Why Cinematography Is The Oscars’ Biggest Boy’s Club
In the 94-year history of the Oscars, there is only one category, besides Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor, that has never been won by a woman. It would be the best cinematography, which honors the lighting, framing and camera work of a film.
These aren’t genre-specific accomplishments, though the Oscars, for better or worse, reflect the opportunities available in the film industry. And as such, there are deep institutional reasons why this specific category has such a poor track record for women.
The trivial stat could change on Sunday night. Ari Wegner, the Australian cinematographer of Jane Campion’s lead nominee ‘The Power of the Dog’, is nominated for her thoughtful and intuitive work on the film. TheWrap’s Steve Pond predicts Wegner will win the trophy, giving him the edge over “Dune” DP Greig Fraser (the cinematographer of Campion’s previous film “Bright Star”), who scored forerunners BAFTA and ASC. But the appointment of Wegner still marks an important step in itself.
She joined Rachel Morrison (who photographed “Mudbound” in 2017) as the only women ever nominated in the category. That’s two out of more than 500 cinematography nominees since the first Oscars in 1929. And this particular award, in fact, has even had more people nominated than other branches of the Academy, because from the 1930s to the 60s , there were two categories. to distinguish between color and black and white films.
The lack of gender parity in the film industry is not surprising. After all, even with an aggressive membership drive by the Academy in recent years, the electorate is still two-thirds male, 68% to 32%. But why specifically is Best Cinematography, and by extension the art of cinematography, such an exclusive men’s club? A look at female representation in other Oscar technical categories reveals a trail of clues.
Take Best Costume Design, the Oscars’ most generous category for female nominees. At least one woman has been nominated every year since the category’s inauguration in 1948, with a success rate of around 50%, including nine of the last 10 winners. The most awarded woman in Oscar history is a costume designer, Edith Head.
Best Film Editing was also just under a male fraternity. Like costume design, craftsmanship emerged from the skills of tailoring and tailoring. Women film editors have been nominated 81 times, since the award was created in 1934, and the 15 films edited by women who have won the Oscar include classics such as “Laurence of Arabia” (Anne V. Coates) , “Jaws” (Verna Fields), “Star Wars” (co-edited by Marcia Lucas), “Raging Bull” (Thelma Schoonmaker), “Platoon” (Claire Simpson) and “Mad Max: Fury Road” (Margaret Sixel) .
But the presence of women in editing is helpful in explaining why there has been such a dearth of women in film. In Hollywood’s early decades, film editing was menial, lower-paying work, and it was easier for women to advance to department head positions. Dorothy Arzner, virtually the only female director in the first four decades of Hollywood cinema, came from editing films in the silent era.
Cinematography is a different animal. On the call sheet of a film set, the name of the director of photography is indicated just below that of the director. The cinematographer is often the highest paid member of the technical team. On the clapperboard of a film, the only two names listed are the director and the director of photography. The relationship between the two is both intimate and very public, in terms of the crew’s perception.
There is a theory that women have been excluded from cinematography for so long due to the challenges of lifting heavy camera equipment. Which may be partially true, but feels more like a convenient excuse than a valid explanation, especially since many male filmmakers of the classic era were hardly in peak physical condition. (A fact, by the way, that is still very much true today.)
It’s more plausible that decades of male directors simply couldn’t afford to collaborate so sensibly with a woman. Iconic director Cecil B. DeMille, for example, was comfortable collaborating professionally, albeit behind closed doors, with editor Anne Bauchens, who cut and shaped 43 of his films, including “Cleopatra” and “The Ten. Commandments”. DeMille even included a clause in his film contracts that no one but Bauchens could edit his films, though needless to say, no “inclusion endorsement” existed for his cinematographer.
Although the history of still photography is informed by women like Margaret Bourke-White, Vivian Maier and Dorothea Lange, cinematography was early classified as a technical practice rather than an artistic one. The films themselves were considered visual effects and therefore drew much more inspiration from male-dominated fields such as engineering rather than photography. Interestingly, the Oscar category with the worst gender parity after Best Cinematography is Best Visual Effects, with only four women nominated.
And of course, like all self-perpetuating feedback loops, female cinematographers didn’t exist because… female cinematographers didn’t exist. Just as the scarcity of female airline pilots has nothing to do with a woman’s ability to fly an airplane, women have for decades been excluded from the realm of cinematography based on the flawed premise that they did not have enough proven experience.
