The power of the director: Why Jane Campion’s Oscar win was overdue
Jane Campion is now the third woman in history to win the Academy Award for director, joining a tiny pantheon of female filmmakers that will continue to grow and grow. The film academy certainly appears to have hit the accelerator: It took 81 years for Kathryn Bigelow to become the first woman to win the directing Oscar (for “The Hurt Locker”), and another 11 years for Chloé Zhao to become the second (for “Nomadland”). That it took just one more year for Campion to become the third, for “The Power of the Dog,” feels like an undeniable marker of progress — a bracing sign that the movie industry is eager to make up for lost time and lost milestones.
Some might read all this and accuse me — or the academy — of prioritizing politics over artistic merit. That argument might make sense, I suppose, if you can look at the academy’s decadeslong history of crowning one white male filmmaker after another, year after unexamined year, and insist with a straight face that there’s nothing remotely political about that. These early but significant gestures toward parity have been a long time coming, for women in general and for the 67-year-old Campion in particular, who has been happily making history for decades even if this particular honor has eluded her until now.
Campion received her first directing Oscar nomination for her rapturously romantic 1993 drama, “The Piano,” which had already made her the first woman to win the prestigious Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. It wasn’t a solo triumph (she shared the Palme with the Chinese director Chen Kaige for “Farewell My Concubine”), but it was nonetheless a striking vindication for the New Zealand-born Campion after the boos she’d received at Cannes for her 1989 debut feature, “Sweetie.” Along with “An Angel at My Table,” her 1990 miniseries based on the life of the New Zealand writer Janet Frame, “Sweetie” and “The Piano” established Campion as a teller of uncommonly bold, aesthetically uncompromising stories about women, specifically women’s bodies and women’s desires, often in revolt against a world set decisively against them.
“Sweetie,” an eccentric and unnerving tale of two sisters, would be recognized in time as a tour de force. “The Piano,” her most dramatically and emotionally accessible work, became an immediate art-house touchstone, garnering Campion a slew of critics’ prizes and industry honors including an Oscar for original screenplay. It also earned her a first shot at the directing Oscar, which she lost to Steven Spielberg for “Schindler’s List.” This year, the two filmmakers went head-to-head again, with Campion and “The Power of the Dog” triumphing over Spielberg and “West Side Story.” (Campion also beat out Paul Thomas Anderson for “Licorice Pizza,” Kenneth Branagh for “Belfast” and Ryûsuke Hamaguchi for “Drive My Car” in the directing race.)
The Campion-Spielberg rematch may be one of those amusing, irresistible blips in Hollywood history: coincidence disguised as destiny or vice versa. But it nevertheless illuminates something about that history and the filmmakers that the industry has tended to celebrate more often than not. The differences between Campion and Spielberg can scarcely be reduced to gender; there are differences of artistic temperament and sensibility, to say nothing of commercial scale and access to resources. Some would call Spielberg a crowd-pleaser and Campion an iconoclast, a reductive contrast that nonetheless carries an obvious grain of truth.
The pleasures of Campion’s work are real and on full display in “The Power of the Dog”: intoxicating moods and arrestingly tactile images; lucid narratives that nonetheless seem to unfold in that liminal space between reality and dream; majestic outdoor landscapes that throw her characters’ desires into sharp psychological relief. But there’s a toughness to those pleasures, an acknowledgment that pleasure itself can be a far more challenging, complicated business than the movies often like us to think.
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After “Schindler’s List,” Spielberg continued to cement his status as one of Hollywood’s favorite sons, churning out blockbuster hits and prestige dramas and earning four more directing Oscar nominations (bringing his career total to eight) and another win. By contrast, after “The Piano,” Campion has been regarded by the industry as something of a wayward daughter, a gifted artist who failed — a better word would be refused — to conform to the expectations of an Oscar-anointed career. Over the next 16 years she would direct just four features, all of them centered, fittingly, on women who refuse to cleave to the social norms of their respective eras. Most of them were grievously underloved by critics and audiences, though they were not without their shrewd champions at the time.
Writing in the Village Voice about Campion’s piercingly intelligent Henry James adaptation, “The Portrait of a Lady” (1996), Amy Taubin called the film a masterwork on par with “Raging Bull,” noting that Campion “feverishly depicts the sexual hungers and humiliations that James largely kept under wraps.” Here was a movie that looked like a tony Merchant Ivory literary adaptation but refused to behave like one — a refusal etched most powerfully in the contours of Nicole Kidman’s lead performance, which deliberately thwarts conventional sympathies.
Several years later, after her comparatively lighthearted Kate Winslet-Harvey Keitel romp “Holy Smoke” (1999), Campion wrote and directed an adaptation of Susanna Moore’s lurid New York crime thriller, “In the Cut.” The result, a fever dream of sex, gore, romance and horror starring an eerily well-matched Meg Ryan and Mark Ruffalo, was widely panned by critics but hailed by The Times’ Manohla Dargis as perhaps 2003’s “most maddening and imperfect great movie.” (Nearly 20 years later, “In the Cut” has amassed its own significant following: It’s still maddening, and still great.) Reviewers were more appreciative across the board of “Bright Star,” her exquisite and underseen 2009 drama about the 19th century Romantic poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and the love of his life, Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish). A chaste love story, it may be the purest demonstration of Campion’s gift for sensual ravishment, her ability to draw out the magnetism of her actors through the erotic pull of her camera.
