HOLLYWOOD — Kathryn Bigelow is only the fourth woman ever to be nominated for the Best Director Academy Award — and only the second American female. The first two nominees were Italian Lina Wertmuller and Australian Jane Campion; the third was Sofia Coppola.

And regardless of gender, Bigelow is the front-runner to nab the directorial Oscar nod, for a film that’s not a megahit but which has been universally acclaimed. “The Hurt Locker,” set during the Iraq war, is contemporary and also riveting.

The film has been praised, too, for its script and acting, and it may make a star of Jeremy Renner as a highly confident U.S. Army staff sergeant in charge of an elite squad that disarms bombs on the dangerous streets of Baghdad.

“Casting is usually at the core of a successful film,” says Bigelow, who also acknowledges that “the script comes first, literally, and, in a way, also last. It’s what everything else is built on.”

It was Mark Boal’s script that caught and held Bigelow’s attention. Unlike most directors of her gender, her focus is on action films and she has little or no interest in the romantic comedies or romantic dramas that most female directors undertake sooner or later, or even primarily. “I don’t dislike that category or genre,” she explains. “But there are other people, men and women, who do them beautifully.”

Within the film community, Bigelow has long been widely admired for her gripping movies — and probably also because she prefers drama to comedy and favors traditionally male subject matter. Now, at 58, she is hitting her stride and achieving wider recognition, having garnered numerous awards for “The Hurt Locker” and proved she can handle the toughest material and please audiences and critics alike while doing so.

“Word of mouth is helping (the picture),” she admits, “which is the best type of advertising.”

“When people talk about a film and recommend it and then discuss it among themselves, that’s proof that you’ve done more — you and your team — than offer a diversion for an hour and a half or two.”

Bigelow’s pictures haven’t necessarily set the box office on fire. Hence her low public profile, besides the fact that she isn’t a publicity hound like such directors as Alfred Hitchcock or James Cameron, to whom she was once married. “If I’d wanted the publicity, I could have tried to be an actress,” she states quietly.

Bigelow is slim and strikingly attractive, with prominently mascara-ed eyes. An admirer is Jamie Lee Curtis, who starred in Bigelow’s 1989 “Blue Steel,” which is about a female police officer stalked by a psychotic serial killer (Ron Silver).

“I said at the time, and I say it still,” Curtis has said, “that it’s a pretty bizarre situation when the director of a movie is better-looking than its leading lady!”

“Blue Steel” was not an expected hit, primarily due to the perceived (sexist) audience response that tends to reject females in action-oriented lead roles. “The Hurt Locker” noticeably stars men, and it’s likely that Bigelow’s post-Oscar- nomination offers will also feature male leads. Unless she has a particular script or project of her own in mind?

“I’m not really that concerned with who gets the leading role, nor with pushing a particular agenda,” she says. “If the story is good, it’s good. And if it’s great, that’s even better.”

Bigelow is known to shun discussions about Hollywood’s sexism and how difficult it is for a woman to become — and especially, to stay — a director.

She says: “Most women who direct a feature do so once. Few go on to a second one. There are several reasons for that, but each individual is really a separate instance.

“It’s easy to generalize. But does it do much good? Of course I’m thrilled and rather overwhelmed by the recognition now. And I understand the stress being placed on my being a woman and on what I do, the sort of film I do, and how rare it is for a director like me to get this recognition.

“It will be wonderful when the time comes that we don’t have to stress the sex of a particular director, but I guess we haven’t reached that time yet.”

Ironically, Oscar-winner Cameron is competing with Bigelow for this year’s awards, with his much more popular and special-effects-laden “Avatar.” Bigelow has seen the movie and says, “I love it, I really love it.” Does she mind that her turn at the Best Director Oscar might possibly be deflected by her ex-husband?

“No, and however it turns out, it’s just great.”

