A female director Oscar? Three ways to fix film awards season

From Netflix-only own ceremony to a big Baftas shakeup, here are three bold steps to right the wrongs highlighted by this year’s mistakes

History has been made. For the first time in the 92-year history of the Oscars, best picture has gone to a non-English language film. And Bong Joon-ho’s triumph wasn’t engineered by condescending manipulation of the electorate: in spite of the Academy’s diversity recruitment drive, minorities still make up only 16 % of its voting membership. So, Parasite won on merit fair and square, and in the process cleared academicians of bias – pale, male and stale though they may predominantly be.

However, this awards season was far from unblemished. The Oscars ceremony was awful, the Brits flopped in the Dolby and the Baftas got the wrong answer. Netflix fans cried foul, and of course that female director black hole remains hideously unfilled. Still, there’s nothing that can’t be sorted by a three-point plan. Here’s what to do.

1 A female director award

The triumph of Parasite raises an awkward question. If ethnic minority directors can break through the Oscar ceiling, why can’t women? If the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voters aren’t racist, is misogyny to blame for their treatment of female directors? The likely answer may be unwelcome to some.

Top of the supposedly snubbed female-directed films seems to be Little Women. But does yet another adaptation of a mainstream classic book, assured but sometimes irritating, really render Greta Gerwig more entitled to the director Oscar than Bong, who conceived an entirely original, timely genre-bender and secured excellence in every aspect of its execution?

If ethnic minority directors can break through the Oscar ceiling, why can’t women? ... Bong Joon-ho with his Oscars.
If ethnic minority directors can break through the Oscar ceiling, why can’t women? ... Bong Joon-ho with his Oscars. Photograph: Nick Agro/Ampas

The harsh truth is that at present there are few women directors in the top rank, for the obvious reason that there are far fewer female than male directors. This is changing, but there is a long way to go. It may be that the awards system can help to progress things, but the way to do that isn’t to embroider supposed female victims’ names into a red carpet cape such as Natalie Portman. Nor is it to try and bully academicians into misdirecting their votes.

Female directors deserve to be recognised on merit, as Bong has been, and even if their numbers put them at a disadvantage, this can still be done. Foreign-language films used to be disadvantaged, as subtitles were disliked. The solution chosen was to create a special Oscar category that forced voters to pay them mind. Many members of the Academy may have watched Parasite only because it was nominated for best international feature film. Female directors could be given a similar fast-track.

A best female director Oscar would ensure that every year attention is focused on the women behind the camera. Voters would have to seek out female-directed films, ensuring them attention. The award would acquire enormous kudos. Studios would want to win it, and this would encourage them to employ women. Eventually, the Oscar might help make itself redundant, just as the international feature award may now be destined for the scrapheap.

We already have female-only awards at the Oscars and the Baftas – for acting. Had there been only a unisex category, women might well have suffered. Part of the reason for this is that there have been fewer complex roles available to female actors. The women’s awards have helped highlight this deficiency and repair it. An award for female directors could do the same.

2 Fly the flag

A single-shot gimmick? ... 1917.
A single-shot gimmick? ... 1917. Photograph: François Duhamel/AP

The Baftas weren’t alone in screwing up. The Golden Globes, Hollywood Critics Association, Producers Guild of America and indeed the bookies share our nation’s shame. All the same, jingoism may have played a part in our academy’s choice of a single-shot gimmick piece of hokum over an Asian masterpiece. 1917 featured our own brave boys in action, in our own Shepperton studios, on our own Salisbury Plain, with our own Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch reviving timeless Brit stereotypes under the implacable supervision of our very own Sir Sam Mendes. But why shouldn’t Brits have shown some patriotism on their home turf, in view of the brush-off awaiting them in Hollywood?

It’s time the Baftas stopped trying to be a pallid copy of the Oscars in the hope of enticing a few Tinseltown stars into the Royal Albert Hall. It’s ridiculous that UK cinema goes so little noticed in its homeland while our production industry props up Hollywood. Bafta should back Britain. Instead of making awards candidates tick diversity boxes, it should reclaim some distinctiveness by restricting its awards to British films, with perhaps one category for best foreign film, in which Hollywood’s giants could battle it out with Asia’s.

3 Streamers, get your own gig

Is Hollywood jealous of the new kid on the block? ... Laura Dern wins best supporting actress.
Is Hollywood jealous of the new kid on the block? ... Laura Dern wins best supporting actress. Photograph: Rob Latour/Rex/Shutterstock

These were supposed to have been the Netflix Oscars. The streaming giant secured 24 nominations, more than any other studio. Yet it ended up with just two statuettes: best supporting actress for Laura Dern and best documentary feature for American Factory. Might this reflect vindictiveness on the part of Hollywood’s old guard, jealous of the new kid on the block that seems capable of surpassing it? Such dark suspicions were voiced last year, when Netflix’s masterly Roma was pipped to best picture by the mediocre Green Book.

Netflix couldn’t have tried harder to show respect for its elders. It spent $160m getting Martin Scorsese to bring Al Pacino and Robert De Niro back together in what constituted a tribute to Hollywood’s heyday. However, in terms of sheer excellence, The Irishman wasn’t actually its best shot. Arguably, The Two Popes and Marriage Story were superior productions. Still, both of these, unlike The Irishman, were better suited to the small screen, which is the streamers’ natural home. If Netflix fell foul of an Academy bias towards big screen output, it’s in no position to complain.

Instead of trying to beat their predecessors on their own turf, the streamers should take pride in their primary format. They need to set up an awards show of their own, perhaps with a single category for films made and owned by non-streamers. Such a programme could hardly fail to make better TV than its grisly Dolby counterpart.


David Cox

The GuardianTramp

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