Queen of the world!

How one woman crashed the boys’ club and made Hollywood history
Queen of the world!
Photography by Alex J. Berliner/Beimages/Keystone

Barbra Streisand couldn’t contain herself. It was obvious she’d been tapped to present the Oscar for Best Director because it was expected to go to a woman for the first time in history. Even before opening the envelope, she couldn’t resist gloating at the prospect, adding as a tacky afterthought that the prize might also go to the first African-American ever to win it (Precious director Lee Daniels). Then, revealing that Kathryn Bigelow had won for The Hurt Locker, Streisand placed her hand over her heart, as if heralding the dawn of a new age, and declared: “The time has come!”

That the Academy has taken such a long time—82 years—to honour a female director makes this landmark as much an embarrassment as a triumph. And there’s no small irony in the fact that the first woman to crack Oscar’s glass ceiling prefers not to brand herself a feminist filmmaker, even if she is one. Unlike the only other women ever nominated for Best Director—Lina Wertmüller, Jane Campion and Sofia Coppola—Bigelow makes movies that don’t promote a feminist, or even a feminine, sensibility. She specializes in action movies populated by cowboy heroes—a gang of iconic bikers (The Loveless), a clan of vampire road warriors (Near Dark), a surfing FBI agent (Point Break), a nuclear submarine captain (K-19: The Widowmaker), and a bomb squad daredevil (The Hurt Locker). Her sole action heroine, played by Jamie Lee Curtis in Blue Steel, is a rookie cop with a gun fetish who seems to have erased her gender.

Pundits had a field day with the David-and-Goliath showdown between the soft-spoken Bigelow and her often bombastic ex-husband, Avatar director James Cameron. To drive home this Hollywood fable, the six-foot, 58-year-old athletic beauty was seated conspicuously in front of the 55-year-old Cameron at the Oscars, looking many years younger—like the trophy wife who got away, and was now about to take the trophies. But this convenient fiction is as far-fetched as the notion of her as a feminist torchbearer. Bigelow, who is now dating The Hurt Locker’s Oscar-winning screenwriter Mark Boal, 36, seems to be on excellent terms with her ex. They never expressed a discourteous word about each other during the awards campaign. And on the red carpet, Cameron cheerfully predicted she would carry the day.

In economic terms, however, the David-and-Goliath narrative was apt. This was a contest between the biggest movie of all time and a small indie film that died at the box office—like other war-on-terror films—and was resurrected by critical acclaim. Oscar loves an underdog, and what was more startling than Bigelow’s coronation as Best Director was that The Hurt Locker toppled Avatar for Best Picture. In that regard, her victory is not so much a blow for womanhood, but for the embattled world of low-budget, independent film.

Bigelow has never made a studio picture. Although she has worked in commercial genres, occasionally with big budgets, and has seen her movies distributed by studios, she is by no means Hollywood’s most bankable female director. That would be Nancy Meyers, who cast Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin, those grumpy old Oscar co-hosts, in It’s Complicated. Unlike Meyers, Bigelow has never made anything that could be remotely construed as a “chick flick,” not even her one film about domestic trauma, The Weight of Water (2000), which is far too weird and complex to be tarnished with that populist tag.

Bigelow is the thinking woman’s thrill-seeker, an artist and intellectual who discovered the kick of submerging her ideas in muscular action movies. Spanning three decades, her career has taken her from the fringes of conceptual art to the grit of the Iraq war. She grew up near San Francisco in San Carlos, Calif. Her mother was a librarian, her father a paint factory manager. (Both are now deceased.) A talented artist, Bigelow graduated from the San Francisco Art Institute, and continued to paint as a scholarship student at the Whitney Museum, where she studied with Susan Sontag. Moving on to earn a master’s in film at Columbia University, she became enamoured with postmodern fashions in film theory that interpreted cinema as semiotic code.

At Columbia, with a $2,000 arts grant, she made her first film, The Set-Up (1978), a 17-minute short featuring Gary Busey (!) as one of two men fighting while a pair of semioticians deconstruct the images of violence in a voice-over. Then she turned her Columbia master’s thesis into the script for her first feature, The Loveless (1982), a gorgeous but inert biker movie that she co-directed with Monty Montgomery, who later produced movies for David Lynch. The Loveless is a stylized tale of a motorcycle gang that descends on a small southern town in 1959. Bigelow has called it “an amalgamation of Scorpio Rising, The Wild One, and Written on the Wind,” and it’s most notable for launching the career of Willem Dafoe, who was cast in the lead role.

In the film you can literally see Bigelow’s high-art theories finding physical substance in erotic images of Americana—from Brylcreemed hair, black leather and a slowly fondled Zippo lighter, to a brunette gamine in a red Corvette who’s destined to die with a gun in her mouth. With its static frames and painterly composition, The Loveless was conceived as a Sergio Leone western in biker drag, which accounts for the slow pace—something Bigelow would soon abandon with her signature style of kinetic action. But in the DVD commentary, calling the film a “haiku of itself,” she marvels at its “purity”—a word she later used to describe The Hurt Locker. (Bigelow still tends to use cerebral language even to dispute cerebral filmmaking: “I always think it’s more exciting to physicalize a character,” she once said, “than to make that character live only in a cerebral context.”)