It took decades and decades before a woman was even hired as a cinematographer for a Hollywood movie. And when it happened, an Oscar-winning actress was responsible for breaking down the gender barrier. In 1980, Anne Bancroft (“The Miracle Worker,” “The Graduate”) made her only directing effort with the tragicomedy “Fatso,” starring Dom DeLuise. Bancroft hired Brianne Murphy, a screenwriter with a passion for the camera, as director of photography.
The film was not a hit, but Murphy was invited to join the American Society of Cinematographers Guild the following year, and in 1982 she received a special Oscar plaque for helping invent a vehicle that provides more safety features for cinematographers during filming. moving cars. But although she continued to work as a television cinematographer, earning three Emmy nominations, Murphy died in 2003 without ever shooting another major studio film.
Yet, slowly, more female filmmakers began to emerge from the realm of low-budget, experimental, and arthouse cinema. Ellen Kuras shot “Swoon” by Tom Kalin, “I Shot Andy Warhol” by Mary Harron and “Summer of Sam” by Spike Lee. Maryse Alberti was the DP on “Poison” and “Velvet Goldmine” by Todd Haynes, “The Wrestler” by Darren Aronofsky and “Creed” by Ryan Coogler. Lisa Rinzler filmed “Menace II Society” and “Pollock”. Charlotte Bruus Christensen filmed “Fences” and “A Quiet Place”.
In Europe, particularly France, female DPs have included Agnès Godard (“Beau Travail”), Claire Mathon (“Portrait of a Woman on Fire”) and Hélène Louvart (who last year filmed “The Lost Girl “by Maggie Gyllenhaal).
When Rachel Morrison earned a historic Oscar nomination for “Mudbound” in 2018, she also became the first woman to photograph a major superhero movie that year, when she shot Coogler’s “Black Panther.” Mandy Walker followed with Niki Caro’s “Mulan” in 2020, and Walker could definitely be an Oscar contender next year with her work on Baz Lurhmann’s musical biopic “Elvis.”
The ratio of female lenses in feature films remains well below 10%, but is slightly better in television. Reed Moreno (“Looking,” “Vinyl”) is a prolific cinematographer, who made the leap into directing, winning an Emmy for the pilot of “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Television was also where cinematographer Halyna Hutchins (“A Luv Tale”) honed her craft before her tragic death last October on the set of Western “Rust” in New Mexico.
Gradually, the landscape changes. Jane Campion’s four-decade career is notable for her lavish visual collaborations with cinematographers like Stuart Dryburgh (“The Piano”) and Dion Beebe (“Holy Smoke”), but Campion deliberately cast Ari Wegner for “The Power of the Dog”. feeling that the male-dominated story needed another pair of female eyes.
This is Campion’s first film with a woman as DP. In fact, of the seven women nominated for the Best Director Oscar – Lina Wertmüller, Campion, Sofia Coppola, Kathryn Bigelow, Greta Gerwig, Emerald Fennell and Chloe Zhao – Campion is the first to work with a female cinematographer on a feature film. Which, of course, is not a criticism of those other filmmakers, but an illustration of the challenges that women across the entire film industry still face.
And that’s one more reason Wegner’s nomination should be celebrated, in part because it shows that Morrison’s nod four years ago was not a historic blow. But if Wegner wins the Oscar, it’ll be because of the deep visual scanning and gorgeous macro close-ups in “The Power of the Dog.” (Morrison recently interviewed Wegner and during their 36-minute chat, the two master craftsmen talked about their work without once mentioning sex.)
But the Oscars are a fair representation of opportunity. According to Wegner, who is only in his thirties and was highly sought after even before his appointment (his other credits include “Lady Macbeth” and “Zola”), all of this experience is about the work itself.
“When a cinematographer crosses paths with Jane Campion, her life changes,” Wegner told TheWrap. “It was incredibly exciting and such an honor that she thought of me as someone who could take over this movie. And she has a really good sense of loyalty to her crew. I mean, if Jane doesn’t don’t work with someone a second time, there were probably circumstances to do with that. I hope to work with her a lot more in both of our careers. She’s a dream director.
Wegner backtracked a bit when asked specifically about her role as a female cinematographer. She smiles and laughs a lot when talking about her job, and did so too when asked about the best part of her job.
“It’s just the pure joy and pleasure that comes from looking at something closer and deeper than the eye can naturally see,” she said. “It’s my favorite thing about what I do and my favorite thing about filmmaking. You get to see things in a way the eye can’t see – especially things this big, this close. , also important.