You think you’d know what to expect when you see “Barbie,” but nothing can prepare you for how surprising Greta Gerwig’s latest directorial film is. The film begins with the voice of Academy Award-winning Helen Mirren and tells a brief history of the infamous girl doll by paying homage to Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”. Then it cuts to this imaginative place called “Barbieland” where everything about it is somewhat artificial yet beautiful. But then, the story quickly becomes more serious: a fun yet substantiated discourse about being a woman in a society run by the patriarchy and the existentialist idea of finding one’s place within the world.
“Barbie” takes the question, “If Barbie can be everything for everyone, can she also be a human?” and explores profound themes in a brilliant and thought-provoking manner while never losing its spirited, fun, silly nature. What’s more surprising is this mammoth success of a movie is only the third solo feature directorial effort from Academy Award-nominee Greta Gerwig.
With the box office numbers approaching $1 billion and rave reviews, many Oscar pundits have predicted “Barbie” will land multiple Oscar nominations, including Best Production and Costume Design, Margot Robbie for Best Actress and Ryan Gosling for Best Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay for Gerwig and her co-writer and partner Noah Baumbach and Best Original Song (with multiple options to choose from including “What Was I Made For?,” “I’m Just Ken,” and “Dance The Night”). However, despite all of this, there is still doubt about the film receiving a Best Picture nomination, let alone a Best Director nomination for Gerwig. A previous Best Director nominee for “Lady Bird” in 2017 and with two Best Picture nominations for that film, plus “Little Women,” why are we doubting Gerwig’s chances to receive another Oscar nomination for Best Director?
To better explain that point, we should acknowledge that the directing branch of the Academy is still predominantly male and white and tend to favor masculine films. Only eight women have been nominated for Best Director throughout the 95 years of the Academy Awards, and only three have emerged as winners. Kathryn Bigelow made history and became the first woman to win this award for her Best Picture-winning film “The Hurt Locker” in 2009. Chloe Zhao followed in her path when she won Best Director for the Best Picture-winning film “Nomadland” more than ten years later. And most recently, Jane Campion, the only woman nominated twice in this category, won Best Director on her second nomination for “The Power of the Dog” in 2021.
While Bigelow, Zhao, and Campion’s directorial achievements are exceptional in their own unique way, they also illuminate a common theme within the directors’ branch of the Academy: it’s extremely hard for the branch to nominate female directors telling women’s stories. Sure, Emerald Fennel’s “Promising Young Woman” (2020) and Sofia Coppola’s “Lost In Translation” (2003) have also been nominated in the category. Yet, there are so many other projects that didn’t get nominated over the span of decades. Gerwig’s “Little Women” is a masterpiece and offers a fresh retelling of its source material. Still, she was shut out that year while receiving nominations for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay instead. Sian Heder’s “CODA” won every award it was nominated for at the Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay (which went to Heder), but she wasn’t even nominated for Best Director.
Things appeared more promising when in 2020, the Academy nominated two women (and Golden Globes nominated three) for Best Director. Jane Campion would go on to receive a nomination the following year and win the category, making 2020 and 2021 the first time two female directors won the Oscar for Best Director back to back. However, last year we were back to an all-male directing lineup again despite there being options to choose from, with Sarah Polley for “Women Talking” (she would go on to win Best Adapted Screenplay) and Charlotte Wells for “Aftersun.”
Before Zhao and Campion won the Golden Globe for Best Director in back-to-back years, the only woman the Golden Globes ever rewarded for directing was Barbra Streisand for her work in the 1984 film “Yentl.” The irony of such a win is that the film tells a story about a woman who tries to disguise herself as a man. While gaining momentum from its Golden Globe win, the Academy was nowhere near as accepting of female-directed projects as they are today, and Streisand was famously overlooked for a Best Director nomination.
The Academy at large can only vote for an Oscar winner for Best Director based on who the directing branch deems worthy of a nomination. If the directing branch decides to shut out Gerwig’s feminist blockbuster, what does it say about them today? Shouldn’t they want to reward a project combining art and commerce with a positive message that can have a widespread impact across generations?
Ever since the Academy expanded its membership and added more diversity to its various branches, we have seen more inspiring nominations and wins in recent years. When Bong Joon-Ho won Best Director for “Parasite” over Sam Mendes for “1917,” who had won the CCA, Golden Globe, BAFTA, and DGA, it subliminally sent a message that the old way of thinking was changing, and the minds of voters were expanding. Chloe Zhao and Emerald Fennel were nominated for Best Director the following year, with the former winning, becoming only the second female to do so. Jane Campion won the following year for a challenging, complex western that deconstructed men’s perceptions of the genre, while Best Picture w went to the feel-good film “CODA.” And then last year, in what might be the wildest win the Academy has seen in ages, The Daniels, for only their second film, won Best Director for the whacky, sci-fi-action-comedy “Everything Everywhere All at Once” over that year’s Golden Globe winner Steven Spielberg’s biographical film “The Fabelmans.”
