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Director Kathryn Bigelow was hailed as one of the preeminent stylists of contemporary Hollywood filmmaking. After making an unusual entrance to cinema by way of the art world, Bigelow put her distinctive stamp on standard genre films like the Western-tinged vampire flick "Near Dark" (1987) and the feminist-themed cop thriller "Blue Steel" (1990). With the financial success of the surfer bank heist picture "Point Break" (1991), Bigelow enjoyed newfound status as a mainstream director with a rather artistic bent. Following a brief marriage and creative collaboration with fellow director James Cameron, she directed one of her most challenging films, the futuristic "Strange Days" (1995), which failed to catch on at the box office, but nonetheless displayed how successfully a filmmaker could marry art with narrative. Bigelow continued to turn out an impressive body of work, including the Oscar-winning war drama "The Hurt Locker" (2009) and "Zero Dark Thirty" (2012), both of which honed in on her fascination with the meaning of violence.
Born on Nov. 27, 1951 in San Carlos, CA, Bigelow was raised by her paint factory manager father and librarian mother. She developed an interest in art as a child, painting giant segments taken from the masters when she was 14. After high school, she attended the San Francisco Art Institute where she studied painting and art for two years. In 1972, she won a scholarship for the Independent Study Program at the Whitney Museum in New York, which gave her the opportunity to study and produce conceptual art that was critiqued by the likes of Richard Serra and Susan Sontag. Bigelow moved on to study film theory and criticism at Columbia University, earning her master's of fine arts in 1979, after having filmed backgrounds for performance artist Vito Acconci. During this time, she made her first venture into filmmaking with "Set-Up" (1978), a 20-minute short that depicted two men beating on each other while a voiceover read an essay on the nature of violence. Though an experimental film with little narrative, "The Set Up" did lay the thematic groundwork for her later work.
After using her lanky frame to model in a Gap advertisement, Bigelow ventured into feature filmmaking in 1981 with "The Loveless," an eccentric and often confusing art film that served as a meditation on the juvenile delinquent movies that were popular in the 1950s. Though off-putting to some, "The Loveless" did introduce the world to actor Willem Dafoe, while earning Bigelow attention from famed director Walter Hill, who helped secure a development deal for her when she moved to Los Angeles in 1983. She made her acting debut in artist and independent filmmaker Lizzie Borden's "Born in Flames" (1983), a bizarre blend of feminism and science fiction. Bigelow became something of a cult figure with her next feature, "Near Dark" (1987), a stylish, atmospheric cross between horror movie and Western of modern-day vampires on the Great Plains that managed to avoid the heavily-mythologized trappings of other like films. Meanwhile, soon after "Near Dark" was released, which sparked a retrospective of her brief career at New York's Museum of Modern Art, Bigelow became the third wife of director, James Cameron.
Bigelow directed her first major studio film, "Blue Steel" (1990), a tense action thriller about a rookie cop (Jamie Lee Curtis) who unwittingly becomes romantically involved with a killer (Ron Silver). Though the film was melodramatic to a fault, it nonetheless allowed Bigelow a good platform to comment on a woman's struggle to make it in a world predominantly occupied by men. In her first collaboration with Cameron, which was released the same year the two divorced, Bigelow directed the character-driven heist thriller, "Point Break" (1991), which followed an FBI agent (Keanu Reeves) who has gone undercover to bust a group of bank robbers led by a Zen-like surfer (Patrick Swayze). While first introducing Reeves as a viable action star, "Point Break" was plagued by a rambling script that ultimately went nowhere, though the film managed to be entertaining enough to be her biggest money-maker to date. Meanwhile, she made the jump over to television, making her directing debut in that medium with a segment of the six-hour miniseries, "Wild Palms" (ABC, 1993), a sci-fi drama about the dangers of brainwashing and technology.
Back to directing features, Bigelow teamed up with ex-husband-turned-producer Cameron for "Strange Days" (1995), a futuristic thriller about an ex-cop (Ralph Fiennes) who deals squids, or digital recordings of other people's experiences that can be plugged directly into another's brain. As the world awaits the new millennium, the squid dealer finds himself embroiled in the murder of a political activist killed by his former colleagues. Though the film received some positive buzz at the 1995 New York Film Festival, it failed to gain traction upon theatrical release and died a quick death at the box office, leading to a long absence from the big screen. But Bigelow was hardly idle. Since 1992, she had been developing a feature about the life of Joan of Arc, and at one time had French director-producer Luc Besson involved. When Besson went on to make his version of the story, "The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc" (1999), Bigelow cried foul and filed a lawsuit alleging fraud, breach of contract and breach of fiduciary duty. Rather than face a protracted legal battle, Besson settled out of court for an undisclosed sum.
