The first big sale at Sundance happened over the weekend, as Mindy Kaling’s film Late Night sold to Amazon for $13 million. Directed by Nisha Ganatra, it’s an intriguing premise about a boy’s-club writer’s room forced to diversify their staff by hiring Kaling’s character. The sale comes on the heels of last week’s Academy Awards nominations announcement that declared five men in the running for Best Director, as has been the case for 85 of the Academy’s 90-year history. Imagine two women directors competing against each other in this category, let alone five. Kathryn Bigelow is the only woman director to have ever won, for The Hurt Locker, a film about what the ravages of war do to men.
Greta Gerwig didn’t win. When Guillermo del Toro’s name was announced, I gasped—and then felt mad at myself for doing so. I’d been so on guard the whole night, but still her loss shocked me. It was so blatant, so punishing. The Shape of Water winning in this category felt both random and calculated. It felt like the Academy had been humoring us. The message seemed clear enough: You can have your fun with your ribbons, but know your lane.
In 2018, there were, as always, many worthy movies directed by women—Leave No Trace, The Rider, Destroyer, Private Life, Madeline’s Madeline, to name a few. But in terms of the generally agreed-upon rules that Oscar movies seem to follow, Can You Ever Forgive Me? hit all the marks. It’s based on a true story that takes place in 1980s New York during the height of the AIDS epidemic. It centers around the friendship between two lonely eccentrics, played by Richard E. Grant and Melissa McCarthy. It’s full of Oscar-clip moments, but they're as a pleasant side effect instead of the entire cynical impetus for its existence. It’s also just a really good movie. I saw it in the theater, and it reminded me of seeing movies as a kid. You walk out feeling like you’ve just had a full meal. Afterward, I said, “There’s no way Marielle Heller won’t get nominated for best director.”
She didn’t. Which teaches us two valuable lessons. One, I need to stop making pronouncements to friends. Two, the Academy allocates its awards carefully. For it did, indeed, deem Can You Ever Forgive Me? award-worthy, to a point. McCarthy and Grant both received acting nominations, as did Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty for Best Adapted Screenplay. It’s Heller who received nothing, and the film itself wasn’t nominated for Best Picture, despite there being two slots to spare (eight films were nominated this year out of a maximum of 10.) The Academy had a chance to move the needle by adding another woman’s name to its flimsy lifetime list and opted against it. It’s a classic Academy move. Nominate a woman-directed film for a bunch of other awards to hide the fact that you’re not nominating the director herself, which also serves the convenient dual purpose of reminding the director of her place.
My pick for Oscars host is Frances McDormand doing her exact same speech, same dress, same everything, just so there’s a visual of how the gaps between women nominees grew wider, not narrower, this year.
It would be nice if I could end on a hopeful note. Perhaps I could mention more women finally getting offered big Hollywood directing jobs, like Hannah Marks directing John Green’s Turtles All the Way Down, or Chloe Zhao directing the Marvel movie, The Eternals? I’m happy to hear about those jobs, for sure. Give us all the jobs. But it’s annoying that this is history-making news, that there’s still a feeling of women being done favors, or that we’ve proved ourselves at last. If anything, it’s the system that has something to prove to us. It’s rude and weird that we have to sit through another ceremony where the only ones to cheer on are men. I’ve lost track of whether there’s going to be an actual host, but my nominee is Frances McDormand doing her exact same speech, same dress, same hair, same everything, just so there’s a visual of how the gaps between women nominees grew wider, not narrower, this year.
I grew up loving movies and wanting to make them. I still do. One of the most challenging parts of being an adult is realizing that the majority of influences that shaped me, that made me who I am, were conceived by men. It’s time to build a new system. One that doesn’t revolve around the attainment of a tiny man covered in gold leaf, to conceal his actual worth.
Is that hopeful enough?
Starlee Kine is a writer and radio producer. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times Magazine and California Sunday, and she has been featured on This American Life and was an editorial advisor for the S-Town podcast.