The Big O: Oscar Needs to Honor More Women With the “Write” Stuff

nullAs the Academy Awards prepares for its 87th edition, a nagging fact continues to rear its gender-biased head: the astonishing fact that only four women have ever been nominated for Best Director and just one, Kathryn Bigelow, has won.

But there is a fair chance that those statistics could shift with a pair of late-opening biopics considered to be in the running this year: Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, about an Olympian-turned-P.O.W., and Ava DuVernay’s Selma, which focuses on the fight for voting rights and civil-rights crusader Martin Luther King, Jr.

However, there are two other Oscar categories where women are also chronically under-represented, even though they have twice as many chances to appear on the ballot: adapted and original screenplay.

Since 1929, women — both solo and as co-writers — have won Academy Awards for an adapted screenplay just 10 times. Ruth Prawler Jhabvala triumphed twice, for 1985’s A Room With a View and 1992’s Howards End, and Phillipa Boyens and Fran Walsh, with director Peter Jackson, shared the honor for 2003’s Lord of the Rings: Return of the King.

As for original screenplay, a category that began in 1940, women have taken the Oscar just seven times — three as co-writers and four solo.

Usually, at least one female name shows up in each category, but rarely without a male counterpart also attached to the script. Since 2000, there have been four male-only nominee years for both adapted and original screenplays.

This year, sadly, only one script by a woman is seen by Oscar pundits as a likely candidate to make the ballot.

That would be Gone Girl, the psychological thriller based on the literary blockbuster by Gillian Flynn. The best-selling author wisely included a clause in her film-option deal that she would get first dibs on doing the initial draft of the screenplay. Instead of the studio simply placating her wishes, then shoving her aside — as is often the case — director David Fincher (The Social Network, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) used his considerable industry clout to keep her on board through the whole process.

As a result, Flynn might become the third woman nominated for adapting her own work, joining Lillian Hellman for The Little Foxes (1941) and Fannie Flagg for Fried Green Tomatoes (1991).

And she could be the first to actually win. If the box office is any indication, it was a smart move on both Fincher and Flynn’s parts to keep the original author involved. Closing in on $150 million in its sixth week and bouncing back to No. 3 in the rankings this past weekend, Gone Girl has shown remarkable legs and is Fincher’s biggest success yet — which can be a plus in award contests.

At least two other likely contenders for best picture, Unbroken and Wild, are based on books written by women, but their scripts were done by men.

What is most upsetting about this current state of affairs is that, just seven years ago, it looked as if there was a breakthrough in achieving some sort of literary parity. In 2007, a record four nominated screenplays were written by women with a sole writing credit. Competing in the original screenplay category were Diablo Cody for Juno, writer-director Tamara Jenkins for The Savages and Nancy Oliver for Lars and the Real Girl. Writer-director Sarah Polley made the cut in the adapted category with Away From Her.

That Cody would go on to triumph was the cherry on a long-baking cake. And if Polley had to lose, at least it was to the Coen brothers for their best-picture winner No Country for Old Men.

The moment didn’t possess quite the same historic impact as the one that occurred in the 2001 contest, however. Progress appeared to be made when Denzel Washington became just the second black actor after Sidney Poitier to win a lead Oscar for his villainous performance in Training Day, while Halle Berry became the first black women to take home the lead-actress prize as a hard-luck waitress in Monster’s Ball.

Still, the women writers who vied for the prize in the 2007 race were in a celebratory mood back then, and even demonstrated a sisterly solidarity with each other — something men are less inclined to do (just check out the stories about the ill will between 12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley during the 2013 contest.)

As Cody told CBS News at the time, “You don’t want to be singled out as a woman. On the other end, as a feminist, and someone who feels that women are marginalized in this industry, I am thrilled that women are getting this sort of recognition.”

There was even a bonus that year when graphic novelist Marjane Satrapi scored an animation feature nod for her girl-powered Persepolis.

