Should separate Oscars be awarded for best male director and best female director, just as they are for best actor and best actress? That's what some cynics in Hollywood are wondering in the wake of Barbra Streisand's failure to garner a nomination as best director for "The Prince of Tides," a film that was otherwise recognized in seven categories.
In the 64-year history of the Academy Awards, no woman director has ever taken home an Oscar, and only one--Lina Wertmuller for her 1976 movie, "Seven Beauties"--has even been nominated. Given that Nick Nolte and Kate Nelligan were both nominated for performances in Streisand's movie and that Streisand herself picked up a Directors Guild of America nomination last month, some saw sexism at work in the academy nominating process.
"The old boys' network is alive and well in Hollywood," said Harriet Silverman, executive director of the 1,400-member advocacy group Women in Film. "Here people are lauding Nick Nolte's work, but he didn't direct himself. How can they possibly rave about her star and not credit her?"
Streisand herself speculated that resistance to women directors may have played a role in denying her the nomination. "We're still fighting it," she said after the Oscar nominations were announced Wednesday. "It's as if a man were allowed to have passion and commitment to his work, but a woman is allowed that feeling for a man, but not her work."
The historic exclusion of women is "representative of the culture we live in," said Martha Coolidge, who had been considered a contender in the directing category for "Rambling Rose." "As an interested party, I find it disappointing."
Coolidge and others noted that the academy nominations for best director matched the DGA nominations in all but one case. The exception was John Singleton, who captured an Oscar nomination for "Boyz N the Hood," becoming the first African-American director to do so.
"It was a wonderful, groundbreaking vote from the academy," said Coolidge, referring to the Singleton nomination. Anticipation had run high that the members would break with tradition in choosing its director nominees, she added, but "most people expected it to go to a woman."
Other insiders, however, cited a variety of different factors that could have come into play--including Streisand's supposed personal unpopularity in Hollywood and the likelihood that the people nominating in the directing category--all of whom are themselves directors--just did not think she did an Oscar-caliber job. Reviews of "The Prince of Tides" were decidedly mixed, and although many critics praised the performances by Nolte, Nelligan, Blythe Danner and Streisand's son, Jason Gould, some also complained about cinematic cliches and other directorial lapses.
"At its silliest, 'Prince of Tides' just serves up gift-wrapped movie kitsch," wrote Newsweek's David Ansen. "There's a ludicrously phony New York party . . . and the love affair that follows is played out in romantic postures borrowed from 'The Way We Were' and Ralph Lauren ads for country chic."
Mike Medavoy, chairman of TriStar Pictures, whose "Bugsy" got 10 nominations, deplored the notion that academy members cast their vote on the basis of political considerations. "I do not think that people vote or don't vote because of gender," Medavoy said. "To say anything else is not to give credit to the people who voted."
Although directors guild and academy choices coincide much more often than not--only three times since 1949 has the winner of the DGA award not gone on to win an Oscar--they are made by quite disparate groups. All 9,700 DGA members are eligible to vote in the guild's contest, including production managers, assistant directors, technical coordinators, stage managers and production assistants.
By contrast, the academy nominations are made by a much more select group of 281 directors. One reason these choices do not necessarily match the nominations in other categories has to do with who is voting. All 4,900 academy members, for example, get to nominate for best picture.
Columbia Pictures Chairman Mark Canton, head of the company that distributed "The Prince of Tides," had characterized the Streisand omission as "truly shocking" when he first learned of the Oscar nominations. He said later he did not think the director's sex had affected the voting.
"I have felt for a long time that something is wrong with the procedure (for directing nominations)," Canton said, citing Steven Spielberg's exclusion from a best-director nomination for "The Color Purple," Bruce Beresford's for "Driving Miss Daisy" and Penny Marshall's for "Awakenings." All three pictures were nominated for best picture, and the Beresford film won an Oscar.
"There's a real buzz in the community that this isn't right," Canton said. The Streisand case was "particularly bad" because "everyone in this community seems to know 'The Prince of Tides' is very much Barbra Streisand's vision," he added. "Failing to acknowledge the director is like saying you can hit a baseball without a bat."
Whether or not Streisand was slighted on account of her sex, there's no question that women are underrepresented in the directing ranks. In 1990, the last year for which figures are available, women directed only 23 of the 406 feature films made under guild contracts.
But to some in the film industry, the Oscar nominations are a sign that things are looking up for women. In addition to the multiple nominations for Streisand's film, Coolidge's "Rambling Rose" received two nominations (for best actress and best supporting actress) and both Agnieszka Holland ("Europa Europa") and Callie Khouri ("Thelma & Louise") were nominated for their screenplays.
In recent months, other women have been acclaimed for their directing efforts, including Randa Haines ("The Doctor") and Mira Nair ("Mississippi Masala"), while last weekend, a film directed by a woman--Penelope Spheeris' "Wayne's World"--led in box-office receipts.
As more women start making commercially successful films, they are sure to win more awards, said independent producer Dawn Steel. "I think we need to paint this as good news," she added. "The glass is half full."