Friday, October 24, 2014

Female Directors and the Academy Awards

Kathryn Bigelow clutching her Best Director Oscar
In the 86-year history of the Academy Awards, only one woman has won an Oscar for best director. And only four women have been nominated for the coveted award. Is the situation for female directors improving, or is it stuck in a holding pattern?

At the 2010 Academy Awards, filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow made history when she became the first woman to win a best-director Oscar for her film The Hurt Locker (2009). Bigelow's win was a big breakthrough for women in a male-dominated industry. One of the most significant aspects about her win is that it no doubt inspired many young women and girls to consider film directing as a career, which will help further increase the number of female filmmakers in the future.

And another important thing about Bigelow's Oscar win is that she earned it for directing a war thriller that focuses on an elite bomb squad unit, the type of film usually reserved for male directors. With the huge success of The Hurt Locker, Bigelow proved that a woman can direct an absorbing and entertaining film in a genre that appeals to a large male demographic, which might make it easier for other female directors to be considered for such projects in the future.

However, there is currently still a big discrepancy between the number of female directors and their male counterparts in the film industry. And since Bigelow’s win in 2010, no female filmmaker has even been nominated in the best-director category by the Academy. Hopefully this will soon change as more great films helmed by female directors receive wider recognition.

Bigelow has been directing films for 36 years now. Some of her most her most well-known films include Blue Steel, Near Dark and Point Break. She also directed three episodes of the acclaimed television crime series Homicide: Life on the Street. Her most recent directorial outing was the award-winning action thriller Zero Dark Thirty (2012), which is about the decade-long hunt for Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden following the September 11th terrorist attacks in 2001.

Women Who Were Nominated for Best Director

In addition to Bigelow, the three other women who were nominated for best-director Oscars are Jane Campion, Sofia Coppola and Lina Wertmüller. Campion received a best-director Oscar nomination for her 1993 film The Piano. The film is a neo-Gothic romance drama set in1850s New Zealand. It’s about a mute Scotswoman who travels to the New Zealand bush with her young daughter and prized piano for an arranged marriage to a wealthy landowner and then has a torrid affair with a scruffy plantation worker.

The film is very densely layered and singularly unconventional, not the usual type of film that receives an Oscar nomination. The film earned Campion an Oscar for best original screenplay at the 1994 Academy Awards as well as a best actress win for Holly Hunter and an Oscar for an 11-year-old Anna Paquin for best supporting actress.

Campion is one of New Zealand's most successful international filmmakers. Her first feature film was Sweetie (1989), which she both directed and cowrote. The film garnered the director some international awards, including the Independent Spirit Award for best foreign film. Some of Campion’s other notable films include Holy Smoke, In the Cut and Bright Star.

Filmmaker Lina Wertmüller Landed A Best Director Oscar Nomination For Seven Beauties

Italian film writer and director Lina Wertmüller's Seven Beauties (aka Pasqualino Settebellezze) earned her an Oscar nomination for best director at the1977 Academy Awards. This marked the first time that the Academy nominated a woman in the best-director category. Seven Beauties opened in France and Italy in 1975 and hit U.S. theaters in 1976.

The comedy drama is about a deserter from the Italian army during World War II who winds up a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp. The prisoner uses his wiles to survive in this bleak, spirit-crushing environment. Wertmüller also wrote the film's excellent screenplay, which landed her another Oscar nomination. In addition, the film pulled down a best-actor nomination for Giancarlo Giannini and one for best foreign language film. Some of Wertmüller's other notable films include Camorra (A Story of Streets, Women and Crime), Swept Away and A Night Full of Rain.

Sofia Coppola Steps Out of Dad's Shadow With Lost in Translation

Sofia Coppola, daughter of legendary film director Francis Ford Coppola, established herself as a talented filmmaker in her own right with her feature film Lost in Translation (2003). The film earned her a nomination for best director at the 2004 Academy Awards and an Oscar win for best original screenplay. The film also grabbed a best-actor nomination for Bill Murray and one for best picture. The film is about two lonely people who cross paths in a Tokyo hotel, one a jaded, middle-aged American movie star, the other the young neglected wife of a self-absorbed photographer. The two find that they are kindred spirits and develop a unique and close friendship.

Lost in Translation created quite a buzz upon its release and received much critical acclaim and picked up a slew of awards. What's especially impressive is that it was only Coppola's second feature film in the director’s chair. Coppola's first feature film as a director was The Virgin Suicides (1999). The other films that she has directed are Marie Antoinette, Somewhere and The Bling Ring, which opened in movie theaters last year.

The Situation Has Improved Slightly For Female Directors But Still Has A Long Ways To Go

It seems that female filmmakers are finally starting to be recognized for their talent, and their numbers do appear to be increasing a bit. Quite a few are making a name for themselves in the independent film arena. Hopefully those numbers will continue to grow, and more female directors’ works will be widely recognized and celebrated.

And in addition to needing more recognition for female filmmakers, it's equally important for the Academy to recognize the works of gifted filmmakers of all races, cultures and nationalities from across the globe, as each group brings their own unique perspective to films and can share their individual experiences and stories. And this can only further enrich the medium.

The Hurt Locker at Amazon

Monday, October 13, 2014

Alan Arkin Delivers One Of His Funniest Performances in Neil Simon's Last of the Red Hot Lovers

Alan Arkin shines in this trenchant comedy about a bored, middle-aged restaurateur and his failed attempts at having an extramarital affair.

