Kathryn Bigelow: Breaking the Hollywood Glass Ceiling
Round Table Discussion By Kenzie Alexander, Jasmin Barnwell, Will Colfelt, Serena Dixon, Kayla Caracci
This is the story of Kathryn Bigelow, who brought women to the podium of the Oscars. Imagine you’re a filmmaker who was once married to James Cameron. Not only are you female in an industry dominated by the success of males, but your ex-husband is a filmmaker too. To be specific, he is the filmmaker who wrote Titanic (1997), which is still bringing in money today because it is being re-released in 3D. Your ex-husband is an established director and is no stranger to the Oscars.
You would expect, like many artists do, to see a reflection of her break-up with Cameron in a movie. Just as lonely singers write songs of heartbreak, filmmakers too, find that they work best when they have a deep or emotional connection to their characters and plot. Bigelow wasn’t influenced by her relationship in such a way; she continued to make her action-packed, very masculine films. She said film was “a great opportunity to comment on the world in which we live” (“James Cameron & Kathryn Bigelow Used To Be Married — Get Over It." ).
Despite the divorce, Bigelow and Cameron continued to help one another. They collaborated on Strange Days (1995), which was written by Cameron and directed by Bigelow four years after their divorce. Bigelow also asked Cameron about his feelings regarding the story of Hurt Locker before she was officially hooked into taking on the project, and he told her to go for it. They both supported each other in their work; the only time they were competitive was when they were both nominated for Best Director.
In the 82nd Academy Awards, the two went head to head for the highest achievement in directing. Before the nomination, Cameron said about Bigelow, "I would love to see The Hurt Locker get nominated and see her get the recognition she has deserved for a long time" (“James Cameron & Kathryn Bigelow Used To Be Married — Get Over It.") However, it still came as a shock when Bigelow took home the Oscar for Best Director, although Cameron was very cordial. The success of her small film The Hurt Locker triumphed over her ex-husband’s large grossing film Avatar at the Oscars. Over the 81 years that the Oscars have been around, only three women have been nominated for Best Director, and Bigelow was the first woman to win. The film also won awards that year for Best Achievement in Film Editing, Best Achievement in Sound Editing, Best Achievement in Sound Mixing, and, finally, Best Picture of the Year, beating James Cameron’s long awaited project by a long-shot. Finally, she truly proved her powerful presence in the filmmaking world.
Bigelow’s best-known films range from Near Dark (1987), a cult horror, to Strange Days, a science fiction, to her well-known film The Hurt Locker, which is a war film. What do these films have in common? They all star a leading male actor. Why does Bigelow always cast a male main character, and what is her reasoning for always having a masculine role displayed in her films?
Bigelow co-wrote and co-directed all her past films such as The Loveless (1982) and Blue Steel (1989) with other male directors such as Monty Montgomery and Eric Red, so perhaps these collaborations contributed to the casting of male leads. In Bigelow’s past, because she was working in a film industry run mostly by males, she did not really have much say in the decision-making when it came to choosing the cast for her past films. It was not until Point Break (1991), which was the sequel to Blue Steel (1990) and starred Keanu Reeves that she finally was in full control of a film. It is significant that Bigelow casted Reeves in the movie, again heading a masculine film instead of a perhaps creating a female role. I assume Bigelow envisioned the film more clearly with a male leading actor who would perhaps fit the description better.
The Hurt Locker (2008) was, of course, an extremely masculine film. It is Bigelow’s latest film and by far the most popular and successful. She won the Academy Award for Best Director, a tremendous achievement on many levels. She is obviously a very talented and determined woman who can hold her own, and one must wonder if, rather than trying to fit in with the masculine nature of popular films in the industry, she is telling stories she feels compelled to tell, and she does so in riveting ways that blow people’s minds. Her proclivity for making masculine films does not indicate her succumbing what the male domination in the industry, but rather that she is a strong woman who can defy conventions for women, surpass expectations, and even surpass her male contemporaries. Jasmin:
As Will was saying, Bigelow has worked with many male actors, ranging from Willem Dafoe in The Loveless to Reeves in Point Break. It is through her use of these actors that she attempts to push the boundaries of social constructs and stigmas, while at the same time encouraging your pulse to pound beyond the realms of normalcy.
