HOLLYWOOD — When actor Wes Studi took the stage at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences annual Governors Award on Sunday night, it was to collect an honorary Oscar for his decades of indelible performances in dozens of films, including Dances With Wolves, The Last of the Mohicans, Heat, The New World, Avatar, and Hostiles.
It was also to make history: Studi is the first Native American — ever — to receive an Academy Award.
After receiving a triumphant standing ovation from many of the biggest and most powerful figures in Hollywood, Studi broke into a big smile and began his acceptance speech with a simple, powerful acknowledgment of what the moment meant to him and to all Native artists in the film industry.
“I simply want to say, it’s about time!”
That has become a common sentiment for the Governors Awards. Since their inception 11 years ago, the Academy has often used the annual event to recognize the achievements of artists from minority groups that had gone largely — or entirely — ignored at the Oscars, including actors Cicely Tyson, Jackie Chan, and James Earl Jones, as well as filmmakers Hayao Miyazaki, Charles Burnett, and Spike Lee.
On Sunday night, however, the Governors Awards spent the majority of its time preoccupied with the place within the industry of a group of artists who aren’t a minority at all: women.
Along with Studi and director David Lynch (Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks) — whose acceptance speech was just 33 seconds long — the Governors Awards this year celebrated Italian filmmaker Lina Wertmüller, the first woman ever to be nominated for Best Director, and actor Geena Davis, who earned the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award for her pioneering efforts to bring gender parity to on screen representation.
In her acceptance speech, Davis cited research from her namesake Institute on Gender in Media that 81% of characters who have jobs in feature films are men, and the number of women depicted in top-level jobs on screen is even lower than in real life.
“So in other words, however abysmal the numbers are in real life, it’s far worse in fiction, where you make it up!” Davis said, to knowing laughter and applause. “We make it worse than real life.”
Davis evoked the common stereotype of Hollywood as filled with bleeding heart liberals who are champions of diversity.
“If we’re supposed to be a bunch of gender-fluid intersectional feminists, then by god, let’s do it right!”
“Hardly,” she said. “If we’re supposed to be a bunch of gender-fluid intersectional feminists, then by god, let’s do it right!”
Davis emphasized that she wasn’t just talking about writing more women as lead characters, it was that Hollywood needed to increase the number of women on screen across the board, no matter the size of the role. She proposed a simple solution: Take a script that’s already set for production, cross out a bunch of the male characters’ names, and make them women instead.
“With one stroke, you have created some non-stereotyped characters that could turn out to be even more interesting now that they’ve had their gender swapped,” Davis said. Then she took a studied pause.
“And then cast me. Seriously.”
It was indeed not lost on Davis that she had a captive audience of many of the most successful and influential producers and studio executives in Hollywood — in attendance to schmooze with their compatriots and campaign their movies for awards season. So she issued a challenge to the room in plain terms: In the morning, everyone should update their scripts for gender parity and racial diversity.
“Don’t make one more movie without doing that first,” she said.
After the ceremony, Davis told BuzzFeed News that she doesn’t understand why her goal of drastically increasing the number of women characters cannot happen literally overnight.
“The lowest hanging fruit in all gender equality in the world, and also in this industry, is onscreen,” she said. “The next thing somebody makes can be gender-balanced. You don’t have to speak up on it. You don’t have to wait until people get elected or move up in the line. It’s so easy.”
Whether Davis’s common sense will resonate within the male-dominated executive ranks of Hollywood is another question. Of the many films in contention for a Best Picture nomination this year, just two — Hustlers and Little Women — focus exclusively on women’s stories. Hustlers’ director Lorene Scafaria told BuzzFeed News that only one studio, the independent STX Films, was willing to take a chance on her project.
“Honestly, there won’t be true equality until we’re not asking ourselves these questions,” Scafaria said.
She did emphasize, though, that this year appears to have been a watershed for women filmmakers, with many of the year’s top films — from the blockbuster Captain Marvel to the indie hit The Farewell — directed by women.
Those opportunities to direct are certainly growing for women, and yet they still remain wildly uneven in comparison to those for men.
“I feel very hopeful, but I also feel so aware of all the women who are not being given those opportunities.”
“I’m so aware of how lucky I am, and the fact that I’m here because I’m standing on the shoulders of all the women who came before me,” director Marielle Heller (Can You Ever Forgive Me?) told BuzzFeed News after the Governors Awards ended. Heller was at the event Sunday night to support her latest film, the upcoming drama A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, about the children’s TV icon Fred Rogers (as played by Tom Hanks). She said that she was happy to feel like there were several other women joining her on the awards season circuit this year, but she was still acutely aware of the challenges still facing women in the film industry.
“I feel very hopeful, but I also feel so aware of all the women who are not being given those opportunities,” she said. “It’s a tricky place.”
The final award of the night, for Wertmüller, served as a potent reminder of just how punishingly difficult reaching this moment has been for women. In her presentation of Wertmüller's honorary Oscar, fellow filmmaker Jane Campion (1993’s The Piano) said she had been asked to talk about the history of women who, like her, have earned a nomination for Best Director.
“It’s a very short history,” Campion said. “More of a haiku.”
Since Wertmüller’s nomination for Best Director for her 1976 film Seven Beauties, Campion said, only four other women — herself, Sofia Coppola (2003’s Lost in Translation), Kathryn Bigelow (2009’s The Hurt Locker), and Greta Gerwig (2017’s Lady Bird) — have been nominated for the same award. Only Bigelow has won.
By comparison, there have been 350 Best Director nominations for men.
“Staggeringly unequal,” Campion said.
The lopsided ratio was enough to throw the ballroom into a stunned silence. (The Governors Awards themselves have some catching up to do: Since 2009, 13 women have been honorees, in comparison to 30 men.)
Then Wertmüller took to the stage to accept her award and offer a delightful gesture toward helping the Oscars rectify almost a century of gender imbalance. The 91-year-old doesn’t speak much English, so actor and fellow Italian Isabella Rossellini translated for her.
“Lina wants to dedicate the Oscar, but she would like to change the name Oscar to a feminine name,” Rossellini said, standing next to the elfin Wertmüller. “She would like to call it Anna.”
“So women in the room,” Rossellini concluded, “please scream, ‘We want Anna, a female Oscar!’”
Many of the women, and some of the men, obliged.