Posthumous director Lulu Wang.
The Farewell and Posthumous director Lulu Wang. Photograph: Elias Roman

Acting and director credits for television series, documentaries, music videos and other shorts were not included, but portmanteau movies and animations were.

Editorial discretion was employed in determining what constituted a female lead or co-lead; the work of Baumbach prompted the most debate with Naomi Watts deemed a definite co-lead in While We’re Young, but Greta Gerwig considered a strong supporting role to Ben Stiller’s lead in Greenberg. Other closely contested titles included Martin Scorsese’s Who’s That Knocking at My Door (1967) and Lulu Wang’s Posthumous (2014).

Only five women have received a best director nomination in the Oscars 92-year history. It is possible that Wang, 36, could be joined on the list – or vying for a place – with Gerwig, also 36.Melissa Silverstein, founder of Women and Hollywood, also flags directors such as Marielle Heller (A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood), Alma Har’el (Honey Boy) and Olivia Wilde (Booksmart) as in with a shot.

“Great strides are being made,” she says, with studios now more willing to entrust women with “high-profile ‘prestige’ films”. Wang – whose The Farewell has already taken $20m in the US – and Gerwig seem set to change that. Should Gerwig make the list, she would be the only director with a 100% record: Nights and Weekends (2008), Lady Bird (2017) and Little Women (2019) all feature women in leading roles. Gerwig, who has moved into directing after a successful decade as an actor – she co-directs and co-stars in Nights and Weekends – is next directing a Barbie movie co-scripted with her partner, Noah Baumbach, and starring Margot Robbie.

This year’s awards season kicks off on 9 December with the Golden Globe nominations and concludes with the Oscars on 9 February.

A graphic depicting actors' records on working with female directors
A graphic depicting directors' records on working with female leads and co-leads

• This article was amended on 16 November 2019 because an earlier version gave Quentin Tarantino’s age as 50. This has been corrected to 56.


Katherine Purvis and Catherine Shoard

The GuardianTramp

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