Cinematography is the Oscars Biggest Boys Club

There is one category in the Oscars’ 94-year history that has never seen a woman win it. It is Best Actor. That would be Best Cinematography, which honors a movie’s lighting, framing and camerawork.

These aren’t gender-specific achievements. But the Oscars, for the better or worse, reflect the possibilities offered by the film industry. This is because of deep institutional reasons that this particular category has such a poor record for women.

This trivia statistic could change on Sunday night. Ari Wegner, the Australian cinematographer of Jane Campion’s nomination-leader “The Power of the Dog,”Nominated for her insightful and intuitive filmmaking. ’s Steve Pond predicts that Wegner will take home the trophy, giving her the edge over “Dune” DP Greig Fraser (the cinematographer of Campion’s previous movie “Bright Star”(who has received the ASC and BAFTA precursors. But Wegner’s nomination alone still marks a milestone.

Ari Wegner The Power of the Dog
Cinematographer Ari Wegner, KIRSTY GRIFFIN/NETFLIX

She joined Rachel Morrison (who photographed 2017’s “Mudbound”) as the only women ever nominated in the category. That’s two out of more than 500 cinematography nominees since the first Oscars in 1929. This award has had more nominees than any other branch of the Academy. There were two categories that distinguished between black-and white and color movies from the 1930s through the 1960s.

It is not surprising that there is still no gender parity within the film industry. Despite an Academy membership drive in recent years, the Academy still has a voting body that is two-thirds male, at 68 percent and 32 percent respectively. But why specifically is Best Cinematography, and by extension the art of cinematography, such an exclusive men’s club? One clue is in the female representation in technical Oscar categories.

Take Best Costume Design, Oscar’s most generous category for female nominees. Since 1948 when the category was established, at least one woman has been nominated each year. There is a roughly 50 percent winning rate, which includes nine of the 10 last winners. Edith Head, a costume designer is the Oscar’s most prestigious woman.

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The Best Film Editing fraternity has been less male-oriented. The craft of film editing is similar to costume design. It was developed from the skills of sewing, and stitching. Since 1934 when the Oscar was first created, women film editors have been nominated for 81 times. The 15 Oscar-winning movies edited by women include classics like “Laurence of Arabia” (Anne V. Coates), “Jaws” (Verna Fields), “Star Wars”(Co-edited Marcia Lucas). “Raging Bull” (Thelma Schoonmaker), “Platoon”(Claire Simpson), “Mad Max: Fury Road” (Margaret Sixel).

It is helpful to note that editing has always been dominated by women. Cut film was a low-wage job that required little effort. It was easier for women to get into the department heads’ positions in Hollywood in the early years. Dorothy Arzner was the only woman director for the first forty years of Hollywood moviemaking. She came from the silent era as a film editor.

Cinematography is quite a different beast. On a movie set’s call sheet, the director of photography’s name is listed right below the director’s. The highest-salaried member on the technical crew is the cinematographer. On a movie’s clapperboard, the only two names listed are the director and the cinematographer. The relationship between the two is both intimate and very public-facing, in terms of how it’s perceived by the crew.

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There’s a theory that women have been excluded from cinematography for so long because of the challenges of lifting heavy camera equipment. Which might be partially true, but reads more like a convenient excuse than a valid explanation – especially given that many male cinematographers of the classic era were hardly in peak physical condition. (A fact, incidentally, that’s still very true today.)

It’s more plausible that decades of male directors simply lacked the wherewithal to collaborate in such a susceptible way with a woman. Cecil B. DeMille for example was an iconic director. He enjoyed his professional, but behind-closed-doors collaboration with Anne Bauchens, who cut, shaped, and edited 43 of his films. “Cleopatra”And “The Ten Commandments.”DeMille included in his film contracts a clause that only Bauchens could edit his films, although it is obvious that there are no such clauses. “inclusion rider”His cinematographer was also available.

Although still photography’s history is enriched by women such as Margaret Bourke-White and Vivian Maier (and Dorothea Lange), cinematography was originally classified as an artistic practice. Motion pictures were considered visual effects. They drew a lot more from male-dominated fields like engineering than photography. It is interesting to note that the Oscar category with lowest gender parity after Best cinematography has Best Visual Effects. There have been only four nominations for this category.

And to be sure, like all self-reinforcing feedback loops, women cinematographers didn’t exist because… women cinematographers didn’t exist. Just as the scarcity of female airline pilots has nothing to do with a female’s ability to fly a plane, women for decades were excluded from the field of the cinematography based on the wobbly premise that they didn’t have enough proven experience.

