Best known for The Hurt Locker (2008) and Zero Dark Thirty (2012) — and for being the first woman to win an Academy Award for Best Director.
Kathryn Ann Bigelow was born in San Carlos, California, the only child of Gertrude Kathryn (née Larson; 1917–1994), a librarian, and Ronald Elliot Bigelow (1915–1992), a paint factory manager. Her mother was of Norwegian descent. Bigelow’s early creative endeavors were as a student of painting. She enrolled at San Francisco Art Institute in the fall of 1970 and received her Bachelor of Fine Arts in 1972.
Bigelow entered the graduate film program at Columbia University, where she studied theory and criticism and earned her master’s degree. She also taught at the California Institute of the Arts. While working with Art and Language, Bigelow began a short film, The Set-Up (1978), which caught the favorable attention of Miloš Forman.
Bigelow’s short “The Set-Up,” is a 20-minute examination of violence in film. Bigelow asked her actors to actually beat and bludgeon each other throughout its all-night shoot. Her first full-length feature was The Loveless (1982), a biker film which she co-directed with Monty Montgomery and featured Willem Dafoe in his first starring role. Next, she directed Near Dark (1987), which she co-scripted with Eric Red. In the same year, she directed a music video for the New Order song “Touched by the Hand of God”, a spoof of glam metal.
Bigelow’s subsequent trilogy of action films — Blue Steel, Point Break, and Strange Days — merged her philosophically minded manipulation of pace with the market demands of mainstream film-making. In the process, Bigelow became recognizable as both a Hollywood brand and an auteur. All three films rethink the conventions of action cinema while exploring gendered and racial politics.
Bigelow followed Blue Steel with Point Break (1991), which starred Keanu Reeves as an FBI agent who poses as a surfer to catch the “Ex-Presidents”, a team of surfing armed robbers led by Patrick Swayzewho wear Reagan, Nixon, LBJ and Jimmy Carter masks when they hold up banks. Point Break (1991) was Kathryn Bigelow’s most profitable studio film, taking in roughly $80 million at the global box-office the year of its release.
Bigelow’s 1995 film Strange Days was written and produced by her ex-husband James Cameron. Despite some positive reviews, the film was a commercial failure.
Based on Anita Shreve’s novel of the same name, Bigelow’s 2000 film The Weight of Water tells the story of two women trapped in suffocating relationships.
In 2002 she directed K-19: The Widowmaker, starring Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson, about a group of men aboard the Soviet Union’s first nuclear-powered submarine. The film fared poorly at the box office and was received with mixed reactions by critics.
Bigelow next directed The Hurt Locker. Set in post-invasion Iraq, the film received universal critical acclaim, and stars Jeremy Renner, Brian Geraghty and Anthony Mackie, with cameos by Guy Pearce, David Morse and Ralph Fiennes. She won the Directors Guild of America award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures (becoming the first woman to win the award) and also received a Golden Globe nomination for her direction. In 2010, she won the award for Best Director and The Hurt Locker won Best Picture at the 63rd British Academy Film Awards. She became the first woman to receive an Academy Award for Best Director for The Hurt Locker. She was the fourth woman in history to be nominated for the honor, and only the second American woman.
Bigelow’s next film was Zero Dark Thirty, a dramatization of American efforts to find Osama bin Laden. Zero Dark Thirty was acclaimed by film critics but it has also attracted controversy and strong criticism for its allegedly pro-torture stance. Bigelow won the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Director for the film, making her the first woman to win the award twice. She had already won previously for directing The Hurt Locker. She also won the National Board of Review Award for Best Director for Zero Dark Thirty, making her the first woman to win that award.
In 2014 Bigelow announced plans to direct two movies: an adaptation of Anand Giridharadas’s non-fiction book The True American: Murder and Mercy in Texas starring Tom Hardy and a feature based on the life of Bowe Bergdahl.
In early 2016 Bigelow announced that she would be collaborating with Mark Boal again on an untitled film set during the 1967 Detroit riots. The film planned to shoot in the summer of 2016 in order to be released in 2017 in time for the 50th anniversary of the riots. In June 2016, it was reported that John Boyega would star in the project.
In the early 1980s, Bigelow modeled for a Gap advertisement. Her acting credits include Lizzie Borden’s 1983 film Born in Flames as a feminist newspaper editor, and as the leader of a cowgirl gang in the 1988 music video of Martini Ranch’s “Reach”, which was directed by her ex-husband, James Cameron.
Bigelow was married to Cameron from 1989 to 1991. She and Cameron were both nominated for Best Director at the 2010 Academy Awards, which Bigelow won.
Kathryn Bigelow’s directing credits include…
|1983||Born in Flames|
|1987||“Touched by the Hand of God”|
|2000||The Weight of Water|
|2002||K-19: The Widowmaker|
|2008||The Hurt Locker|
|2012||Zero Dark Thirty|
“If there’s specific resistance to women making movies, I just choose to ignore that as an obstacle for two reasons: I can’t change my gender, and I refuse to stop making movies. It’s irrelevant who or what directed a movie, the important thing is that you either respond to it or you don’t. There should be more women directing; I think there’s just not the awareness that it’s really possible. It is.”
“You cast not for marquee value but for performance and talent. The right actor for the part. Anything else is a compromise.”
“War’s dirty little secret is that some men love it. I’m trying to unpack why, to look at what it means to be a hero in the context of 21st-century combat.”
[On bin Laden’s killing] “Usually what happens is there will be an urgency, and then I can do nothing else but that. [But] events like this only come along once or twice in a millennium.”
[on Zero Dark Thirty (2012)] “I feel we got it right. I’m proud of the movie, and I stand behind it completely. I think that it’s a deeply moral movie that questions the use of force. It questions what was done in the name of finding Bin Laden.”
“Once you’ve opened the window on topical material, its very hard to close it. Holding up a contemporary mirror is more attractive to me now than ever.”
In 2010, she became the first woman in Oscar history to win the Best Director award.
First woman to win a BAFTA Award for Best Director.
Was the fourth woman to be nominated for the Directing Academy Award. The other three were: Lina Wertmüller, Jane Campion and Sofia Coppola.
Kathryn Bigelow has works in the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection, including Near Dark (1987), a 1987 feature-length film, and her personal paper archive.
When she competed with ex-husband James Cameron for the Best Director Oscar in 2010, it was the first time that (ex-)spouses were nominated alongside each other in this category.