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Hollywood Breaks a Gender Barrier — and Is Back to Loving Art Films

There was change at the Academy Awards, but not the change the Academy was looking for

The Academy affected change on Sunday night, but not the change it was looking for.

A woman won in a category where women have barely been present in the entire history of the awards.

And despite the best efforts to reverse the trend of recent years, a tiny arthouse film with no movie stars that barely anyone saw dominated the night.

How’d that happen? And is it good for the movie business?

The change that did happen is a milestone, a chance for Hollywood to take the measure of breaking new ground.

Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win an Oscar for directing. Only three others have even been nominated in this category, so scarce is the female presence in the director’s chair: Lina Wertmüller for “Seven Beauties” in 1975, Jane Campion for “The Piano” in 1993, and Sofia Coppola for “Lost in Translation” in 2003.

It took longer to break the gender barrier in Hollywood than it took to break the color barrier.

This year it was commonplace to have African-American nominees in all the major categories. An emotional Geoffrey Fletcher won in the egghead category for writing “Precious,” beating out the egghead favorite, Jason Reitman who is Hollywood royalty and was favored to win (with Sheldon Turner) for “Up In the Air.”

Bigelow’s triumph is progress of a sort, though we are constantly reminded that women are a small minority in this part of the industry, still mired in the single digits – 7 percent at last count – when it comes to directing.

And Bigelow did not seem particularly interested in calling attention to the distinction. Onstage, she made no reference to the fact that she had broken the glass ceiling. Instead, she called it “the moment of a lifetime,” and saluted “the men and women all over the world who wear the uniform.”

And backstage, she backed away from singling out that aspect of her talent: “I’m ever grateful if I can inspire an intrepid, tenacious male or female director,” she said.

Except for Sandra Bullock, Bigelow was the biggest star on the stage.

Which brings us to the other issue. The Academy made a big bet this year in expanding the Best Picture category to 10. The point was to broaden the field of contenders to include more popular films, and to draw in more and younger viewers of the telecast by doing so.

That didn’t happen (except for Bullock). “Avatar,” the global hit that has made going to the movies special again, was relegated to technical and production design awards.

Once again, small movies like “Precious,” and even smaller ones like “Crazy Heart,” “The Last Station” and “An Education,” were those that drew nominations in the main categories.

Is that a good sign for the Oscars? I rather doubt the telecast will spike in audience numbers (no thanks to the unsplendid non-reboot reboot.)

But it is a lesson in the fact that you can’t engineer the Oscars. The voters will choose the best movies in their eyes — and much of the time those come from small places, independent producers and gutsy little projects that should never have had a shot.