20 Femme-Helmers in the 2020 Oscars Pipeline – Susan Wloszczyna reports

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When the 2020 Oscar nominations were announced in January, there was a bitter backlash over the fact that for a second year in a row, no female director was deemed qualified enough to occupy a spot on the ballot. There was hope that Greta Gerwig, who became just the fifth woman to make the cut for her 2016 helming debut, Lady Bird, would repeat the feat for her remake of Little Women. At least it earned six other nods, including Best Picture. Others became equally upset that academy voters totally ignored Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, about an Asian family who rallies around their ailing matriarch.

As most Oscarologists know, the only women directors to ever compete for prize are Lina Wertmuller (Seven Beauties), Jane Campion (The Piano), Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation), Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker) and Gerwig. Bigelow remains the only female winner. But this year might be a completely different story, partly because the coronavirus pandemic has somewhat unsettled this year’s race for cinematic gold. Movie buffs are fully aware that studios have taken major attractions off this year schedule and moved them into 2021 and beyond. And while movie theaters have started to re-open, many patrons rather not trust their lives to multiplex employees.

The one upside to this topsy-turvy season is that there is suddenly a rush of female-driven titles in the pipeline with women directors. Some had to shut down productions and might not be ready in time. A few already flopped at festivals pre-COVID. But there are more than 20 solid contenders that could easily make the cut. The one irony is that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences just announced a plan on Wednesday to increase diversity and representation both onscreen and behind the scenes, a mandate that will take hold with the 2024 awards.

But why wait? There are at least five actresses making their directing debuts, a pop star going behind the camera, old-school directors, new-school directors, blockbuster overseers and at least two former competitors in the category. Here is what might be the best of an encouragingly large batch:

Old school:

Sofia Coppola (On the Rocks): The filmmaker reunites with her Lost in Translation leading man Bill Murray, who plays a randy charmer of a dad who helps his daughter (Rashida Jones) check out why her husband is working late hours at his office.

Jane Campion (The Power of the Dog): The New Zealand filmmaker shot her latest on her home turf that, in her words, examines “masculinity, nostalgia and a betrayal” as a man declares war on his brother’s new wife and her teenage son. Stars include Benedict Cumberbatch and Kirsten Dunst.

Julie Taymor (The Glorias): The director of 2002’s Frida turns her camera on four actresses who portray Gloria Steinem at different ages including Julianne Moore and Alicia Vikander.

Mary Harron (Dali Land): The mastermind behind insanely over-the-top American Psycho takes on the surrealist painter (Ben Kingsley) and his wife and muse Gala (Lesley Manville) in a tale set in New York and Spain as the artist prepares for a big show.

Sally Potter (The Roads Not Taken): The director of the 1992 groundbreaker Orlando is back with a father-daughter dementia-themed drama starring Javier Bardem and Elle Fanning.

New school:

Autumn de Wilde (Emma): This well-known photographer and first-time movie director earned critical praise for her version of the Jane Austen classic from earlier this year with actress Anna Taylor-Joy as the title character.

Chloe Zhao (Nomadland): This Beijing-born filmmaker previously won acclaim for 2017’s The Rider. This time her cast features two-time Oscar-winning actress Frances McDormand and David Strathairn as older workers who hit the road in campers to seek job opportunities after the Great Recession.

Philippa Lowthorpe (Misbehaviour): This British TV veteran (Call the Midwife, The Crown) takes on a big-screen comedy-drama about the 1970 Miss World competition that took place in London with Bob Hope as the host. The show was disrupted by a women’s lib movement that led to the pageant’s first Black winner. The dream cast includes Keira Knightley, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Jessie Buckley, Lesley Manville, Rhys Ifans and Greg Kinnear as Hope.

Liesl Tommy (Respect): The Tony-nominated South African stage director steps behind the camera for this highly-anticipated biopic about the life and career of the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin. Jennifer Hudson, who won a 2006 supporting Oscar for the musical Dreamgirls, might just claim a lead trophy this time out.

Lila Neugebaur (Red, White and Water): Another Broadway veteran switches to the big screen with a war drama starring Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence as a U.S. soldier who suffers a traumatic brain injury in Afghanistan.

Sia (Music): The Aussie songstress makes her directorial debut with a musical drama that stars Maddie Ziegler as a autistic teen who is being cared by her sober drug dealer sister (Kate Hudson).

