Director's Cuts: The Seminal Films of Kathryn Bigelow

Our Women's History Month continues with a snapshot into the career of the first female to win an Oscar for Best Director: Kathryn Bigelow.
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Kathryn Bigelow Photo

While low budget and foreign language films are somewhat more equitable, major Hollywood movies are almost always directed by men. The exceptions can be counted on one hand. And that hand's tallest, most defiant middle finger is the great Kathryn Bigelow. She's best known as the only woman to have won an Academy Award for Best Director (out of a measly pool of only four total women nominees.) Returning to her war motif, Bigelow is currently in pre-production on her new picture concerning the capture and release of US soldier Bowe Bergdahl by the Taliban. 

For Women's History Month, we thought it a good idea to call Action! and unspool some key moments of her remarkable career.

Art School, Somewhat Confidential

Bigelow started out as a painter. After studying at the San Francisco Art Institute and graduating in 1972, she was accepted into the Whitney Museum of American Art's prestigious independent study program in New York City. Despite living in a dump of an apartment in pre-gentrified Lower Manhattan, she quickly began running with a very elite crowd. She befriended conceptual artists like Lawrence Weiner, Jeffrey Lew and the group Art & Language that published a journal called Semiotext(e). (Bigelow created a satirical pharmaceutical ad promoting schizophrenia for an issue that also included William S. Burroughs.)

Kathryn Bigelow Photo

She befriended Richard Serra, now best known for his massive metal sculptures, but at the time was making odd video pieces. Bigelow, who retains her striking beauty today at age 63 was all the more camera ready in her early 20s, and was recruited to “act” in a short play/game piece called Prisoner's Dilemma. (Also included, a young Spalding Grey and legendary gallerist Leo Castelli.)

She continued working in varying mediums until a conversation with Andy Warhol helped her decide that, to reach as wide an audience as possible, she should focus her attention to film. In 1978 she completed a short called “The Set-Up” that consisted of two men beating the hell out of one another while philosophy professors offer up commentary on the soundtrack.

Dark and Blue

Bigelow's first feature film was in 1982, a low-budget, oddball 1950s-style biker movie called The Loveless, which starred a young Willem Dafoe. In 1987 she released Near Dark, a slick and atmospheric modern vampire thriller. Despite the time-specific costumes and hairstyles, there's an eternally stylish quality to the film. Of note are its co-stars Lance Henriksen, Bill Paxton and Jenette Goldstein, all of whom would later shoot Aliens with Bigelow's future ex-husband James Cameron.

Near Dark's follow-up, Blue Steel, was Bigelow's first mainstream picture. It starred Jamie Lee Curtis as a tough rookie New York cop at the center of a serial killer's dementia. It opens with a cold title sequence that gun fetishists would flip for, and deals in a sly way with gender roles. The action sequences are bold and intense, and at no point does the movie flinch from violence. It was a remarkable movie for 1990, one that still holds up today.

"Adios, Amigo!"

Up until 1991 Bigelow's output had been a tad dark. This ended when bleach blond adrenaline surf junkie/bank robber/Presidential impersonator Patrick Swayze decided to jump out of a plane (for real!) in Point Break.

One of the most fun action pictures of its decade, Point Break turned Keanu Reeves from Bill & Ted joker to a bonafide star. As FBI Agent Johnny Utah, Reeves infiltrated Swayze's cult of quasi-hippie thieves. While thoroughly silly, the movie is intense. Bigelow keeps the camera moving with dazzling chase sequences, surf footage and more than one skydive.

Ahead Of Its Time

In 1995, Bigelow directed Strange Days, written by James Cameron. The pair had already been married and divorced, but that didn't stop them from making this movie together. Hollywood!

Strange Days is a science fiction masterpiece (so obviously that means it had to be a box office flop). No matter – you can stream this 20 years later and recognize how great it is. Its plot hinges on a future tech that records experiences that can then patch into a viewer's cerebral cortex. Ralph Fiennes is a hustler of thrill “decks,” who then gets caught up in an elaborate conspiracy. The film's vision of the year 1999 is an over-the-top dystopia and there are numerous single-take shots meant to make film students bow their heads in obeisance.

Independent Victory

After Strange Days Bigelow's work took a bit of a dip. She tried her hand at television, directing some episodes of Homicide: Life on the Streets, and also made the extremely dull submarine flick K-19: The Widowmaker with Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson.

Then came her second act.

Produced independently, she partnered up with investigative journalist Mark Boal for The Hurt Locker and made history.

Prior to 2008 there had yet to be any film about the Iraq conflict that connected with critics or audiences. The Hurt Locker nailed it because of its apolitical nature – it was about bomb technicians doing what they do. Bigelow's years of making action cinema were laser focused on the intense scenes of bomb disposals, or being pinned down by snipers. The film won the Best Picture Oscar (as did Boal for Best Screenplay) but more importantly, Bigelow became the first woman to win the Best Director prize.

As fate would have it, Bigelow beat out her ex James Cameron and his Space Smurfs bonanza Avatar. While it is tempting to treat it as the ultimate comeuppance, the two filmmakers seem to have no bad blood between them. Indeed, Bigelow showed the self-proclaimed King of the World the script to The Hurt Locker at an early stage, and he urged her to drop everything and make the film.

"I'm The [Expletive Deleted] Who Found Bin Laden"

What did Bigelow do after her big win? She teamed up with Mark Boal again and made (in my opinion) an even better movie. Zero Dark Thirty is an epic, from-the-headlines espionage thriller that just happens to be about the most important and emotional manhunt in modern history. Maybe all history, who knows?

As in her breakthrough Blue Steel, Bigelow cast a woman (Jessica Chastain, in her best performance) as the unflappable, somewhat unknowable “project manager” on the front-lines looking for Osama Bin Laden.

Last Days

In December of 2014 Bigelow helped launch with a short, harrowing film called Last Days. Mixing animation and found footage, the under-four minute film shows the ramification of buying a small trinket made from ivory.

In addition to the damage being done to endangered elephants by poachers, the film shows how the proceeds from this illegal market directly funds a number of well-known and despicable terrorist groups like Boko Haram.