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Who is Jane Campion? What you need to know about the Oscar-winning director

Jane Campion on the Critics Choice Awards 2022 red carpet
Jane Campion (Image credit: Photo by Taylor Hill/FilmMagic)

One of the few locks in 2022's crazy awards season has been the series of wins for director Jane Campion, who is currently the favorite to win the 2022 Oscar for Best Director for her Western drama, The Power of the Dog. With this nomination, Campion continues to make history. 

To a generation of female directors, Campion is an icon, a pioneer whose works helped to carve out a uniquely woman-centered narrative in an industry still dominated by white men. Winning an Oscar for directing would merely confirm what many of us have known for decades: that Campion is one of the best directors working today and her name should be spoken alongside the likes of Scorsese, Spielberg and company.

For those who may not be as familiar with Campion and her work, here is everything you need to know about her.

Jane Campion biography

Born in Wellington, New Zealand, in 1954, Campion studied painting at the University of Sydney. She found the medium limiting and moved into moving images, making her first short, Tissues, in 1980. 

The next year, she began studying at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School, where she made several more short films. One of her earliest shorts, Peel, won the Short Film Palme d'Or at the 1986 Cannes Film Festival. 

A slew of awards soon followed and led her to direct television for the Australian network ABC. From there she made the jump into movies.

Jane Campion movies

Campion's first feature film, Sweetie, immediately became a hit on the international festival circuit. Her follow-up, An Angel at My Table, swept the New Zealand Film and Television awards and was the first film from New Zealand to be screened at the Venice Film Festival, where it won the Grand Jury Special Prize.

1993's The Piano elevated her to new levels of attention. The Piano is a romantic drama about a mute woman (Holly Hunter) who is sent to New Zealand with her daughter to marry a man she's never met. Seeking solace in her piano, she soon finds an intense sensual connection with a local forester who has adopted many of the Māori customs.

Anna Paquin lies in Holly Hunter's lap on a beach in The Piano

Anna Paquin and Holly Hunter in The Piano (Image credit: JAN CHAPMAN PRODUCTIONS)

The moment it was first screened at the Cannes Film Festival, The Piano was heralded as a masterpiece. Campion became the first woman to win the Palme d'Or and the second woman to be nominated for the Best Director Oscar. She didn't win, but she did take home the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. In 2019, the BBC named The Piano as the all-time greatest film directed by a woman (opens in new tab), with nearly 10% of the critics polled giving it first place on their ballots.

Campion has never achieved the same kind of commercial success that she did with The Piano, but she has continued to reveal herself to be a striking director with a keen focus on the varied desires of women:

  • The Portrait of a Lady saw Campion adapt the classic Henry James novel of yearning and societal deceit with a sharply modern edge that drove home the Victorian source material’s eternal themes of womanhood. 
  • Holy Smoke combined satire and sensuality for an occasionally bonkers battle of the sexes between a cult deprogrammer and the savvy young woman who dominates him. 
  • Her startling erotic thriller In the Cut brought the female gaze to an oft-uncomfortably sexist genre and revealed the dangers of patriarchy as one woman (Meg Ryan) tried to explore her taboo desires.
  • In her biopic of poet John Keats, Bright Star, Campion shifted the focus to his love Fanny Brawne to inspire a fresh and intensely romantic reappraisal of his work.

The women of Campion’s films are always seeking more than the stifling confines of misogyny will allow them.

Returning to cinema after a 12-year break in 2021, The Power of the Dog saw Campion reassert herself as an indomitable talent while for the first time primarily focusing on a male protagonist. The cruel Phil Burbank (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) is the epitome of the Old West heroic archetype: a man of the land who rears his own livestock and lives as the ideal cowboy. He’s also a toxic bully who treats any vague threat to his cloistered lifestyle as something to be put down like a wild animal. Decades of exploring patriarchy’s stranglehold on women made Campion ideal to dissect its impact on men. The result is one of her best films.

Jane Campion TV show — Top of the Lake

In 2013, Campion made the leap to television by co-writing and directing Top of the Lake, a New Zealand-set mystery drama about a weary detective's investigation of the disappearance of a pregnant 12-year-old girl. A second season, Top of the Lake: China Girl, premiered four years later.

Much like her films, Campion’s TV work dug deep into the smothering difficulties for women living in a world that all too frequently hates them. The series' exploration of rape culture was especially striking in its starkness without losing its empathy. The show received eight Emmy nominations.

Jane Campion Oscars 2022

Jane Campion and Benedict Cumberbatch on the set of "The Power of the Dog."

Jane Campion and Benedict Cumberbatch on the set of The Power of the Dog (Image credit: Netflix)

 Jane Campion earned two Oscar nominations and one win for her 1993 movie The Piano. She more than doubled her total with three 2022 Oscar nominations for The Power of the Dog — Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay.