The trends point towards a much more welcoming Academy of original, thought-provoking cinema than stereotypical Oscar movies. This is not to say masculine films in awards season conversation this year, “Oppenheimer” and “Killers of the Flower Moon,” led by two of the most prominent male directors in the world, may be overlooked. I’m sure the Academy will still love them and throw many nominations their way, but that doesn’t mean films like “Past Lives” or even “Barbie” won’t get a chance to shine, specifically in the Best Director category. Box office numbers and press coverage will still be able to influence the Academy voters to watch these films even if the ongoing WGA/SAG-AFTRA strikes prevent the films’ writers and cast from promoting them through awards season, but getting the Academy to vote for them is a different story.
The directing branch has historically favored auteurs directors. Christopher Nolan, Martin Scorsese, and Quentin Tarantino have all been labeled as directors with their own cinematic style and thematic focus. Each of them has been nominated for multiple Oscars, and every time they have a new film release, they’re automatically placed in prognosticators’ prediction lists. Do you know who also has been recognized as an auteur before and now (after some were worried the corporate, studio-driven production of “Barbie” would hold her down)? Greta Gerwig. All her projects tell stories centering on women and the faults of the patriarchy, specifically how women actively “write their own story.” “Barbie” is definitely her boldest and most imaginative achievement to date. With a small source material to adapt, Gerwig brought a clear vision and a splash of joy to a film everyone seems to be loving, as evidenced by its tremendous box office and strong critical ratings.
Looking back, she’s been consistently showcasing her signature style when she first co-wrote the screenplay of “Frances Ha” (2012) with Noah Baumbach. The fact that she wrote about the experience of a woman navigating her late 20s, finding herself, struggling with her dreams, and being alone in New York City showcased her skills as a storyteller even then, displaying sensitivity, insight, and a level of care towards her characters.
When she co-wrote “Mistress America” (2015) with Baumbach, she had a stronger sense of portraying women writing their own stories. Through the perspective of Tracy, she candidly expresses her observations and feelings about Brooke, including her initial idolization of her and later her disillusionment. Her essay delves into Brooke’s dreams, ambitions, and struggles, and it’s clear that Tracy is critiquing some of Brooke’s behavior and self-assuredness making it more obvious Gerwig had the potential to find a theme where women determine their own stories in life.
When Gerwig directed “Lady Bird,” her understanding of women was effectively communicated on a broader level. Lady Bird (brilliantly played by Saoirse Ronan) literally had to make her way out of Sacramento even when her mother did not think she could make it. In “Little Women,” this re-occurring theme of forging your own path grew even stronger. The character of Jo (once again, played exquisitely by Ronan) is even a writer in the story. Gerwig put a little of Louisa May Alcott’s life in the film’s ending to describe the negotiation process between a woman author and her publisher who wants to take the copyright for her work, further weaving in her message of female autonomy.
After having seen “Barbie,” it’s abundantly clear how it also fits within the same themes and ideas both “Lady Bird” and “Little Women” explore. And if the Academy could recognize both of those with Best Picture nominations and a Best Director nomination for the former, why can’t “Barbie” do that as well? Sure, the film’s intelligent screenplay gives an even-sided approach to both the female and male sides of viewing the world. Barbie may not be a writer like Lady Bird or Jo. If anything, Barbie represents an idea of how women see themselves and how they should see themselves, further giving them the strength to rise above the hardships the world will inevitably hurl their way.
But when that idea starts realizing she wants to imagine, dream and exist for herself unboxed in a world where she will lose the protections Barbieland has afforded her, that sends an even more powerful message. This idea that Barbie wants to get out of where she is and become a human is just as potent as a young girl who wants to leave her hometown in Sacramento or a young woman hoping to become a successful writer. How Gerwig communicates this through Billie Eilish’s “What Was I Made For?” while an emotional montage plays over the soft, meaningful song representing a culmination of everything her career has been building up to. If the Director’s branch cannot chart this evolution and growth, which has resulted in one of the most incredible meteoric rises a female director, or any director, has seen in this industry, then they are truly lost and out of touch.
While the Academy still stands as a benchmark of excellence in art, it’s also about recognizing successes within the business and how to make people come to the theater, entertain them, and tell them something that matters that will outlive them. If you look past the pink-colored blinders, you’ll see Greta Gerwig has done something extraordinary any person within this industry would hope to achieve, and it’s why she deserves to be recognized as only the second woman to be nominated more than once in the Best Director category at the Oscars.
Do you think Greta Gerwig will be nominated for an Oscar for Best DirectorHow many Oscars do you think “Barbie” will be nominated for? Please let us know your thoughts in the comments section below or over on our Twitter account. And please check out the Next Best Picture team’s latest Oscar predictions here.
You can follow Reza and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @kelitikfilm