One of the more popular theories as to why Kathryn Bigelow is the only woman to ever win an Oscar for Best Director is that she almost exclusively makes movie about men & masculinity. That’s not to say she doesn’t have an active, genuine interest in the topic as auteur, but rather that it’s curious that the filmmaker fixated on telling men’s stories happens to be the one woman director to ever win her field’s top prize. Bigelow’s preoccupation with macho, dirtbag men is especially noticeable in our current Movie of the Month—the Y2K sci-fi epic Strange Days—in which a scumbag anti-hero played by Ralph Fiennes is inexplicably centered in the film’s narrative instead of the more traditionally heroic badass played by Angela Bassett. Bassett’s stunt-driving, punches-throwing, testicles-kicking, politically radical heroine is a true wonder—a spectacle in herself—which makes it all the more tragic that even she is helpless to Fiennes’s greasy macho charms in the main role. That letdown is an intentionally frustrating aspect of the script (which Bigelow penned with her creative partner and already then-former husband James Cameron), but it still left me wondering what the film might have played like if Bigelow were more interested in Basset’s inner life and instead centered the woman as the lead. It would at least have been a novel departure from her usual mode.
As far as I can tell, Bigelow’s 1990 cop thriller Blue Steel is her only feature film to date with a woman in the top-billed role. Jamie Lee Curtis stars a rookie NYC police officer with a violent streak that immediately lands her in hot water. She’s not exactly the tough-as-nails badass Bassett portrays in Strange Days, but that archetype is exactly what she aspires to be. When pressed by her male colleagues about why she wants to be a cop in the first place, she “jokes” about coveting the violent authoritarianism of the position, musing “Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to shoot people.” The truth turns out to be more that she grew up powerless to stop her abusive father from physically assaulting her mother, and her new badge & gun armory allows her to wield power over him and other abusers. The first time she dons her blue uniform, she struts down the street with newfound, first-in-her-lifetime confidence. During her first night on the job she overreacts to the threats of an armed suspect and unloads every bullet she’s got into his chest. She just as capable of violence as Bassett’s tough-as-nails heroine, but lacks that role model’s cool, even hand and moral sense of justice. It’s a dangerous inner conflict that the film eventually likens to the sociopathic impulses of a deranged serial killer – a man. Naturally, this wouldn’t be a Bigelow film if there wasn’t some destructive, alluring force of masculinity present to steer the central conflict.
Blue Steel’s grotesquely macho villain subverts Jamie Lee Curtis’s hero status at the film’s center by realigning her with the Final Girl archetypes that first made her famous. Ron Silver costars as a dangerously narcissistic Wall Street brute turned serial killer, essentially laying out the entire American Psycho template in an underpraised stunner of a role. This mustache-twirling villain is first inspired to kill when he witnesses Curtis decimate her perp on her first night of patrol. His fetishistic obsession with her (and her gun) quickly escalates into erotic thriller territory, a tension he relieves by shooting randomly selected victims on the NYC streets. He also shoehorns his way into the rookie cop’s romantic life with his Wall Street wealth, so that she’s unknowingly dating the very killer she’s professionally hunting. While the film is willing to link the trigger-happy cop’s penchant for violence with the Wall Street creep’s own sociopathy, this largely becomes a tale of a woman who’s boxed in on all sides by macho bullies. Between her abusive father, her gaslighting boyfriend, and the police force higher-ups who do not believe her accounts of being attacked by creeps on the street, Blue Steel’s heroine is awash in a flood of insidious machismo. For at least this one film, Bigelow proves that she can center a woman protagonist’s story why still satisfying her auteurist preoccupations with the nature & textures of masculinity. In that way, Blue Steel deserves to be regarded as one of the director’s foremost texts.
There are plenty of other reasons why Blue Steel deserves higher critical prominence in the Bigelow canon that have nothing to do with its tough-as-nails heroine. From the harsh noir lighting to the ice-cold atmospheric score & eroticized gun violence, this deeply creepy, mean thriller finds Bigelow at one of her most stylistically indulgent moments as a director. She’s channeling some serious 80s Friedkin vibes here, which I mean as a high compliment; all that’s missing is an elaborate chase scene & a Wang Chung soundtrack. Still, the most readily recognizable significance of the film within the director’s larger catalog is the rare chance to see her center a woman protagonist while remaining true to the violence & masculinity of her typical milieu. It’s not exactly the hypothetical “What if Angela Bassett was Top-Billed in Strange Days?” scenario that genre nerd audiences are likely to hope for, but it is the closest Bigelow has ever gotten to satisfying that ideal. It’s also, notably, an exquisite chiller of a film in its own right.
For more on December’s Movie of the Month, the Kathryn Bigelow’s Y2K sci-fi epic Strange Days (1995), check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and our look at the director’s continued fascination with police brutality in Detroit (2017).