A crash course on the women Best Director nominees in Oscar history
- Megan Merino
- 23 April 2021
For the first time in Academy Awards history, two women are nominated for directing in the same year, bringing the overall total to seven
The 93rd Academy Awards ceremony will be unlike any other in history – and not only because it will be taking place under ongoing Covid-19 restrictions. When a famous Hollywood face announces the nominees for Best Director, two of the names – for the first time in 93 years – will be the names of women.
Before the 2020 nominations, only five women had ever been in the running for directing, compared with more than 350 men. The nominations of Chloé Zhao for Nomadland and Emerald Fennell for Promising Young Woman therefore make this year's line-up the least male-dominated yet and bring the total number up to seven.
So who are the seven women to hold these Best Director nominations and what are their stories? Learn a little about each director below and take the Women in Film Quiz at the end to test your knowledge.
The first to break into the all-male list in 1976 was the prolific and beloved Italian director Lina Wertmüller. Born in Rome in 1928, Wertmüller studied film at the Silvio D'Amico National Academy of Dramatic Arts and subsequently wrote and directed a total of 24 films.
She was nominated for her tenth film, Seven Beauties, in 1976, with other popular titles including Swept Away, Love and Anarchy, and The Seduction of Mimi. In 2019, at the age of 90, she was also the recipient of the Academy Honorary Award for her incredible contribution to film throughout her career.
When accepting the award Wertmüller said: 'I would like to dedicate the Oscar – although I'd like to change the name Oscar to a feminine name, I'd like to call it Anna – to my husband and my daughter... and to everyone in the room tonight: thank you. But next time please, [I'd like] not only the Oscar, but also a female Oscar... so all the women in the room, please scream 'we want an "Anna".'
Next to be nominated in 1994 for her feature film The Piano, was New Zealand writer and director Jane Campion. Although she lost out to Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List, The Piano was nominated for eight awards in total and won for Best Screenplay. Holly Hunter and Anna Paquin won Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress respectively for their roles in the film.
Campion went on to direct the critically-acclaimed The Portrait of a Lady and Bright Star, as well as the popular miniseries Top of the Lake, starring Elisabeth Moss.
In a 2009 interview, Campion said: 'I would love to see more women directors, because they represent half of the population and gave birth to the whole world. Without them writing and being directors, the rest of us are not going to know the whole story. Perhaps, finally, the rest of the film role is ready for that story.'
Another ten years needed to pass before the next woman nominee, but when it finally happened, it was Sofia Coppola for her film Lost in Translation, starring Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray.
Following the release of the film, Coppola was called 'America's most promising director' by the New York Times Magazine and the film – following two lost souls and their meeting in a Tokyo hotel – is now considered somewhat of a cult classic.
After becoming the first American woman to be nominated, she has since gone on to direct features including Marie Antoinette, Somewhere, The Bling Ring and, most recently, On the Rocks, also starring Bill Murray, alongside co-star Rashida Jones.
Kathryn Bigelow became the fourth woman nominee in 2009, and the first ever to win the category. The award was for her war thriller The Hurt Locker which follows the terrifyingly suspenseful lives of a bomb disposal team in Iraq.
She went on to direct Zero Dark Thirty, a film about the finding and killing of Osama Bin Laden and, more recently, Detroit, starring John Boyega.
Although Bigelow didn't acknowledge the historic moment of being the first woman to win in her Oscar acceptance speech and rarely, if ever, draws attention to her position as a woman in the industry, she has said that being a role model to other women is 'thrilling'.
In an ABC interview in the run-up to the 2009 Oscars, she said: 'I think with a fair amount of tenacity and with a little bit of luck, you too can embark on something that means a great deal. Finally it is about the ideas and it's about the passion. That's certainly what drives me personally.'
Actress turned writer and director Greta Gerwig received her nomination for Best Director for her 2017 debut film, Lady Bird. The coming-of-age story, starring Saoirse Ronan, follows the life of a young rebellious teenager and her navigating through her final years in high school.
Gerwig always had an interest in writing and directing, but had never formally trained. Instead she learned on set through co-writing various projects, including Mistress America and Frances Ha, in which she also starred.
She followed her successful debut with a 2019 adaptation of Louisa Alcott's Little Women, also starring Ronan as Jo March. It too received much recognition and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, but lost out to Guillermo del Toro's The Shape of Water.
The Chinese-born Chloé Zhao is the first of the two 2021 women Best Director nominees. As the winner of this year's BAFTA and Golden Globe for Best Director, Chloé Zhao is already tipped to be the recipient of this year's Academy Award for her second feature film, Nomadland.
Starring and produced by Oscar-royalty Frances McDormand, this film was a collaborative exploration of van dwellers and their nomadic lifestyles in the United States. They shot the film as they travelled from state to state, meeting people who would come to feature in the film's narrative.
Alongside McDormand – who is a great fan and friend of Zhao's – she has earned the admiration of filmmakers such as Barry Jenkins (director of Moonlight) for her unique style already present in her debut feature, The Rider.
In her Golden Globe acceptance speech, Zhao said: 'I just love what I do... And if this means that more people like me get to live their dream and get to do what I do, I'm happy.'
Alongside Chloe Zhao in the 2021 Best Director category is British director, writer and actress Emerald Fennell.
Some may know Fennell from her portrayal of Camilla Parker Bowles in the most recent series of The Crown, but she has also spent a lot of time behind the camera, including as executive producer on season two of the hugely popular thriller series Killing Eve.
Her film Promising Young Woman, starring Carey Mulligan, is a revenge thriller following the life of Cassie, a woman who is mourning the tragic loss of her best friend, Nina.
Fennell's debut feature came to fruition through a very long mood board and music playlist that contained Britney Spears' song 'Toxic' numerous times. This was enough to get Mulligan and many others onboard to create the now critically acclaimed film.
The 93rd Academy Awards will be available to stream in the UK via Sky Cinema and NOW TV, starting at 1am BST on Sunday 25 April.