The Oscar race is well underway, and the winners are hard to pick because of the spread of nominations and the surprising omissions, as well as the results from other events. At the Golden Globes as well as the Producers Guild of America awards, Argo picked up Best Picture, while Ben Affleck was awarded Best Director by the Directors Guild of America. Normally this would be a strong indicator of a Best Picture gong at the Oscars, and if so, it would be the first time since Driving Miss Daisy in 1989 that a film wins Best Picture without being nominated for Achievement in Directing.
I confess a slight affront at being 60% wrong in my predictions in this category, and it’s an interesting set of nominees. I predicted that the nominees for Achievement in Directing would be Ben Affleck for Argo, Kathryn Bigelow for Zero Dark Thirty, Tom Hooper for Les Miserables, Ang Lee for Life of Pi, Steven Spielberg for Lincoln. Of these five, only Spielberg and Lee have been nominated. The omission of Affleck is very surprising, particularly after him being honoured at the Golden Globes, the PGA and the DGA. I confess to having no idea why he was overlooked. Another surprising omission is Quentin Tarantino, as, like Argo, Django Unchained is nominated for Best Picture as well as well Best Screenplay, Original for Django Unchained, Adapted for Argo. After all the honours heaped upon Amour, Michael Haneke’s nomination for Directing is less surprising, but the presence of Benh Zeitlin and David O’Russell is remarkable, and perhaps indicative of how impressed the Academy voters were by, respectively, Beasts of the Southern Wild and Silver Linings Playbook (or, to be more cynical, how impressed voters were by the awards campaigns of the films’ distributors, Fox Searchlight and the Weinstein Company, respectively).
Perhaps Kathryn Bigelow and Tom Hooper have been left out because, had they been nominated, it would have been for the first film each of them made after winning the Oscar, for The Hurt Locker and The King’s Speech, respectively. Maybe this counted against them, as Academy voters were unwilling to nominate either for consecutive films. The King’s Speech may still be fresh in the memory, too fresh for voters who wanted someone new. Having seen Les Misérables though, I did not find it that well directed, as the different elements of the story were connected rather limply, with insufficient directorial thrust to unite the narrative and thematic strands.
In the case of Bigelow, however, she may well have also been left out due to the controversy surrounding Zero Dark Thirty. Suggestions have been made that the film affirms the use of torture as a legitimate method in the War on Terror. This has not stopped the film being nominated for Best Picture, Original Screenplay and Actress in a Leading Role, so if Bigelow has been snubbed for a nod, that seems rather unfair. I don’t like to reduce this topic to gender, but perhaps Academy members did not want the same woman to be up for the award again. There may be other female directors worthy of Oscar attention, but they are not in evidence.
Interestingly though, Bigelow’s snub supports an auteurist understanding of film. If Zero Dark Thirty does valorise torture, then Bigelow is being credited as responsible for this meaning, rather than screenwriter Mark Boal who, along with Megan Ellison, shares producing credit with Bigelow. Using the director as a reading strategy works both ways – if the film is good, or worthy of approval, the director gets the credit. If it is bad, or morally questionable, then the director gets the blame. Regardless of Mark Boal and Megan Ellison’s involvement, Bigelow has been left out of the category where her particular talent or skill could be rewarded. Boal put the torture scenes in the script, but is Bigelow more responsible for these scenes because she shot them and (one assumes) decided not to edit them out of the finished film? There is no way of knowing exactly why Academy members voted the way they do (waterboarding would hardly be appropriate), but it is tempting to imagine that they might have been put off honouring Bigelow specifically because to do so might appear to be an endorsement of the controversial stance she is being credited as having.
The writer Naomi Wolf has compared Bigelow to Leni Riefensthal, whose most significant contribution to cinema was the Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will (1935). I find it significant that both Riefensthal and Bigelow are both women, and for them to present such topics as Aryan supremacy and torture can be read (from a particular perspective) as aberrant and perverse. 24 is criticised for its depiction of torture, but creator Joel Surnow has been called a neoconservative rather than a Nazi. While D. W. Griffith can be described as outrageously racist because of the politics in Birth of a Nation (1915), criticism of him can be tempered by the context in which he was raised and indeed in which he made his films. Perhaps Bigelow does not have Griffith’s excuse – she is an independent filmmaker in the 21st century, she should know better, because we do. Don’t we? Also she’s a woman, so for her to present torture as anything other than hideous and completely unacceptable is very very wrong. Isn’t it?
Other films have turned an explicitly critical eye upon the use of torture in the War on Terror, such as Rendition (Gavin Hood, 2007) which presents torture and indeed the detention of terror suspects as pointless because of the lack of evidence for the initial suspicion. One purpose of film, and indeed all art/entertainment (they are ultimately, the same thing), is to pose questions for debate, but the manner in which these questions are posed can be as controversial as the questions themselves. If not presented as outright condemnation, is it approval? If Bigelow (combined with Boal and Ellison, the various performers, cinematographer, editor, etc) presents torture as part of the CIA hunt for Osama Bin Laden, within the context of other investigative methods, is that necessarily approval?
I wrote last year on the expectations that are generated by marketing and hype. Awards season brings out other responses and expectations – after all, Best Picture nominees we might expect to be great, and they frequently are not. Serious accusations during awards season are nothing new, and I imagine Kathryn Bigelow was prepared for a backlash against her film. I am yet to see Zero Dark Thirty, but I already have multiple ideas about the film, what it might mean and what to look for in it. Wolf’s argument that Bigelow will be remembered as “torture’s handmaiden” seems over the top, but perhaps she has a point. Check back for my response to the film.