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Academy Award For Best Director: How Many Women Have Ever Been Nominated Or Won?

The cast of director Greta Gerwig's Little Women

After famously getting snubbed by the Golden Globes, in 2018, Greta Gerwig was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director for her acclaimed behind-the-camera debut, Lady Bird. Two years later, her adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women has earned her a nomination at the 2020 Oscars… for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Greta Gerwig’s directorial snub this year is inciting more controversy than the 2018 Golden Globes snub, probably because people hoped history would repeat itself the Academy would make up for the Golden Globes’ snub this year with a Best Director nomination. Instead, the directors nominated for Oscars this year are all men again, among them Sam Mendes and Quentin Tarantino, and Gerwig remains one of only five women with Oscar nominations for their directorial efforts, all of whom have also only been nominated once.

Who are the female artists nominated for Best Director and have any of them ever taken home an Oscar in the category? Let us take a closer look at this rare, yet often discussed, topic.

A scene from Lina Wertmüller's Seven Beauties

Lina Wertmüller (Seven Beauties)

Lina Wertmüller had 9 feature-length directing credits under her belt, two of which she directed under male pseudonyms, before she became the first woman to be nominated by the Academy for Best Director in 1977. The film was Seven Beauties, the American title given to this World War II-era Italian drama starring Wertmüller’s frequent collaborator Giancarlo Giannini as a prisoner of a German concentration camp whose dark past and seven unattractive sisters we learn more about through flashbacks.

Seven Beauties was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Foreign Language Film and, of course, Best Director, but lost in every category and Lina Wertmüller, who lost to Rocky director John G. Avildsen was never nominated again. However, at 91 years old (almost as old as the Academy Awards themselves), the Italian filmmaker will be one of this year’s recipients of the traditional honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement, alongside David Lynch and Wes Studi.

Holly Hunter in Jane Campion's The Piano

Jane Campion (The Piano)

Seventeen years after Lina Wertmüller’s revolutionary Best Director nomination, New Zealander Jane Campion was the second woman in line to receive the honorable nod. The Academy nominated her for Best Director in 1994 as one of eight Oscar nominations given to her third feature-length effort, The Piano.

The harrowing 19th-century drama about a mute pianist’s (Holly Hunter) abusive, arranged marriage to a wealthy landowner (Harvey Keitel) earned Hunter and her onscreen daughter, then 11-year-old Anna Paquin, Oscars for their performances and Jane Campion won for her screenplay, but that is all The Piano took home. Campion, the second woman the Academy nominated for Best Director, also became the second woman to lose in the category with the prize that year given to first-time winner Steven Spielberg for the masterful Holocaust drama Schindler’s List.

Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson in Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation

Sofia Coppola (Lost In Translation)

Ten years after Jane Campion’s loss in the Best Director Oscar category but win for Best Original Screenplay for The Piano, history would prove to repeat itself. In 2004, Sofia Coppola, the daughter of The Godfather helmer Francis Ford Coppola and cousin of Oscar-winning actor Nicolas Cage, received three Academy Award nominations, including Best Director, for her sophomore directorial effort, Lost In Translation.

The dark, quasi-romantic comedy featured an Academy Award-nominated performance by Bill Murray as a fading movie star in Tokyo filming a whiskey marketing campaign exclusive to the Japanese market and strikes up an unlikely friendship with the young neglected wife of an entertainment photographer, played by Scarlett Johansson. Sofia Coppola lost in the Best Director category that year to Peter Jackson for The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, but accepted Lost in Translation’s sole Oscar win for Best Original Screenplay.

Jeremy Renner outruns an explosion in Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker

Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker)

Anticipation for the 2010 Oscars proved to be an exciting time, especially for the Best Director category with Lee Daniels, the second black director to receive a nomination for his historical drama The Butler, and The Hurt Locker helmer Kathryn Bigelow, the fourth woman, among the year’s nominees. It would prove to be a night of history in the making once the the winner was announced.

While presenting the award, Barbra Streisand made a point of mentioning that this could be the first time the winner for Best Director could be a woman or an African-American before opening the envelope to reveal that, in a category that also included Jason Reitman, Quentin Tarantino, and her ex-husband James Cameron, Kathryn Bigelow came out on top. For her expert direction of the brutally realistic Iraq War-era drama The Hurt Locker, which also won in five additional categories including Best Picture, Bigelow made it possible to say that a woman has won the Oscar for Best Director.

Greta Gerwig directs Saoirse Ronan on the set of Lady Bird

Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird)

As we have mentioned before, Greta Gerwig’s Academy Award nomination for Best Director in 2018 was a big deal, and not just for being the fifth woman to earn the nod. Her directorial debut, Lady Bird, received plenty of love at the Golden Globes that year, earning star Saoirse Ronan a lead actress award and being crowned Best Picture in the Musical or Comedy division, but Gerwig’s sole nomination for her work was Best Screenplay, which Best Director award presenter Natalie Portman famously commented on before listing the “all male nominees,” causing her co-presenter, Ron Howard, to awkwardly chuckle.

The coming of age dramatic comedy, chronicling the struggles of a Catholic high school student in early 2000s Sacramento starring Irish actress Saoirse Ronan, received five Oscar nominations, none of which it won. However, seeing Greta Gerwig deservedly acknowledged by the Academy for directing the highly acclaimed Lady Bird was praised as a wonderful achievement, nonetheless, making her snub this year for Little Women a step down in the eyes of many.

For now, the record stands with only five women receiving the Best Director nomination, one nomination each, and only one winner among them. Perhaps with more female filmmakers coming on the scene and a recent rise in acknowledgment of their contributions to cinema, seeing women in the Best Director category (and even occasionally winning) will soon become more commonplace for the Oscars.

Jason Wiese
Jason Wiese

Jason has been writing since he was able to pick up a washable marker, with which he wrote his debut illustrated children's story, later transitioning to a short-lived comic book series and (very) amateur filmmaking before finally settling on pursuing a career in writing about movies in lieu of making them. Look for his name in just about any article related to Batman.