In 1992 I attended the Telluride Film Festival as a part of the student symposium, that program itself probably in its first or second year of existence. There were about 20 of us from all over the country, and I of course felt extra special since I grew up running around the festival as a kid extracting autographs from filmmakers as they got a drink at the Sheridan. In one famous incident, I interrupted Jack Nicholson during a seminar in Elks Park to ask for a drink of water. I was four. I got to recount this story to him on a film set years later, which was one of the cooler moments of my life. Anyhow, there I was in Telluride at the festival, a college senior, feeling pretty sure that I had finally found a career path working in film production, and I got to spend the weekend watching and talking about films in the mountains of my first hometown.
Among the guests of the festival that year was Kathryn Bigelow. She was there with one of her first films called “The Loveless” and honestly, I have no idea why. She was invited to come speak to the students and I have to admit I only knew about her what I read in my Premiere Magazine: directed “Blue Steel” and “Point Break” and was known as a token hot chick working in a man’s field. Oh and she just split up from James Cameron. So I was clearly ready to pay attention to her wise counsel, ahem. I do remember a few distinct things. She was on my charter flight to and from LA and because she is so tall and so extremely beautiful, I remember feeling intimidated and then of course, because I was 21 years old, totally insecure and I decided it was okay if I hated her. When she came to speak to our group I noticed though that she was kind of awkward and not very spirited, and I felt irritated that she did not seem more passionate about sharing her experiences as a filmmaker and an artist with us. Ken Burns had been the exact opposite: warm, funny, inquisitive, inspiring, supportive, a true mentor. Robert Rodriguez had sold his blood to make “El Mariachi” for chrissakes, and he sat with us in The Floridora to regal us with tales of making a feature on $7,000. What was wrong with this lady I kept thinking. And of course, the men were falling all over themselves to ask questions and chat her up afterwards, so predictable. I promptly wrote her off, or at least that is what I tried to tell myself that weekend.
Last year, when “The Hurt Locker” was hitting the festival circuit and getting a lot of attention from film nerds and big time critics, I thought back to meeting Ms. Bigelow in Telluride. I was intrigued that critics were heaping praise on the film, both for its technical skill and for its meticulous direction, most saying that her distinct visual style was what differentiated this from any other film about the Iraq war. And that a woman could direct such a gritty portrayal of combat? Well, even more fantastic. I was pleasantly surprised that my reaction to these reviews was one of genuine interest, not that scoffing, suspicious insecurity of my 21-year old self. Although I knew I would not be rushing out to see the movie, merely based on subject matter (I don’t do so well with war and violence), I did feel a sense of feminine pride that she had directed and produced a great film and its success was due to her talent and experience.
As Barbra Steisand announced Ms. Bigelow’s name as the Best Director winner last night, that pride turned into total and unabashed joy. I also noticed a bit of that same awkwardness in her stage presence (total shock at just having won an Oscar aside) that I had sensed many years ago. I had watched “The Hurt Locker” the night before, feeling that she might win the Academy Award I wanted to have that movie under my belt. I am so glad I did. The movie is incredibly intense in a way that leaves you stressed and pondering for days after, the mark of excellent filmmaking. But her achievement last night to be the first woman to win an Academy Award for Directing will have me thinking for weeks, months and years. Only now, 18 years later do I understand the level of her impact on women filmmakers, and yes, it matters to have that boundary shattered. I was reminded of a scene in one of my favorite movies about a non-conformist woman, “Out of Africa.” Karen Blixen (as played by the superlative Meryl Streep) has basically lost everything: her land, her husband, her lover, and some would say her dignity. She is leaving Africa to go back to Denmark, and stops at the social club. At that moment, she is invited into the men’s quarters, which has been previously and obviously off limits to women. The men silently acknowledge her and her struggles as she walks to the bar, and then raise a toast in her honor. So here is the long overdue toast to Kathryn Bigelow, who has now invited all of us into the club. Cheers!
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