Unusually for Hollywood, she and Cameron — they divorced 17 years ago — remain good friends. “I just spoke with him on the phone.” He is one of her biggest boosters, and has stated, “This recognition is something she really deserves, and it’s long overdue.” Cameron is more willing to talk about Tinseltown sexism than she is. But then, a woman who states the obvious about Hollywood is often seen to be “complaining” or “whining.”

Cameron has said that Bigelow could have been a top and a highly rewarded action-film director but has instead sought out more individual, less popular projects. She declares, “I’m interested in social commentary. What’s most galvanizing for me is the opportunity to be topical and relevant and entertaining.”

Other Bigelow films include the submarine thriller “K-19: The Widowmaker,” the horror movie “Near Dark” (featuring vampires, now so trendy), the surfer-oriented “Point Break,” and the murder mystery “The Weight of Water.” She also worked with sci-fi technology in “Strange Days,” a 1995 picture perhaps too ahead of its time to be a hit.

“Being a pioneer, which I do not necessarily claim to be,” she says, “does not always pay off. In fact, it usually does not. But if you have the interest, you go where your interest leads.”

Nor does she indulge in the queen-bee behavior of some female directors or executives. She has actively encouraged younger women looking to become directors. Among them is actress-director Sarah Polley (“Away From Her”), who starred in “The Weight of Water.” Bigelow admits that she encouraged Polley’s behind-the-camera interest and took time to include her in the process of filmmaking, explaining things and offering advice. Her most crucial piece of advice was: “As a woman, you have to be like a dog with a bone. Everybody is going to try and take the bone away from you. You have to be a dog.”

Bigelow notes that a culture that encourages females to focus on their looks typically results in their choosing the camera over a good story and bringing a project to the fruition of one’s own personal vision.

“Any director, regardless of gender, has to feel that the result will be worth the, you could say, obsession.

“As a director or as a moviegoer, to me what counts most is being transported by what you see. It’s exciting to become immersed in the action, in another world, and it possibly comes out of that theater with a new concept or understanding in you head.”

Does she consider most comedies, including romantic ones, frivolous and nontransportive? Unwilling to dismiss a genre not her own, she avers: “Different things appeal to different people. Some moviegoers do like a formula. They might be transported by something that somebody else finds dull or trite.

“But does that transport, or transportation, last? How long does it last? Does it make you think or make you question something you’ve always thought you understood or something that you didn’t have enough interest in to try and understand? It’s all very individual — reactions. What I do I do not to break new ground and not to try and be a role model but because it’s what I want to do.

“However if that inspires other people, men or women, to try and do what they thought was impossible, then that’s thrilling.”

Predictably, Bigelow is quite guarded about her private self and personal life. She reminds one that “the sole reason” a director is interviewed is “should be to find out more about her or his film.” Said to be warm in working relationships, she is all business when it comes to publicizing her film. She won’t take the bait and follow up on questions about lookism, ageism or even actresses who transition from acting to directing when they reach middle age. Asked if she ever wanted to be an actress, she deflects the question, noting that men who direct but used to act — or continued acting, like John Huston or Sydney Pollack — almost never got questioned about acting versus directing, let alone “the desire to pose for the camera.”

Clearly, Bigelow is a person who knows her own mind and has few if any regrets thanks to doing what she wants to do and doing it her way. “You have to stick doggedly with your own vision,” she asserts. “True, a director is entrusted with a lot of money, and first and foremost this is a business. But as a director, as someone who gets the credit or the blame, and as someone who directs and helps shape the overall vision and result, you must stick to your guns.”

Which reminds me that Jamie Lee Curtis’ sole disagreement with Bigelow, whom she called “wonderful and lovely and unintimidating,” was over the gun she carried in “Blue Steel.” Bigelow wanted her to brandish a bigger weapon. Curtis felt unconvincing with a bigger gun, and Bigelow wished her to project a police woman who was comfortable with her profession and her weapon. Therefore, Curtis carried the biggest gun she was comfortable with, and both women were satisfied.

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