The ‘Hurt Locker’ helmer directed 1982’s biker film ‘The Loveless’ and vampire Western ‘Near Dark’ before setting a record for female filmmakers at the 2010 Academy Awards.
From 1939 to 1979, there were 7,332 features made in Hollywood and only 14 were directed by women, the DGA calculated. Luckily, Kathryn Bigelow, now 65, arrived as things were changing.
She’d grown up an only child near what is now Silicon Valley (her mother was a librarian, her father a paint factory manager) and studied painting. Acceptance at the Whitney’s Independent Study Program (Susan Sontag and Robert Rauschenberg were teachers) brought her to New York in 1971. (For cash, she and composer Philip Glass, then a cab driver, had a deal where they renovated lofts. He did the plumbing; she sanded floors.) Bigelow has said she then “went to films, as anybody does, for entertainment.” A scholarship to Columbia’s film school (where Milos Forman was co-chairman) fast-tracked her into filmmaking.
The 1982 outlaw-biker film she co-directed, The Loveless (in which Willem Dafoe made his acting debut), was her first feature and brought Bigelow into that smallest of tribes: women directors. She went solo on 1987’s Near Dark, an ahead-of-its-time vampire Western. “I saw Point Break and was immediately in awe of Kathryn’s directing talents,” says Sherry Lansing of Bigelow’s cult 1991 surf-crime thriller. “But at the time, the path for a woman director was not an easy one. Fortunately, she had the talent and perseverance to overcome any obstacles.”
While some of Bigelow’s films have been financial successes (2012’s Zero Dark Thirty and Break are her top moneymakers), and others have not (2002’s K-19: The Widowmaker, cost $100 million, or $134 million today, but made just $66 million globally, or $89 million today), it’s 2009’s The Hurt Locker that secured her place in history. The Iraq War film premiered at Venice, where THR described it as “muscularly directed.”
Besides Bigelow, only three women have been nominated for directing Oscars (Lina Wertmuller, Jane Campion and Sofia Coppola). Bigelow’s the only one to win — quite notably in a year when her ex-husband, James Cameron, was the favorite, for Avatar.
This story first appeared in the 2016 Women in Entertainment Power 100 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.