Additionally during her absence from the big screen, Bigelow saw her script for the thriller "Undertow" (1996) produced and aired on Showtime, starring Lou Diamond Phillips as a drifter who stalks a terrified woman (Mia Sara) and her lunatic husband (Charles Dance). Turning to episodic television, she helmed three episodes of the acclaimed cop drama, "Homicide: Life on the Street" (NBC, 1993-99), including one of the series' final episodes. The following year, she was back at the multiplexes with "The Weight of Water," a psychological thriller that interwove the story of a female photographer (Catherine McCormack) who investigates a 100-year-old murder that leads her to suspect that her husband (Sean Penn) is having an affair. Visually interesting and well-acted, the film nonetheless languished for two years after its premiere at the 2000 Toronto Film Festival.
Bigelow next directed Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson in "K-19: The Widowmaker" (2002), an adaptation of a historical event where a faulty Russian nuclear submarine test-fired a missile in 1961, resulting in a leak in the reactor core that almost triggered the sub's payload, and with it, possibly World War III. Made for over $100 million from non-studio financiers, including National Geographic, "K-19" bombed at the box office, making it the biggest independent flop to date. Once again, Bigelow was noticeably absent from the big screen for the next several years. But after directing episodes of the short-lived series "Karen Sisco" (ABC, 2003-04) and "The Inside" (Fox, 2005), Bigelow returned to the feature world with "The Hurt Locker" (2009), an Iraq War drama as seen through the eyes of members from the Army's elite Explosive Ordinance Disposal unit. The powerful film - which was written by freelance writer Mark Boal, who was imbedded with a bomb squad unit during the Iraq War - would go on to garner Bigelow the most accolades of her career up until that point, as well as put her in contention for the same Best Director Golden Globe as her ex-husband, Cameron, nominated himself for "Avatar" (2009). Though Cameron won the Globe, Bigelow took home the Directors Guild Award for Best Director in January 2009, becoming the first woman in history to earn the honor. Just a few weeks later, Bigelow shattered the glass ceiling for good when she win the Oscar for Best Director, becoming the first female director to do so, and again beating out her ex-husband for the trophy, who was reportedly happy for her.
Following her historic win, Bigelow collaborated with Boal again on "Zero Dark Thirty" (2012), an action thriller about the team of elite intelligence and military operatives involved in the decade-long hunt to track down and capture or kill 9/11 mastermind, Osama bin Laden. Even before a frame of film was shot, "Zero Dark Thirty" garnered controversy from the political opponents of President Barack Obama, who charged that the original October 2012 release date was designed to bolster the president's standing with voters mere weeks before the presidential election, even though Obama was not mentioned or even referenced in the movie. Adding fuel to the fire, those same opponents claimed that President Obama provided Bigelow and Boal access to classified information prior to production, leading to charges from conservatives that the administration acted improperly. But documents obtained in a Freedom of Information Act request showed there was no evidence to support the charges and that the Obama administration had indeed acted properly. Bigelow and her team corroborated that point by stating that they were given no privileged access. Nonetheless, a Senate Intelligence Committee was scheduled to look into the matter the following year. Still more controversy hounded the film even after its December 2012 premiere when several political pundits accused Bigelow and her writing partner of both advocating the use of torture and overstating its role in tracking down Bin Laden in "Zero Dark Thirty." For their part, the filmmakers denied taking any position, simply stating that the practice was an unfortunate element of an often unpleasant chapter in American history. Vindication was soon Bigelow's, however, when she received a Golden Globe nod for Best Director and "Zero Dark Thirty" quickly went to the top of most critics' "Best of the Year" lists.
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Showed one of her first exhibitions as an artist at the Whitney Museum in NYC
Short film writing, producing, and directing debut, "Set-Up" (a 20-minute-long Columbia student project)
Served as script supervisor for "Union City"
First feature as co-writer/co-director (with Monty Montgomery), "The Loveless"; feature debut for star Willem Dafoe
Feature acting debut (as Kathy Bigelow), Lizzie Borden's "Born in Flames"
Solo directorial debut (also co-wrote with Eric Red), "Near Dark"
Directed Jamie Lee Curtis in "Blue Steel"
Helmed "Point Break" with Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze; first collaboration with then-husband James Cameron (executive produced)
TV directing debut, helmed second hour of sci-fi miniseries "Wild Palms" (ABC)
Directed futuristic film "Strange Days," co-scripted and produced by ex-husband James Cameron
Re-teamed with Eric Red to write the thriller "Undertow" (Showtime)
Helmed a two-part episode of "Homicide: Life on the Street" (NBC), directed a third episode in 1999
Directed feature adaptation of Anita Shreve's novel "The Weight of Water"
Directed Harrison Ford in "K-19: The Widowmaker"; also produced
Directed Iraq war thriller "The Hurt Locker," written by former <i>Playboy</i> journalist Mark Boal; screened at festivals in 2008
Became first woman to win the Academy Award for Best Director (for "The Hurt Locker")
Directed "Zero Dark Thirty," a drama based on the hunt for Osama bin Laden; re-teamed with writer Mark Boal
Directed poorly received race drama "Detroit"