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It was decades and decades before a woman became a cinematographer in Hollywood. An Oscar-winning actress broke the gender barrier when it finally happened. In 1980, Anne Bancroft (“The Miracle Worker,” “The Graduate”) made her sole directorial effort with the tragicomedy “Fatso,”Starring Dom DeLuise. Bancroft hired Brianne Murry, a film script supervisor and passionate about camerawork, to be her cinematographer.

Although the film did not succeed, Murphy was invited to join American Society of Cinematographers Guild in the following year. In 1982, Murphy received a special Oscar plaque because she helped to create a vehicle that would provide additional safety features for cinematographers when filming in moving cars. Murphy, who had never shot another major studio movie, died in 2003 after she worked as a cinematographer for television.

Slowly, however, more female cinematographers emerged from the world of art-house, experimental, and low-budget cinema. Ellen Kuras shot Tom Kalin’s “Swoon,” Mary Harron’s “I Shot Andy Warhol,”And Spike Lee’s “Summer of Sam.” Maryse Alberti was the DP on Todd Haynes’s “Poison”And “Velvet Goldmine,” Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler,”And Ryan Coogler’s “Creed.” Lisa Rinzler shot “Menace II Society” and “Pollock.” Charlotte Bruus Christensen lensed “Fences” and “A Quiet Place.”

In Europe, especially in France, women DPs have included Agnès Godard (“Beau Travail”), Claire Mathon (“Portrait of a Lady on Fire”), and Hélène Louvart (who last year shot Maggie Gyllenhaal’s “The Lost Daughter”).

Rachel Morrison won an Oscar nomination. “Mudbound” in 2018, she also that year became the first woman to photograph a major superhero movie, when she shot Coogler’s “Black Panther.” Mandy Walker followed with Niki Caro’s 2020 “Mulan,” and Walker could certainly be a contender at next year’s Oscars with her work on Baz Lurhmann’s musical biopic “Elvis.”

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The ratio of women lensers in feature films remains well below 10 percent, but it’s slightly better in television. Reed Moreno (“Looking,” “Vinyl”) is a prolific cinematographer, who has made the leap into directing, winning an Emmy for the pilot of “The Handmaid’s Tale.”Television was also where Halyna Houtchins, cinematographer, took place (“A Luv Tale”Before her tragic death in October last year on the New Mexico Western set, ) she had been honing her craft. “Rust.”

Gradually the landscape is changing. Jane Campion’s four-decade career is notable for sumptuous visual collaborations with cinematographers like Stuart Dryburgh (“The Piano”) and Dion Beebe (“Holy Smoke”Campion knew that Ari Wegner was a deliberate hire, but he did not. “The Power of the Dog,” sensing that the male-dominated story required another pair of woman’s eyes.

Ari Wegner and Jane Campion
Ari Wegner, Jane Campion and Jane Campion in the set of “The Power of the Dog”

It marks Campion’s first film with a woman as her DP. In fact, of the seven women nominated for the Best Director Oscar – Lina Wertmüller, Campion, Sofia Coppola, Kathryn Bigelow, Greta Gerwig, Emerald Fennell and Chloe Zhao – Campion is the first to work with a female cinematographer on a feature film. This is not a criticism of other filmmakers, but a reminder of the difficulties that women in the film industry face.

And all the more reason why Wegner’s nomination should be celebrated, in part because it represents that Morrison’s nod four years ago wasn’t a historical blip. The stunning visual sweep and beautiful macro-closeups will determine if Wegner wins Oscar. “The Power of the Dog.” (Morrison interviewed Wegner recentlyDuring their conversation of 36 minutes, they spoke about their work without mentioning gender.

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The Oscars are not a complete representation of all possibilities. According to Wegner, who’s only in her mid-30sAnd was hotly sought-after even before her nomination (her other credits include “Lady Macbeth” and “Zola”This is the essence of the whole experience.

“When a cinematographer crosses paths with Jane Campion, their life changes,” Wegner told . “It was incredibly thrilling and such an honor that she thought of me as someone that could take on this film. And she’s got a really good sense of loyalty with her crew. I mean, if Jane doesn’t work with someone a second time, there were probably some circumstances to do with that. I’m hoping to work with her a lot more in both of our careers. She’s a dream director.”

Cinematography is the Oscars Biggest Boys Club
Cinematographer Ari Wegner, KIRSTY GRIFFIN/NETFLIX

When asked about her role as a female cinematographer, Wegner was a little more reserved. When talking about her work, Wegner smiles and laughs often. She also answers questions about the best part about her job.

“It’s just the sheer joy and the pleasure that comes from looking at something closer and deeper than the eye can naturally see,”She spoke. “That my favorite thing about what I do and my favorite thing about cinema. You have the opportunity to see things in a way that the eye can’t see – specifically things that big, that close, that important.”

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