Action Woman: Happy Birthday To Kathryn Bigelow

By Valerie Kalfrin

Kathryn Bigelow is a woman of action. The director, who turns 68 on Nov. 27, is known for training her eye on vampires, cops, surfing bank robbers, and especially soldiers—but she’s not merely after an adrenaline rush.

Rather, the first—and still only—woman to win an Academy Award for Best Director with 2008’s “The Hurt Locker” is drawn to the circumstances surrounding violence, as well as characters’ choices.

“I don’t like violence. I am very interested, however, in truth. And violence is a fact of our lives, a part of the social context in which we live,” she’s said.

A California native, Bigelow started her career as a painter, receiving her bachelor of fine arts degree from the San Francisco Art Institute in the 1970s. She then moved to New York City, where she became part of a conceptual-art collective, hung out with composer Philip Glass and writer and filmmaker Susan Sontag, and became interested in film.

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The 82nd Annual Academy Awards (2010)

“I saw “The Wild Bunch” on a double bill with “Mean Streets”, midnight at the Waverly Place Cinema on Bleecker Street in New York,” she told Rotten Tomatoes. “And it was a life-changing experience. … I found those two films just extraordinary, and they opened up a kind of unimaginable landscape for me. That kind of great irreverence, and intensity, and strength of purpose in those characters.”

Bigelow was making short films. She sent an unfinished one, “The Set-Up”, about “two guys in an alley who beat each other up” over each’s political agenda, to Columbia University’s graduate film program. Director Milos Forman (“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, “Amadeus”), a professor there at the time, offered her a scholarship, which she accepted.

Bigelow’s first feature, 1981’s “The Loveless”, starred Willem Dafoe and examined the trouble that unspooled after a motorcycle gang stopped in a small Southern town. Her follow-up, 1987’s “Near Dark”, about a farmer’s son (Adrian Pasdar) who falls in with a group of traveling vampires, is part of the New York City Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection.

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Kathryn Bigelow in Blue Steel (1990)

Since Near Dark, Bigelow has told stories about a female rookie (Jamie Lee Curtis) as fascinated with violence as a pistol-wielding maniac obsessed with her in “Blue Steel”; an undercover FBI agent (Keanu Reeves) tracking bank-robbing surfers in “Point Break”; and a former cop (Ralph Fiennes) who grows a conscience after uncovering a conspiracy in the futuristic thriller “Strange Days”

“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”

She turned to the military with 2002’s dramatic thriller “K-19: The Widowmaker”, about a Russian nuclear submarine’s malfunction, and formed a productive creative partnership with writer/producer Mark Boal, whom she first met while filming his script for “The Hurt Locker”, starring future Marvel heroes Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, and Evangeline Lilly. Bigelow since has directed Boal’s screenplays for 2012’s “Zero Dark Thirty”, about the decade-long hunt for terrorist leader Osama bin Laden, and 2017’s Detroit, a fact-based drama set during that city’s 1967 riots.

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Kathryn Bigelow and Barry Ackroyd in The Hurt Locker (2008)

This year, she served as an executive producer on director J.C. Chandor’s Netflix film “Triple Frontier”, co-written by Boal and Chandor, about Special Forces operatives pursuing a South American drug lord. Her future projects include a film about U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, whom the Taliban held captive in Afghanistan for five years.

“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,” she’s said. “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.”

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