Myth-making is a part of every Oscar campaign; Slumdog Millionaire was the film no studio wanted, The Departed was Martin Scorsese’s long overdue coronation. In the 2010 Academy Awards, The Hurt Locker was journeywoman filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow’s foray into serious issues, which she achieved with the help of its screenwriter, Mark Boal, the investigative journalist and former Iraq War embed. She became the first woman ever to win Best Director, Boal won for Best Original Screenplay, and the two of them won Best Picture as producers — against Bigelow’s ex-husband, James Cameron, no less, whose Avatar was Hurt Locker’s main competitor.
Bigelow and Boal are trying to score the same victories with Zero Dark Thirty, which will be released next week and is an early Oscar favorite, having already won a slew of critics' awards. Never before have a director and screenwriter been so tied together. And it’s a tougher sell because of the harshness of Zero Dark Thirty’s interrogation scenes, which are being questioned and criticized before the film has even come out, and because of its general subject matter; they are providing the romantic subplot that the film definitely does not have — in countless stories since 2010, Boal has been described as Bigelow’s boyfriend.
But sources who know Bigelow and Boal are saying they are no longer together and are trying to keep that quiet as they promote the Sony film.
It has led to a tricky dance. Here’s how Mark Harris described their synergy recently in a terrific making-of story in New York magazine: “Bigelow’s partnership with Boal, who met her about ten years ago when she inquired about a story he’d written for Playboy, has taken her into new and rewarding territory, his journalistic cred a complement to her unsentimental, realist aesthetic. Their collaboration — she calls herself ‘a delivery system for Mark’s content’ — is so intense that many assume it is, or was, romantic, something the two have never acknowledged, denied, or discussed. In conversation, that intensity is something to behold.”
Do you have to talk about breaking up when you never talked about being together? Bigelow and Boal seem to be hoping you do not. (Sony referred me to their personal publicist. An email to him was not immediately returned.)
After The Hurt Locker, the two immediately became entertainment’s hottest couple who wouldn’t say they were a couple since Jay-Z and Beyoncé. While some media outlets engaged in, as The Huffington Post described it, “cagey hints” about them, others just took their togetherness as a given (the New York Post wrote post-Oscar: “…Bigelow’s achievements don’t end there. She also snagged an Oscar-winning boyfriend 21 years her junior. Her current beau is 37-year-old Mark Boal…”).
That was in 2010, and most outlets today continue to refer to them as “partners,” which is certainly a true description of their tandem media blitz, even if it no longer applies to their romantic lives. And for all the unpleasant talk spurred by Bret Easton Ellis recently about Bigelow being “overrated” because she’s a woman, I would counter that a male filmmaker would never refer to himself as a “delivery system” for anyone’s “content,” as Bigelow did to Harris about Boal in New York. And when the two appeared — along with actors Jessica Chastain and Jason Clarke — on Today, I wondered when a screenwriter had last appeared on the show. (I have emailed Today to ask, and at press time have not received an answer.)
At best, their togetherness is a manifestation of a productive working team; at worst, Bigelow, a woman, needs Boal, a male investigative journalist, to add legitimacy to her hard-hitting films. Perhaps it’s both.
In the New York piece, Harris asked the two of them about whether they planned to collaborate again and noted, “Across the table, they exchange, not for the first time, a let’s-coordinate-our-answers glance.” And then Boal said, “I think we both want to… It’s up to the movie gods.” For his part, Boal seems to be moving on — on Monday, he announced he’s forming his own company, Page One Productions, to adapt reporters’ stories into films. Bigelow is not involved.