After “Bright Star,” Campion returned to long-form television, co-writing and co-directing the New Zealand crime thriller “Top of the Lake” (2013) and its sequel, “Top of the Lake: China Girl” (2017). While both series allowed her to elaborate on career-long themes and preoccupations — women in male-dominated environments, collisions of sex and violence — they were produced and released during a 12-year absence from the big screen that was sorely felt by her legions of admirers. That drought ended only after she read Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel, “The Power of the Dog,” and saw, in its tale of impacted masculinity and queer repression on the Montana range, the outlines of another classic Campion psychodrama.
As many have noted, “The Power of the Dog” stands apart from Campion’s earlier movies by focusing on a male protagonist — Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch), a tormented and tormenting 1920s rancher — and situating him in a genre as historically male-dominated as the western. A few cynics might well argue that the academy only came around to honoring Campion because she’d finally made a movie about men (an argument similar to some of the pseudo-feminist pooh-poohing of Bigelow’s achievement with “The Hurt Locker”).
That’s a simplistic take on “The Power of the Dog,” one that overlooks the significance of the character of Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst), whose sufferings set the entire story in motion and whose relationship with Phil carries an echo of the many darkly thrilling confrontations between women and men in Campion’s work. It also overlooks the movie’s blistering and comprehensive attack on patriarchy, on the systems of oppression that have warped Phil into a cruel, sadistic performance of masculinity. All of which is to say that “The Power of the Dog,” far from representing a departure for Campion, is as unsettlingly ambiguous and volatile an exploration of gender dynamics and sexual desires as she’s ever undertaken, premised on the very Campion-esque contradiction of a manly man whose apparent oneness with nature reflects a desperate inner struggle with his own.
The film professor and critic Nick Davis once noted that “Campion’s all about putting her fingerprints all over other people’s art” — an insight that astutely sums up her boldly imaginative approaches to adapting James, Moore and now Savage. If Campion is an iconoclast, she can be a disarmingly merry, even impish one: There’s something wonderfully irreverent about her handling of the conventions of the western in “The Power of the Dog,” from her dismantling of swaggering male archetypes to her decision to have New Zealand pass for 1925 Montana. I suspect it was that irreverence — not to be confused with disrespect — that so affronted the actor Sam Elliott, whose bluntly sexist and homophobic dismissals of “The Power of the Dog” spurred Campion into her own eloquent counter-criticisms.
I’d go further and suggest it was Campion’s renewed anger about the Hollywood patriarchy — here, in 2022, was another prominent industry figure seeing only her gender and not her talent — that likely led to her acceptance speech at the recent Critics Choice Awards, in which she made her own disastrously ill-considered remarks about Venus and Serena Williams. The many denunciations of Campion’s comments, which she called “thoughtless” in her subsequent apology, suggested that as sharp as she was on gender, she lacked an equivalent sensitivity on race. That argument would seem to bear out preexisting criticisms of some of her movies, particularly her treatment of the nonwhite supporting characters in “The Piano,” “In the Cut” and even “The Power of the Dog.” Like more than a few great filmmakers, Campion has her weaknesses and blind spots, as well as a famous tendency to speak with reckless, unfiltered honesty, for better and for worse.
But mostly, I think, for better. Long before this past awards season and its dramas big and small, Campion has been a persistent and invaluable critic of the ways in which the industry conspires to keep women, especially women filmmakers, in their place. Her outspokenness on the subject has made her a talisman over the years for a new generation of women directors, including Maggie Gyllenhaal, who recently won a debut feature prize for “The Lost Daughter” at the same Directors Guild of America Awards ceremony where Campion was named best director of a theatrical feature film. “If I had a hockey jersey, I probably would put Jane Campion’s name on it,” Gyllenhaal said in her acceptance speech, doubtlessly speaking for many.
Campion’s Oscar win is the latest heartening evidence that things are slowly changing, and that film-awards-giving bodies the world over are becoming not only more representative but also, not coincidentally, more adventurous. With “The Piano,” Campion became only the second woman ever to be nominated for the directing Oscar. (The first, Lina Wertmüller, died in December.) Since then, the academy has nominated Sofia Coppola, Bigelow, Greta Gerwig, Zhao, Emerald Fennell and now Campion again, making her the first and only woman to receive multiple directing Oscar nominations. That statistic, too, will change soon enough.
Elsewhere, women-directed films have been dominating the international festival circuit: Carla Simón’s “Alcarràs” and Audrey Diwan’s “Happening” won the top prizes at the most recent Berlin and Venice film festivals, respectively. Campion’s own long-standing record as the only woman ever to have won Cannes finally came to an end last July, when Julia Ducournau received the Palme d’Or for “Titane.” That movie, a grisly and audacious horror-thriller, was a provocation of a different order than Campion’s films, though it’s hard not to see a similar fearlessness in its unconstrained, uncompromising vision of human desire.
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