Queen of the world!
Photography by Kobal Collection

Shooting in a Georgia backwater of diners and motels was “like jumping into the deep end and learning to swim,” she adds. Dafoe recalls “the night when we shot for 24 hours straight because we were going to run out of money, and I seem to remember the black beauties [amphetamines] going around to keep us going.”

The Loveless, a minor cult hit that played for a year in London on a double bill with Mad Max, kick-started Bigelow’s career. It also set a template—for mixing genres in rugged action movies about macho gangs. With her next film, Near Dark (1987), Bigelow forged a hybrid of contemporary western and vampire movie, with a gypsy family of bloodsucking, gunslinging anarchists who roam the land in a Winnebago. Its centrepiece is a brutal and delirious bar fight, with such inspired touches as a throat being slashed by the spur of a karate-kicking cowboy boot.

Ingeniously, Bigelow cannibalized the cast of James Cameron’s Aliens for her lead actors— Bill Paxton, Lance Henriksen and Jenette Goldstein. As she later explained, “I felt that if you inherited a group of actors who had already gone through a production together— which is like experiencing war—it’s an intact family.” Working with Bigelow was a trip for the cast. In 40 days of gruelling night shoots in Arizona truck stops and motels, they began to feel like a vampire punk band.

“Kathryn was just whipping us on like ponies,” Paxton recalls in a documentary on the film. “She really encouraged this kind of empowerment—that we were invincible. She’s smart, she’s funny. She’s also mysterious, so you don’t quite know if you’re scoring with her or not.” Henriksen adds a telling insight: “She made me think a matriarchal situation in filmmaking is really wonderful, rather than the patriarch saying, ‘Can’t you see? I’m directing!’ She’s a nurturer.”

Near Dark’s novelty was upstaged by The Lost Boys, a studio vampire movie, and it died at the box office. But it connected Bigelow to Cameron, who cast her in a cheesy music video for Paxton’s band, Martini Ranch—as a sexy gunslinger with a cheroot between her teeth in a mock spaghetti western. She and Cameron married in 1989 only to divorce two years later. Meanwhile, Bigelow graduated to bigger budgets with Blue Steel (1989), which flopped, and the silly yet successful Point Break (1991), starring Keanu Reeves as an FBI agent who goes undercover on a surfboard. But it was followed by some ambitious failures: Strange Days (1995), a dark sci-fi thriller originally scripted by Cameron; the enigmatic Weight of Water; and K-19 (2002), with Harrison Ford as a Russian sub commander.

After the sinking of K-19, which cost US$100 million and grossed just US$35 million, it took Bigelow another six years to make a movie, and it was on a much smaller scale. For a filmmaker who cut her teeth fashioning stylish genre pieces about iconic warriors, The Hurt Locker took her closer than she’d ever been to the reality of violence. Boal’s script was based on his experience as a journalist embedded in Iraq. And rather than filming in Morocco or Mexico, standard surrogates for Middle East war zones, she chose to shoot in Jordan, as close as five kilometres from the Iraqi border.

Unlike most combat pictures, including Cameron’s Avatar, The Hurt Locker is not explicitly anti-war. It’s about how soldiers in a volunteer army get hooked on the drug of war. “It’s not a partisan movie,” Bigelow told me after its premiere at the 2008 Toronto film festival. “But it gives you an experiential sense of what the soldiers are going through. Most soldiers are anti-war.” Then she added, as if to voice the film’s unexpressed viewpoint: “It’s inherently political. It shows how even the best intentions can’t overcome the logistical nightmare of trying to occupy a country that doesn’t want you there.”

You could say the same of Avatar, but Cameron’s movie spells out its anti-military message in boldface, and 3-D. As Bigelow and Cameron saw their careers criss-cross in the recent Oscar showdown, they seem to be on opposite trajectories. Both take a meticulous approach to action—he turns every film into a science project and she buries herself in research. But while Cameron, who’s always favoured strong female characters, seems to have found his feminine side in the fern gullies of Pandora, Bigelow is virtually embedded with the troops. One of the boys.

Queen of the world!
Photograph by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

Even though she tries to not make an issue of her gender, it makes an issue of her. Actor-director Sarah Polley, who starred in The Weight of Water, recalls Bigelow telling her that “as a woman in this industry, you have to be like a dog with a bone. Everyone will try to take it away and you just have to clamp down and hold on tight.” Reached by Maclean’s this week, Polley said, “She taught me to be tenacious. Kathryn had to put up with crap that I’ve never seen male filmmakers put up with. She was constantly being second-guessed by the crew. And she was more competent, responsible and visionary than most of the male directors I’d worked with.”

With those Oscars in her fists, that may be about to change.