The year 1991 might go down in movie history for one reason: an explosion of strong women in Hollywood, both in front of and behind the cameras. Audiences loved such pistol packers as Thelma and Louise and Terminator 2's Linda Hamilton; Jodie Foster graced the cover of Time for her directorial debut. And for the first time, a half-dozen films directed by women are actually competing in the Oscar race this year. Among them are Foster's Little Man Tate, Martha Coolidge's Rambling Rose, Lili Fini Zanuck's Rush, Randa Haines' The Doctor, Agnieszka Holland's Europa, Europa, and front-runner Barbra Streisand's The Prince of Tides (which she also produced and adapted from Pat Conroy's 1986 best-seller).
Not only is Streisand's effort a leading contender for the Best Director Oscar, but the movie has a good shot at Best Picture. The well-reviewed Christmas smash is a perfect Oscar movie in the Terms of Endearment/Kramer vs. Kramer mode, a film with scale, bravura performances (Nick Nolte is the odds-on favorite for Best Actor), and gobs of emotion.
Yet, as Streisand well knows, a woman's nomination from the notoriously stiff-necked directors branch of the Academy is hard to come by. It has been 16 years since the Academy directors bestowed their first and only Oscar nomination on a woman, Italy's Lina Wertmuller (Seven Beauties) in 1976. (John G. Avildsen won that year for Rocky.) Streisand complained bitterly when the Academy denied her a Best Director nomination for her 1983 Yentl. Like her colleagues Robert Redford (Ordinary People in 1980) and Warren Beatty (Reds in 1981), she had reason to hope that ambitious first effort would be rewarded by the directors. But James L. Brooks won instead that year, for the weepy Terms of Endearment.
A few oddsmakers are now suggesting that the Yentl slight may work in Streisand's favor, causing some Academy directors to want to make amends. On the other hand, there's the suspicion that Prince of Tides may be judged less on its cinematic merits than by Streisand's personality. ''She brings a lot of baggage with her,'' says one studio spokeswoman. ''It's not an issue of her being a woman, but of her as an icon.''
Certainly much of Tides' media coverage has stressed the dark side of Streisand's legend, the narcissistic, perfectionist reputation. ''She has a lot of detractors anyone who has worked with her,'' says one marketing consultant. ''But while the studio heads are insecure jellyfish about taking a chance on hiring women directors, the Academy constituency doesn't think that way.'' It does have a record, though, of ignoring male mainstream directors who might have expected a nomination (Steven Spielberg for The Color Purple; Bruce Beresford, whose Driving Miss Daisy won the Best Picture Oscar) in favor of less-known talents such as the Swedish Lasse Hallström (My Life as a Dog) and Irish Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot).
Other women in the industry agree that the Academy's reaction is less than predictable. ''I don't believe there's a concerted effort to avoid nominating women,'' says Joan Micklin Silver (Crossing Delancey), who's an Academy member and thus one of the 287 voting directors (seven of whom are women). Debra Hill, who produced Oscar hopeful The Fisher King with Lynda Obst, says, ''There are no rules or trends governing the directors' voting.'' The real obstacle to nominating women for Best Director Oscars, she feels, ''is how few women get to direct.''
Meanwhile, the Prince of Tides' studio, Columbia, is confident it's backing an Oscar winner. ''This picture will go all the way,'' boasts Columbia executive vice president Marvin Antonowsky, ''whether Streisand gets nominated as a director or not.''