There are two excellent reasons to watch the Academy Awards on March 7 through to the bitter end: 1) Kathryn Bigelow, 58, may be the first woman to win an Oscar for Best Director, and 2) if she does, she'll beat out her ex-husband James Cameron. These are possibilities that never crossed her mind when she was shooting her Iraq-war movie The Hurt Locker in Jordan in 2007, perspiring in the 115°F heat, her face covered in dirt.
Just shy of 6 ft. tall, exuding self-assurance and intelligence, Bigelow is both a receptive and commanding presence the perfect combination for a person who makes thoughtful movies about tough guys, and things blowing up. She's known for her adrenaline-pumped action sequences in films like the vampire western Near Dark (1987) and the surfer-heist cult classic Point Break (1991); the subtitle of the Directors' Cuts volume of film criticism about her is "Hollywood Transgressor." With The Hurt Locker, she's transgressed her way right to the threshold of the industry's highest honor. Breaking the Oscars' glass ceiling after a career of original, uncompromising films would make the history-making that much more fun.
Bigelow was raised in Northern California. Her father managed a paint factory, and her mother was a librarian. Bigelow began painting at an early age; she enrolled as a college student at the San Francisco Art Institute and during her second year was accepted at the Whitney Museum of American Art's independent-study program. In 1971, at age 19, she set off for New York City.
It was much more Mean Streets than Manhattan. "You couldn't get a cab to take you down there," she recalls of her Tribeca neighborhood. But she fell in with a community of artists and made money fixing up loft spaces with Philip Glass, who was driving a cab by day and performing at night. "I would sand the floors and put up these Sheetrock walls, and [he] would do the plumbing," she says. "And I'd tell Philip, 'You have to sign these pipes. You're going to be really famous.' He was like, 'Aw, shut up.'"
She thought she'd be a professor of art history, until she took a detour into film: "I realized that the great opportunity in film was that it was kind of a populist medium that could cross all class and cultural lines." She made The Loveless (1982) hailed as "the thinking man's biker movie" then went to Los Angeles to teach a course on B filmmakers of the '40s and '50s. She's been bending genres in Hollywood ever since.
Tension is a hallmark of her films, as are provocative characters, and The Hurt Locker has both. But it marked a departure by giving her the chance to investigate an ongoing conflict, to be relevant. Which is why it perplexes her that some critics have characterized it as apolitical. "You have graphic depiction of innocent children killed by bombs," she says. "You have soldiers incapable of surviving a catastrophic event. And I think at the end of the day you look at the cost of this war on human lives and broken families."
Bigelow has often found herself at the center of discussions on gender and filmmaking; this year, as the fourth female director ever to be up for an Oscar, she is even more so. The topic sends her back to her art-world days. "I never thought of a particular artist or school of art in gender terms," she says. And yet she accepts the idea that she might be a role model and is sympathetic to the fact that, as she puts it, "the journey for women in many venues be it politics, business, film is a long and difficult struggle for equity." It's come up in her own career: before Oliver Stone agreed to produce her movie Blue Steel, she was having difficulty getting it made because it starred a woman (Jamie Lee Curtis) instead of a man as a police officer. Still, she says, "I long for the day when there's no need for the modifier."
Until that day arrives, there's a certain male director of a movie called Avatar ... Mention an Oscar battle of the exes she and Cameron were married from 1989 to '91 and you get a good-natured laugh and some context. "In the art world, there was a real community," she says. In L.A., not so much. "All of a sudden that incredible community that I fed off of was gone. So meeting other filmmakers was like oxygen." One was Stone; another was Cameron, with whom she remains friendly, and whose techno-thriller story Strange Days she made into a movie starring Ralph Fiennes in 1995.
Fiennes, who plays a small role in The Hurt Locker, says Bigelow is "incredibly wired with enthusiasm and excitement. It's physical, palpable, when she sees a shot or a moment that is working." Mark Boal, who wrote and co-produced The Hurt Locker, likens her to an athlete going onto the field: "She's pretty switched on when the cameras start going."
Off set, she's switched on too, reminiscing warmly about an Iraqi actor who appears in the film and is now living in the U.S., whom she's put in touch with a casting agent. Her next project is directing a pilot for an HBO series called The Miraculous Year. After that comes another collaboration with Boal, a movie about the drug trade in South America. And in the near future there are the Oscars. She fields a question the other Best Director nominees probably aren't being asked: What's she wearing? She doesn't know yet, but she has one guideline: nothing showy. "I'm used to being behind the scene," she says, "not in the spotlight."