The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has had a relatively rocky history when it comes to recognizing the efforts of female directors in the industry. Luckily, we can say that some women have been nominated for (and even took home) the Best Director Oscar, but it is still a mere handful in both instances at the moment. Let’s take a closer look at this rare, yet often discussed, topic by reviewing the women who have competed and proved victorious in this Oscar category so far.
Lina Wertmüller (Seven Beauties)
Lina Wertmüller had nine 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 with a dark past and seven unattractive sisters that we learn more about through flashbacks.
Seven Beauties was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Foreign Language Film and Best Director, but lost in every category, and Wertmüller, who lost to Rocky director John G. Avildsen was never nominated again. However, in 2020, the then-91-year-old Italian filmmaker became one of the year’s recipients of the traditional honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement, alongside David Lynch and Wes Studi.
Sofia Coppola (Lost In Translation)
Ten years after The Piano earned Jane Campion a Best Screenplay win (but a Best Director loss – more on that later), history would prove to repeat itself. In 2004, Sofia Coppola, (daughter of Oscar-winning The Godfather helmer Francis Ford Coppola) received three Academy Award nominations, including Best Director, for her sophomore directorial effort, Lost In Translation.
The dark, quasi-romantic comedy – and one of the best movies of the 2000s – featured an Academy Award-nominated performance by Bill Murray as a fading movie star who strikes up an unlikely friendship with the young neglected wife of an entertainment photographer, played by Scarlett Johansson, while in Tokyo. 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.
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 to be nominated in the category) among the year’s nominees. It would prove to be a night of history in the making once 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 James Cameron, Bigelow came out on top. For her expert direction of one of the best war movies of its time (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… for the first time, at least.
Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird)
Greta Gerwig’s Academy Award nomination for Best Director in 2018 was a big deal, and not just because she was 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 was Best Screenplay, which Best Director award presenter Natalie Portman famously commented on before listing the “all male nominees,” causing 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, received five Oscar nominations, none of which it won. However, seeing Gerwig deservedly acknowledged by the Academy for directing the highly acclaimed Lady Bird was praised as a wonderful achievement, nonetheless. However, it would also make her snub in 2020 for Little Women and again for Barbie at the 2024 Academy Award nominations a disappointment in the eyes of many.
Emerald Fennell (Promising Young Woman)
The backlash from Gerwig’s directorial snub for Little Women seemed to speak volumes to the Academy based on their choices in the Best Director the following year. For instance, Emerald Fennell’s debut, Promising Young Woman – a darkly comic revenge thriller starring Carey Mulligan in her second Oscar-nominated performance – earned five nominations, including Best Director.
The English filmmaker would accept the award for Best Original Screenplay, but did not take home Best Director. However, if it is any consolation, a woman did win Best Director that year.
Chloé Zhao (Nomadland)
For the first time ever, two women were simultaneously included among the Best Director nominees in 2021, which also included Lee Isaac Chung for Minari, David Fincher for Mank, and Thomas Vinterburg for Another Round. The other female contender, in addition to Emerald Fennell, was Chloé Zhao for Nomadland, which stars Frances McDormand as a woman who joins a real-life culture of people who travel the country in vans they call home.
The drama – which also stars non-celebrities portraying themselves representing their nomadic lifestyle – took home three Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actress for McDormand (her third), and Best Director for Zhao. In addition to being the second woman to win in the category, she is also the first woman of color to receive the nomination in the first place.
Jane Campion (The Piano, The Power Of The Dog)
Seventeen years after Lina Wertmüller’s revolutionary Best Director nomination, New Zealander Jane Campion became the second woman to receive the honorable nod – one of eight Oscar nominations given to 1993’s The Piano. The harrowing 19th-century drama earned star Holly Hunter (who was up for two different acting categories that same year) and her onscreen daughter, then 11-year-old Anna Paquin, statuettes for their performances. Campion also won for her screenplay, but lost Best Director to first-time winner Steven Spielberg for Schindler’s List.
However, in 2021, Campion released a Netflix original Western movie called The Power of the Dog – an adaptation of Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel following the relationship between an intimidating cattle rancher (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) and his new sister-in-law’s son (Kodi Smit-McPhee). It became the first film directed by a woman to be nominated for more than 10 Academy Awards, but only took home one: Best Director. Thus, Campion – after becoming the first woman to be nominated in said category twice – became the third woman to take home the prize in 2022.
Justine Triet (Anatomy Of A Fall)
While Gerwig is not among the nominees for the Best Director Oscar in 2024, it is not a completely male-dominated race this year. In addition to Martin Scorsese for Killers of the Flower Moon, Christopher Nolan for Oppenheimer, Yorgos Lanthimos for Poor Things, and Jonathan Glaser for The Zone of Interest, Justine Triet was nominated for Anatomy of a Fall.
The French crime drama – starring Best Actress nominee Sandra Hüller as a mother standing trial for her husband’s mysterious death – is recognized in five categories, including Best Original Screenplay for Triet and Arthur Harari. While Nolan is widely recognized as the frontrunner for Best Director, to see a female contender – especially amid Gerwig’s snub – is still exciting.
For now, the record stands with eight women receiving the Best Director nomination (including two nominations total for Campion), and three winners among them. So, it appears that seeing women in this category (and even winning) is becoming a bit more common for the Oscars. Perhaps with more female filmmakers coming onto the scene and an increased rise in acknowledgment of their contributions to cinema, its commonality will only continue to grow.
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Jason Wiese writes feature stories for CinemaBlend. His occupation results from years dreaming of a filmmaking career, settling on a "professional film fan" career, studying journalism at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, MO (where he served as Culture Editor for its student-run print and online publications), and a brief stint of reviewing movies for fun. He would later continue that side-hustle of film criticism on TikTok (@wiesewisdom), where he posts videos on a semi-weekly basis. Look for his name in almost any article about Batman.