Campion's Best Director nomination was only the eighth time a woman was nominated in the category and made her the first to be nominated more than once. 

So far, she’s sailed through awards season as the one to beat for Best Director, even though her competition — Steven Spielberg, Paul Thomas Anderson, Ryusuke Hamaguchi, Kenneth Branagh — is more than stellar. It’s not been without its roadblocks, however. 

Actor Sam Elliott trash-talked (opens in new tab) the movie in weirdly sexist terms on Marc Maron's podcast. "... [W]hat the f**k does this woman from down there, New Zealand, know about the American West?", the actor asked. Elliott did say during the podcast that he thought Campion was a brilliant director and that he enjoyed her "previous work."

Campion would fire back, cheekily saying Elliott was "being a little bit of a B*I*T*C*H," adding he is not a cowboy but an actor.

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A few days later, during her acceptance speech at the Critics’ Choice Awards, Campion made a questionable and naïve remark towards Venus and Serena Williams (opens in new tab), joking they didn’t have to compete against the men like she did (she quickly released an apology statement (opens in new tab).)

Mostly, however, Campion’s Oscar trail has been one of acclaim and respect from her peers past and present. Few women filmmakers have blazed a trail quite as she has and a Best Director Oscar on her shelf will only further cement her reputation.

Jane Campion awards

Jane Campion is one of the most lauded female directors around. If you want a complete rundown of all of her accolades, check out IMDb (opens in new tab), but there is an abridged version with some of her biggest award wins and nominations to date:

The Oscars

  • Win: Best Original Screenplay, The Piano (1993)
  • Nomination: Best Director, The Piano (1993)
  • Nomination: Best Adapted Screenplay, The Power of the Dog (2021)
  • Nomination: Best Director, The Power of the Dog (2021)
  • Nomination: Best Picture, The Power of the Dog (2021)

BAFTAs

  • Nomination: Best Original Screenplay, The Piano (193)
  • Nomination: Best Film, The Piano (1993)
  • Nomination: David Lean Award for Direction, The Piano (1993)
  • Nomination: Best Director: Fiction (TV), Top of the Lake (2013)
  • Win: Best Director, The Power of the Dog (2021)
  • Win: Best Film, The Power of the Dog (2021)
  • Nomination: Best Adapted Screenplay, The Power of the Dog (2021)

Cannes Film Festival

  • Win: Palme d'Or Short Film, Peel (1986)
  • Nomination: Palme d'Or, Sweetie (1989)
  • Win: Palme d'Or, The Piano (1993)
  • Nomination: Palme d'Or, Bright Star (2009)
  • Win: Golden Coach

Directors Guild of America

  • Nomination: Outstanding Directorial Achievement, The Piano (1993)
  • Win: Outstanding Directorial Achievement, The Power of the Dog (2021)

Emmys

  • Nomination: Outstanding Directing for a Miniseries, Movie or Dramatic Special, Top of the Lake (2013)
  • Nomination: Outstanding Writing for a Miniseries, Movie or Dramatic Special, Top of the Lake (2013)
  • Nomination: Outstanding Miniseries or Movie, Top of the Lake (2013)

Golden Globes

  • Nomination: Best Director, The Piano (1993)
  • Nomination: Best Screenplay, The Piano (1993)
  • Win: Best Director, The Power of the Dog (2021)
  • Win: Best Screenplay, The Power of the Dog (2021)

Toronto International Film Festival

  • Win: International Critics' Award, An Angel at My Table (1990)
  • Nomination: Best Film, The Power of the Dog (2021)

Venice Film Festival

  • Win: Grand Jury Special Prize, An Angel at My Table (1990)
    • Also: OCIC Award, Elvira Notari Prize, Filmcritica "Bastone Bianco" Award (tied with Goofellas), Little Golden Lion, Special Golden Ciak, Gingerly Award
  • Nomination: Golden Lion, An Angel at My Table (1990) 
  • Win: Pasinetti Award (Best Film), The Portrait of a Lady (1996)
  • Win: Elvira Notari Prize, Holy Smoke (shared with Kate Winslet) (1999)
  • Nomination: Golden Lion, Holy Smoke
  • Win: Silver Lion (Best Director), The Power of the Dog (2021)
  • Nomination: Golden Lion, The Power of the Dog (2021)
    • Also: Queer Lion, Fanheart3 Award

Kayleigh is a pop culture writer and critic based in Dundee, Scotland. Her work can be found on Pajiba, IGN, Uproxx, RogerEbert.com, SlashFilm, and WhatToWatch, among other places. She's also the creator of the newsletter The Gossip Reading Club.