She once said, “Whereas painting is a more rarefied art form, with a limited audience, I recognized film as this extraordinary social tool that could reach tremendous numbers of people” (Brainy Quote). What can pull an audience of magnitude? As a director, one learns that certain names draw certain crowds, but you have to be selective in the names you add to your project so that you don’t attract the wrong actors throughout your career. One cannot define Bigelow as a director who is no more than a crowd-pleaser, for, more importantly, she is a profound story teller. Anyone who has seen Bigelow’s films knows that most of them draw attention to a certain challenging topic. The Hurt Locker focuses on the war in Iraq and the dangers that soldiers face in day-to-day combat. The main cast didn’t feature names that everyone would easily recognize. A film that could have featured actors like Will Smith, Gerard Butler, and Leonardo DiCaprio was supported on the backs of lesser-known Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, and Brian Geraghty.
It is because of the stories of certain cast members of The Hurt Locker that cause me to speculate that Bigelow looks specifically for actors for whom she can bring out potential. Most of The Hurt Locker actors expedited their careers and went on to bigger films thanks to the exposure Bigelow allowed them to gain. Anthony Mackie acted in films 8 Mile (2002), Notorious (2009) and She Hate Me (2004), but didn’t officially receive recognition until The Hurt Locker was released. Mackie went on to film The Adjustment Bureau (2011) and his fellow actor Jeremy Renner was cast in The Bourne Legacy (2012). For Bigelow and the actors, it’s a win-win scenario. Even though all directors are capable of doing the same as Bigelow, there is an overwhelming reason why most will not: the risk that comes with using an “uncommon” actor. Will their performance attract an audience? Will they lose money if this actor doesn’t work? Of course there is a whole range of things that tie in with the risk.
That aside, Bigelow is a director who has an element of her life reflecting in her work. She is fearless and not afraid to take a risk on a project and fail. Moving back to The Hurt Locker, there were a few problems encountered, such as the heat of Jordan where they filmed and the American-perceived stereotypes of the Middle East (i.e. risk of being attacked by terrorists, Anti-American sentiment). There were injuries on set among cast and crew. Also, the traditional Hollywood perks were not given to the actors, but that created just the right environment to make The Hurt Locker the film that it is.
On occasion, Bigelow will work with a big name actors like Harrison Ford. This presents the opportunity to make sure that at least her film can be secure in its finances, while giving her the chance to work with the biggest action names and to test their mettle against the high octane action she expects. In addition to working with Keanu Reeves and Willem Dafoe, she has utilized the actors Jamie Lee Curtis, Ron Silver and Liam Neeson.
Unpredictability, tension, emotion: these are three themes commonly found in Bigelow’s films, and the actors she chooses have to support those themes. She testifies that more females ought to tackle the industry in bold ways, saying, “There should be more women directing; I think there's just not the awareness that it's really possible” (Brainy Quote). With her win being a victory for female directors everywhere, there is now a greater chance of women being a bigger force in the industry. She opened the necessary doors and proved that taking risks and fighting through struggles is worth it.
There could be a number of reasons why The Hurt Locker was the most acclaimed film of 2008. It could have received a lot of attention because a female directed it, it could have been because of the power of the story, or it could have been because of how well it was filmed. Or it could be all of the above.
As noted before, there are far too few females in a director's chair in Hollywood, and Kathryn had the talent to make a name for herself and become a successful female director in a male dominant field. The Hurt Locker received a lot of attention because of its well-shot sequences. Kathryn Bigelow had a great vision about how the story should be told and how the film should be shot. She smartly used hand-held cameras, which helped to portray the chaos that comes with being in a war zone. She knows how to capture the tension that comes with being in the middle of a war, and, even more difficultly, how to portray the stress which the characters undergo when they are a part of a bomb disposal unit.