(review contains spoilers)

Based on Neil Simon's Broadway play, Last of the Red Hot Lovers (1972) is a hilarious and incisive comedy that utilizes Alan Arkin's dry, deadpan humor to great effect. This is one of Simon's most underrated screen adaptations. The screenplay is distinguished by the award-winning playwright's razor-sharp dialogue and wry observations on life.

A Bored Restaurateur Experiences A Midlife Crisis

Directed by longtime Simon collaborator Gene Saks, the film follows the misadventures of Barney Cashman (Arkin), a mild-mannered 45-year-old restaurateur who's suffering from a midlife crisis. Barney is bored to death with the mundane routine of his life. He feels as though life has passed him by, and he has nothing left to look forward to. In his state of ennui, Barney finds himself constantly eyeing all the beautiful young women who appear to be everywhere he looks. And for the first time in his 22-year marriage, he's seriously considering having an extramarital affair, thinking it might bring some excitement back into his life.

However, having an affair is much easier said than done, especially for Barney who
makes Andy Stitzer from The 40-Year-Old Virgin look like Iceberg Slim. Barney is utterly clueless when it comes to interacting romantically with the opposite sex. He got married really young, and besides his wife, the only other sexual partner he's ever had was a slovenly 44-year-old prostitute when he was 18. The experience fell short of Penthouse Forum material for Barney: "It cost me $7, and I threw up all night long. And in the next three days, I took 12 baths, nine showers and I didn't touch anybody in my family for two months."

Barney Completely Bungles His First Attempt At An Affair

Barney's first opportunity to have an affair comes in the form of a tall, attractive woman named Elaine Navazio (Sally Kellerman), who's a frequent patron of his fish restaurant. Elaine is a hardened and cynical married woman with a nasty smoker's hack. There's no sense of romance about her. To Barney's chagrin, she’s totally upfront about why she’s there and wants to get right down to business. Elaine is alternately impatient and amused by Barney's complete ineptitude at seduction. An example of his cluelessness: He chose his elderly mother's apartment for the afternoon rendezvous. The two have to be out by five lest his mother catches them. 

Sally Kellerman gives a superb performance as the sardonic, chain-smoking Elaine. And it's hilarious watching Arkin's naive and clueless Barney play off this worldly, touch-as nails character. Barney naively wants to make the encounter a memorable and romantic experience, while Elaine is coldly pragmatic and unsentimental about the whole situation. She treats it for what it is: an opportunity to have sex and nothing more. Elaine finally grows bored with Barney's cluelessness and leaves.

Barney Has A Second Shot At An Affair With Aspiring Actress Bobbi Michele

Barney gets another shot at having an affair, this time with a psychotic aspiring actress/singer named Bobbi Michele (Paula Prentiss) who he met in the park while on his lunch break. Bobbi is ball of nervous energy and erratic mood swings. Barney is taken aback by her wild stories of depraved men who stalk, proposition and abuse her as well as other crazies who inhabit her demented universe. The high point of this encounter—and probably of the entire film—is when she coerces Barney into smoking a joint with her. Of course, Barney has never smoked weed before, and his reaction to getting high for the first time is a howl. It's one of the funniest things Arkin has ever done on film. When a retrospective reel is put together to honor Arkin's career, the clip of him getting high in this scene should definitely be included.

And Paula Prentiss is brilliant as the flakey nutcase Bobby Michele. Prentiss brings a sublime combination of playful sex appeal and psychosis to her role of Bobbi. The scene ends with a stoned Barney and Bobbi caterwauling the pop hit "What The World Needs Now Is Love," leaving Barney 0 for two in his quest to have an affair.

Barney's Last Shot

Barney gets one last opportunity to have an affair when his friend’s wife, Jeanette, comes on to him at a get-together. So once again he makes arrangements to meet at his mother’s apartment. When Barney is making preparations for the afternoon tryst with Jeanette, there is clearly something different about him. There’s a new confidence about him, a swagger in his stride that wasn’t there before. This time around Barney’s ready to get down to business. When Jeanette arrives at the apartment, she’s completely different from when they talked earlier. She’s tightly clutching her purse, and Barney has to coax her to even step inside the apartment; and he has an equally hard time in getting her to sit down. It’s just another example of Barney’s dumb luck. When he’s ready to get down to business, he gets someone like Jeanette who’s afraid to even sit down.

Jeanette suffers from severe depression due to her husband Mel’s infidelities. The only reason she came on to Barney was to get back at her husband. For nearly the entire afternoon, she’s either sobbing uncontrollably or popping antidepressants, not exactly what Barney had in mind. When Jeanette finally stops crying, the two have a philosophical discussion about life and death, which leaves Barney almost as depressed as Jeanette. That’s strike three for Barney, and he resigns himself to the fact that he’s not cut out to be a player, so he calls his wife to set up a rendezvous with her at his mother’s apartment.

The encounter with Barney and Jeanette is probably the weakest part of the film. While funny, it doesn’t pack the same comedic wallop as the others. The preceding encounters each had a number of moments that were flat-out hilarious. The scenes with Jeanette were merely funny. However, Reneé Taylor gives a great performance as the clinically depressed Jeanette.

Drawbacks Of The Film

One of the few drawbacks of this film is that some of the speeches ran on a bit too long, which gave it a stagy feel at some points. It probably would have been a good idea if Simon had trimmed some of them down a bit, because what works on stage doesn't always translate well on screen. However, the many great moments more than make up for this. Also, even with the male-pattern-baldness makeup and wig, Arkin still looked too young for the role. He was a youngish 38 when the film was made and looked nearly ten years younger than the 45-year-old character he was playing. Nonetheless, he delivered an amazing and convincing performance as the hapless Barney Cashman, one of his best and most memorable roles.

Last of the Red Hot Lovers at Amazon