Bigger than Bigelow

Bin Laden thriller 'Zero Dark Thirty' courts controversy — and acclaim

Maya (Jessica Chastain) spearheads the hunt for Osama bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty.

FILM There was hella hoopla over Kathryn Bigelow being the first woman to win an Oscar for Best Director, for 2010's The Hurt Locker. It's a good possibility she'll soon be the first woman to win two directing Oscars, if Zero Dark Thirty's remarkable haul of critical kudos continues into statuette season.

But even if Zero (more on that below) doesn't claim cinema's top prize, Bigelow will probably win another Best Directing Oscar before another woman anyway. She's just about the only female director making films that work Oscar's magic formula: critically praised, culturally significant, headline-grabbing, and popularly loved (with box-office hauls to match). Women may be making inroads on the screenwriting end of things (and you'll find lauded female names among documentary, foreign-language, and film-producing credits), but the most successful post-millennial female directors — Sofia Coppola (a Best Original Screenplay winner for 2003's Lost in Translation), Catherine Hardwicke, Andrea Arnold, Debra Granick, Lisa Cholodenko, Lynn Shelton, Kelly Reichardt, and Sarah Polley, to name a few — haven't been able to tick enough of those golden boxes.

Whether or not a film wins an Oscar is hardly a measure of its true worth. But hoisting a Best Directing Oscar does count for something important, particularly in an industry that largely runs on male power. Bigelow's success is particularly notable because she does not make so-called "women's pictures," whatever that may mean (she did make a vampire flick long before Hardwicke, though, as fans of 1987's Near Dark will recall). With the exception of 2000's little-seen The Weight of Water and 1989's Blue Steel (would anyone remember that movie, if not for Derek Zoolander?) — with honorable mention for Angela Bassett's formidable supporting turn in 1995's Strange Days — Bigelow's films tend to be, uh, "men's pictures."

The surfing, skydiving, bank-robbin' three-punch of Point Break (1991) allowed Keanu Reeves to set a course for action-hero superstardom (without it, he'd never have been cast in 1994's Speed); though the film features a traditional romantic subplot, it's mostly about the bromance between Reeves' undercover FBI agent and Patrick Swayze's New Age macho man. K-19: The Widowmaker (2002) was Bigelow's first foray into a military milieu; its tale of trouble aboard a Soviet nuclear submarine, circa 1961, was couched in a $100 million production that neither earned back its budget nor convinced anyone of Harrison Ford's ability to do a Russian accent. (Interestingly, the film's Rotten Tomatoes summary foreshadows the reception to date of Zero Dark Thirty: "A gripping drama even though the filmmakers have taken liberties with the facts.")

Bigelow rebounded with The Hurt Locker (2008) — scooping up her accolades in front of ex-husband and former film-production partner James Cameron, whose 2008 Avatar grossed billions but didn't win over Academy voters. Set during the Iraq War, The Hurt Locker follows the high-stakes, high-tension routine of a three-man bomb disposal team. It launched actor Jeremy Renner to stardom, and earned a screenwriting Oscar for Mark Boal, a journalist who'd been embedded with a US Army bomb squad. Along with the 2008 HBO mini-series Generation Kill (based on a book written by a journalist embedded with the Marines at almost the same time as Boal), The Hurt Locker — a tense, gritty thriller shot using hand-held cameras — was one of the first large-scale docu-dramas based on the months immediately following the 2003 invasion.

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