Nomadland director’s win a milestone in Oscars revolution
Chinese director Chloe Zhao’s Best Director award for Nomadland points to the influence of a string of dramatic changes undergone by the film industry in the last few years.
The #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements have both helped to accelerate the diversification push begun six years ago when restive members of the Academy took to social media with the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite.
But other factors have weighed in, as well. In 2018, the box-office success of the comedy, Crazy Rich Asians, suddenly alerted Hollywood to the potential offered by its Asian audiences and last year, COVID-19 put the spotlight on the streaming services.
They were already financing the subtler and more sophisticated variety of mid-budget films that were struggling to find a place on the big screen and they gathered strength during the lockdowns.
Big-name actors and directors gravitated to them and the stories they told grew bolder and less conventional. There is still a long way to go. Three of this year’s eight Best Picture nominations, Nomadland, Minari, and Judas and the Black Messiah, are by directors of colour but only two of the eight films are by women – Zhao and Promising Young Woman’s Emerald Fennell, winner of this year’s award for Original Screenplay.
Even so, given the glacial pace at which the Academy makes changes, this is revolutionary. It took 46 years to nominate a female director for an Oscar. This happened in 1975 when it looked kindly on the flamboyant Italian filmmaker, Lina Wertmuller, for her work on Seven Beauties.
It was to be another 35 years, however, before it bit the bullet and voted for a female winner. The prize went to Kathryn Bigelow, whose reputation was based on her flair as an action director. For some of us, her victory with The Hurt Locker was made all the sweeter by the fact that she prevailed in a field that included Quentin Tarantino and her ex-husband, James Cameron, two directors renowned for their macho style.
After that, Oscar retreated from any further signs of reform until 2015 when hashtag #OscarsSoWhite was born. In the wake of that campaign, the Academy’s membership gradually enlarged and became more diversified but the basics remained the same.
The majority of members were white and male and for actors and directors of colour, the path to the podium was still slow and tortuous.
The Korean director, Bong Joon Ho, was rightly hailed as a ground-breaker last year when he was awarded Best Director for Parasite, which won four Oscars including Best Picture, but female directors like Ava Du Verney (Selma), Greta Gerwig (Little Women) and Lulu Wang (The Farewell) were still waiting in the wings despite the acclaim earned by their films.
So Zhao’s win is real milestone, given extra heft by the fact that Marvel’s chief, Kevin Feige, had already accorded her his own vote of confidence by signing her to direct the studio’s blockbuster, The Eternals, which she’s finished shooting.
But it’s her gift for intimate, personal films drawn directly from contemporary life which has won her the Oscar. Her first two films, Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015) and The Riders (2018), both filmed in South Dakota, used non-actors, and so does Nomadland.
Frances McDormand and David Strathairn are the only actors in the cast – and the mingling of amateur and professional could have resulted in a discordant hybrid of the real and the made-up, but the integration is seamless.
The least actressy of actresses, Francess McDormand, who spotted Zhao’s talent after seeing The Rider, merges completely with the landscape and everybody in it.
The friendships that her character, Fern, makes on the road spring from a collective store of commonsense gained from experience and coloured with playful good humour.
A few critics have complained about the excessively sombre tone of this year’s list of pictures but there’s something very heartening about this one.
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