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Women at the Oscars—not everywhere all at once and barely talking

In the Oscars’ 95-year history, only seven women have been nominated for Best Director. And only three have won: Jane Campion, Chloe Zao and Kathryn Bigelow.

Michelle Yeoh may have given a powerful message about women empowerment at the recent Oscars but it was another actress who gave the more pointed rebuke for gender-based toxicity. 

 “Ladies, don’t let anybody tell you you are ever past your prime,” said Oscar Best Actress winner Michelle Yeoh. Women all over the world lauded her for that.

But before her category was announced, there was the Best Adapted Screenplay category. “I just want to thank the academy for not being mortally offended by the words ‘women’ and ‘talking’ put so close together like that,” enthused actress Sarah Polley when she accepted the award for Best Adapted Screenplay for the movie Women Talking, which she herself wrote based on the acclaimed 2018 novel of the same name.

Oscar winner for Best Adapted Screenplay Sarah Polley with her siblings Susy and Johnny. From Polley’s Instagram account @realsarahpolley.

Inspired by the gas-facilitated rapes that occurred at the Manitoba Colony, a remote and isolated Mennonite community in Bolivia, “Women Talking is about a group of religious women in a remote community discussing how to respond to sexual attacks by the men in their community. 

Polley noted that the sexually abused women in the movie were taking action against their abusers “not just by talking but also by listening.” She continued: “The last line of our film is delivered by a young woman to a new baby and she says, ‘Your story will be different from ours.’”

For now, the story of women taking Oscar honors isn’t particularly rich. This year has been especially noteworthy. Despite a bumper crop of acclaimed fact-based female-centered films, both in front and behind the camera, including the box-office historical action-drama The Woman King and She Said, which is about the string of rapes and other sexual offenses perpetrated by Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein on actresses and employees, the Academy was rather muted in celebrating women this year. Both movies were completely shut out of the race and the Best Picture nomination for Talking wasn’t enough to get Polley into the Best Director lineup.

A scene from Women Talking.

That category has mostly been stingy to  female filmmakers. The Academy may have honored Jane Campion with her second nomination last year (for the revisionist Western The Power of the Dog), but it has not accorded the same to any other female director. And her two nods came almost 20 years apart (her first was for the 1993 period drama The Piano).

In Oscar’s 95-year history, only 7 women have been nominated for Best Director including Chloe Zao, who became only the second winner when she took home the statuette in 2021 (for the Americana odyssey “Nomadland” which also won Best Picture). That was 11 long years after Katheryn Bigelow’s historic glass ceiling-shattering victory in 2008 (for the Iraq War drama “The Hurt Locker”) which was a big and colorful upset: the frontrunner and expected winner was James Cameron (for “Avatar), Bigelow’s ex-husband.

Polley’s win was also a bit of a surprise. Going into the awards night, the German adaptation of the 1929 anti-war novel “All Quiet On The Western Front,” which was first made into an Oscar-winning film in 1930, was seen as a lock for the writing prize, largely owing to its 9 nominations including Best Picture. Even Polley herself seemed surprised she won this battle.

Elsewhere, movies directed by women lost in their respective categories, namely Best Animated Film nominee Turning Red and Best Documentary Feature finalists All the Beauty and the Bloodshed and Fire of Love.

Best Director 2022 Jane Campion for The Power of the Dog.

An argument could be made that the love the Academy showered on Best Picture winner Everything Everywhere All At Once, which won seven of its leading 11 nominations including three for acting, is an embrace and celebration of women-powered stories. That would be on point. The film, after all, sings the praises of women power with its story of an ordinary lady juggling her various roles as mother, wife, daughter, and business owner with extraordinary, even superheroic intelligence, smarts, grace, independence, determination, understanding, love, humility, self-awareness, and self-respect. And it would not be incorrect.

Everything is the handiwork of two men and it’s their vision and voices that’s everywhere in the film. It’s simply not the same as embracing and celebratong female filmmakers and their stories, visions and voices. Despite Polley’s victory, the Oscars, after 95 years, remains largely afraid of women talking. 

Then again, it is called the Oscars and the trophy itself is the figure of a man.