While Bigelow has only begun to receive attention in recent years, there are many turning points in her career. She started out as a painting student, and in 1970 went to art school at San Francisco Art Institute, where she received her Bachelor of Fine Arts in 1972. Then she took a change of direction and went to a graduate film program at Columbia University; there she studied Theory and Criticism and got her Master’s degree. In 1978, Bigelow made her first short film, The Set-Up, which is a deconstruction of violence in film. It features two men fighting in an alley, while two professors discuss the philosophy of why the men are fighting. This shows us that, from the very beginning, Bigelow has been attracted to working with violence and war. She released her first full-length film, The Loveless, in 1982. In 1987, Near Dark, an American vampire/Western horror film co-written and directed by Kathryn Bigelow, was released. Because vampire films were trendy at the time, Bigelow decided to combine genres and give it a western feel. Bigelow originally wanted to make a western film, but had trouble getting funding for it, which lead to her decision to add the vampire element. Despite not doing well at the box office, critics enjoyed the film and it gained a cult following. The next film that Bigelow directed was Blue Steel in 1989. The film featured a policewoman who is tormented to the point of an emotional breakdown by a psychopath while she tries to solve his murders. As with her other films, Blue Steel features violence throughout the film, culminating in a final shootout between the policewoman and the psychopath.
Moving on to the next decade, Bigelow directed Point Break in 1991, a film about an FBI agent (Keanu Reeves) who goes undercover in a group of surfers in an attempt to discover who is behind a string of robberies done by the “ex-presidents,” robbers who wear masks of old presidents. This film was a success at the box office and also developed a cult following. In 1995, Bigelow directed Strange Days, a film written by James Cameron. The film is a cyberpunk science fiction film that features the theme of dystopia. In the film, it is the year 1999 and LA is a war zone, filled with crime and violence. A device exists that allows users to experience the memories of others that are saved to discs as memories of their own. The conflict of the film begins when an ex-cop discovers a murder on a memory disc and must go deep into what can best be described as a police conspiracy to solve the case. Once again, despite positive reviews and a cult following, this film did poorly at the box office and earned less than its production cost.
In 2000, Bigelow made the film The Weight of Water, based on the novel with the same name by Anita Shreve. Unlike most of Bigelow’s films, The Weight of Water lacks the action and technical attraction of her previous films, according to her critics. Instead of the entire plot solely being action-based, this film explores a double-murder through a more narrative and psychological angle than her past films. In 2002, Bigelow directed K-19: The Widowmaker. Despite having an action-packed storyline featuring Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson, the film was a flop at the box office. After K-19: The Widowmaker, Bigelow did not have another film of note until 2008’s The Hurt Locker, which as we’ve discussed, received international acclaim and won many awards.
With the acclaim from her awards for The Hurt Locker, Bigelow began to attract more attention and now we currently are waiting in both anticipation and apprehension to see what direction she takes in her upcoming movie, Zero Dark Thirty, a movie about Navy Team 6 tracking down Osama bin Laden. Bigelow began creating this film before he was killed; now that he is dead, we aren’t sure in what direction Bigelow will take the film. The making of the film has been surrounded with controversy. For one thing, it had been debated whether or not the project should still be made once Bin Laden was found and killed. For another, there is great anger from the people of India, who are protesting due to resentment they feel about India being used as a stand-in for Pakistan; the countries see each other as enemies. Depending on what angle she takes and how well the film does in the box office, this could be a major turning point in her career. Despite current complications, Zero Dark Thirty is slated to be released on December 19th, 2012, and we can draw our conclusions on Kathryn Bigelow’s most current work then.
As a young, female, aspiring filmmaker, Kathryn Bigelow inspires me. She’s bold and brave and makes the movies she wants to make, based on her interests and passions. While sometimes she has to modify her movies, as was the case in Before Dark, she still fearlessly goes about making the movies she wants to make. I believe that Bigelow makes films that involve violence because she is truly intrigued by the concept, not because she feels that this is what will make her successful in an industry run mostly by men. Bigelow is paving the way for other women to be highly successful in the industry as well. This gives me hope for my future in the industry, and for the future of all other woman filmmakers.
“Kathryn Bigelow." The New York Times. The New York Times, n.d. Web. 18 Mar. 2012. <http://movies.nytimes.com/person/81836/Kathryn-Bigelow/ biography>.
Ridely, Jane. "James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow: Exes go from divorce contention to Oscar contention." NY Daily News. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Mar. 2012. <http://articles.nydailynews.com/2010-02-03/entertainment/ 27055134_1_oscars-kathryn-bigelow-james-cameron>.
"James Cameron & Kathryn Bigelow Used To Be Married — Get Over It." Jezebel. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Mar. 2012. <http://jezebel.com/5451705/ james-cameron--kathryn-bigelow-used-to-be-married-+-get-over-it>.