“We all feel that a victory for one of us is a victory for all. We don’t feel we have that jocular sense of competition that men have … yet,” Cody added.

But since her win, no other female writer has been granted a gold statuette in either category.

The reason that there is such a lack of women in these categories is mostly a result of an industry that continues to be male-dominated. In its landmark 2012 demographic study of the makeup of the 6,000-plus Oscar voters who are part of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Los Angeles Times found that the membership was 77% male. In the branch devoted to writers, however, that number rose to 82% men. Since writers nominate writers — while the entire Academy votes on those who make it onto the ballot — it isn’t surprising that such a majority-rules club has one another’s back.

The Writers Guild of America-West’s membership roster is even more depressing. In 2007, when Cody won, women made up 27% of TV writers and 19% of feature-film writers. While TV employment remained the same in 2012, the most recent year studied by the guild in its 2014 report, the number of employed female film writers fell to 16%.

There is also a huge earnings gap between male and female movie writers. In 2012, women TV writers earned 92 cents for every dollar earned by their white male counterparts. But in film, women only took in 77 cents for every dollar earned by their white male counterparts. The recession in late 2007 can only be partially to blame for such a disparity.

Margaret Nagle has personally experienced the difference between writing for TV and for feature films. Her HBO movie, the 2005 FDR biopic Warm Springs, was nominated for 16 Emmys, including for her script, which won a Writers Guild award. She earned an Emmy nod for her work on the HBO series Boardwalk Empire and developed the Fox series The Red Band Society.

This fall, she switched to feature films with her original script for The Good Lie, about young survivors of the Sudanese civil wars. The movie with Reese Witherspoon in a supporting role received an 85% positive rank on the Rotten Tomatoes review site and an A-plus Cinemascore rating based on audience reactions. Yet Warner Bros. — the studio behind the film — isn’t providing an awards screener to various voting groups, including Oscar voters.

Part of the problem? It stalled at the box office with a gross of slightly less than $2.5 million, while never going beyond 461 theaters. Word of mouth had no chance to build. The Good Lie also had the bad luck to open against Gone Girl.

Nagle does point to a continuing bright spot — cable TV — and cites HBO’s recent miniseries, Olive Kitteridge, as an example of women being allowed to take the lead creatively. Star Frances McDormand — a best-actress Oscar winner for Fargo — bought the rights to Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer-winning novel. Director Lisa Cholodenko (The Kids Are All Right) was behind the camera. Jane Anderson (Mad Men, Normal, The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom) did the adapted screenplay.

It was risky subject matter, a grumpy, middle-aged math teacher in Maine coping with life, but the reviews were glowing, even if the first two-hour installment attracted just 559,000 viewers. “They did a phenomenal job,” Nagle says.

As for feature films, a much-praised film like Enough Said, the 2013 romantic comedy written and directed by Nicole Holofcener that featured Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini in one of his final roles, went unrecognized at the Academy Awards. “It was a stunning movie. Beautifully rendered with great emotional impact. I so wanted it to be recognized with nominations, Nagle says.

She has an inkling why there has been no repeat of 2007 in the screenplay categories yet.

“There seems to be a no-special-effects rule for hiring women for a film. Look at what scripts were nominated that year. They weren’t big studio movies. The were indie films. Women aren’t being considered to write and direct big-budget movies, and the number of specialty divisions are shrinking.”

Both Warner Bros. and Paramount dropped their art-house labels a while ago. Miramax, once owned by Disney, is putting out titles like Sin City: A Dame to Kill For. Focus Features, which distributed such films as 2003’s Lost in Translation, the source of Sofia Coppola’s screenplay Oscar as well as a directing nomination, is shifting more to genre films.

That means fewer women will be in the game. And if you aren’t in the game, you have no chance to win.

Basically, Nagle says, “Women and men should be able to write in any genre. It shouldn’t be about what sex someone is. Writers are artists. They tell stories. Every writer just wants the chance to tell a great story.”