Actresses turned directors:

Halle Berry (Bruised): Still the first and only Black actress to win a lead trophy for 2001’s Monster’s Ball tries her hand at directing while also starring onscreen as a disgraced MMA fighter who seeks redemption by fighting a rising star while reuniting with her young son.

Clea Duvall (Happiest Season): This actress’s follow-up to 2016 directorial debut The Intervention is a romantic comedy that stars Kristen Stewart as a woman who plans to propose to her girlfriend (MacKenzie Davis) during her family’s annual holiday party. One problem: She hasn’t come out to her conservative parents yet.

Rebecca Hall (Passing): The BAFTA-winning English actress makes her directorial debut with a cast that includes Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga, Andre Holland and Alexander Skarsgard about mixed-race childhood friends who meet up again as adults and become involved in each other’s lives.

Regina King (One Night in Miami): This supporting Oscar winner for 2018’s If Beale Street Could Talk has gotten glowing reviews at Venice for her helming debut that imagines what happened if Malcolm X, football-star-turned-actor Jim Brown and singer Sam Cooke celebrated the boxing triumph of Cassius Clay over Sonny Liston in a hotel room in February 1964. The cast includes Kingsley Ben-Adir, Eli Goree, Leslie Odom Jr. and Aldis Hodge.

Robin Wright (Land): The House of Cards actress makes her directorial debut and stars in a tale of a lawyer who is consumed by grief who decides to disengage from life and go off the grid. She ends up living in a cabin in a sparsely populated area of Wyoming.

Action blockbusters:

Gina Prince-Bythewood (The Old Guard): More prone to relationship-oriented fare, Prince-Bythewood did herself proud with this Netflix vehicle about centuries-old warriors who have healing abilities while helping out those in need. Charlize Theron is in full kick-ass mode as she takes a new immortal (KiKi Layne) under her wing and together they form a fierce bond.

Patty Jenkins (Wonder Woman 1984): The force behind 2003’s Monster is back for a second round with the most popular female crimefighter in the D.C. Comics universe. Gal Gadot is back in the lead role as she faces off with Kristen Wiig as Cheetah and Pedro Pascal as an entrepreneur who is known for his informercials.

Cate Shortland: (Black Widow): This Australian director is in charge of the long-awaited female-focused Marvel Cinematic Universe entry starring Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow. As for the plot, the main character is forced to go on the run while confronting her past. Also starring Florence Pugh, David Harbour, William Hurt, Ray Winstone and Rachel Weisz.

Chloe Zhao: (Eternals): Somehow Zhao found time to have two films coming out during the now-extended Oscar season. Her Marvel debut focuses on an immortal alien race who have secretly lived on Earth for over 7,000 years who reunite to save humanity from their evil counterparts, the Deviants. The cast stars Richard Madden, Gemma Chan, Kumail Nanjiani, Brian Tryee Henry, Salma Hayak and Angelina Jolie.

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Susan Wloszczyna

Susan Wloszczyna

In her nearly 30 years at USA Today, Susan Wloszczyna interviewed everyone from Vincent Price and Shirley Temple to Julia Roberts and Will Smith. Her coverage specialties include animation, musicals, comedies and any film starring Hayley Mills, Sandy Dennis or hobbits. Her crowning career achievements so far, besides having Terence Stamp place his bare feet in her lap during an interview for The Limey, is convincing the paper to send her to New Zealand twice for set visits, once for The Return of the King and the other for The Chronicles of Narnia and King Kong, and getting to be a zombie extra and interview George Romero in makeup on the set for Land of the Dead. Though not impressive enough for Pulitzer consideration, she also can be blamed for coining the moniker "Frat Pack," often used to describe the comedy clique that includes Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn and Will Ferrell. Her positions have included Life section copy desk chief for four years and a film reviewer for 12 years. She is currently a senior editor for the online awards site Gold Derby. Previously, she has been a freelance film reporter and critic, contributing regularly to RogerEbert.com, MPAA’s The Credits, the Washington Post, AARP The Magazine online and Indiewire as well as being a book reviewer for The Buffalo News. She previously worked as a feature editor at the Niagara Gazette in Niagara Falls, N.Y. A Buffalo native, she earned her bachelor's degree in English at Canisius College and a master's degree in journalism from Syracuse University.