The phrase "making history" is often used breezily in popular culture to describe things that may not be remembered even a week later.
But every once in a while an event -- Jackie Robinson's first Dodger game, Elvis' twitchy TV performance -- lives up to that breathless billing.
Such was apparently the case Sunday night when Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman in Oscar history to win the director award, for the dramatic war thriller "The Hurt Locker," which also won best picture.
Somewhat less conspicuously, Geoffrey Fletcher became the first African American to win a writing award. Fletcher took home the gold statue for adapted screenplay for "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire."
Bigelow broke through what some have dubbed the "celluloid ceiling" that has severely limited the number of Hollywood female directors over the decades, let alone commercially and artistically successful ones. Only three other women had ever been nominated for director: Lina Wertmüller for "Seven Beauties" (1975); Jane Campion for "The Piano" (1993); and Sofia Coppola for "Lost in Translation" (2003).
It's therefore striking, maybe ironic, that throughout her career Bigelow has quietly avoided attempts to define, or limit, her by relating her gender to her films. She was consistent in that regard last night, praising her fellow nominees and thanking her filmmaking collaborators and the men and women of the U.S. armed services, but not citing any past female artists. Presenter Barbra Streisand, though, did allude to history. "Well," Streisand said dramatically after opening the envelope and seeing the winner, "the time has come."
As Bigelow exited the stage, the '70s pop-feminist anthem "I Am Woman" played. But come tomorrow, Bigelow still will be working in an industry where women directors, actors, writers and designers aren’t paid as well or praised as much as their male counterparts.
Whether history was made last night, precedent was gratefully acknowledged. When Mo'Nique won the award for supporting actress for her portrayal of an abusive mother in "Precious," she thanked Hattie McDaniel, the first African American to win an Academy Award, for the 1939 film "Gone With the Wind." Backstage, Mo'Nique acknowledged that she'd worn a royal blue dress and a flower in her hair because that's what McDaniel wore when she won. Only five black women have won an acting Oscar.
The history of the Oscars amounts to a kind of parallel, alternative history of the United States. One question, perhaps, is why an art form that ostensibly reflects our life and times has so often lagged years or even decades behind evolving social realities. Time will tell whether last night's recognitions were harbingers of change or exceptions that prove the rule.