‘Free Solo’ could be the first feature doc winner in 25 years to achieve this feat

It is one thing to climb up a 3,000-foot-expanse of solid rock with no tools, safety gear or rope beyond hands and feet. It’s another for married documentarians to collaborate on a feature about a daredevil sport that requires nerves of steel, an addiction to adrenaline rushes and being able to deal with the knowledge that the activity far too often ends in death.

But Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi — husband-and-wife co-directors of “Free Solo” that is currently the favorite (although “RBG” is creeping up) to win, according to Gold Derby’s combined odds — and their camera team and crew show no fear as they tag along with free-climber Alex Honnold as he attempts to be the first human to claw his way up Yosemite’s daunting El Capitan.

One of the things that drew me to “Free Solo” is how it examines what sort of person wants to risk body and limb on a regular basis. When a young woman enters Honnold’s life just as the thrill junkie is in the midst attempting to conquer his greatest challenge, we are also on pins and needles about whether love and domesticity will be a benefit or a distraction. I might be wrong, but the fact that a real-life couple is behind the camera makes me think that is why we get to see this humanizing aspect.

That got me thinking about how many  previous Academy-Award winning documentaries were made by a husband-and-wife pairing. Turns out there have been two. The first was 1991’s “In the Shadow of the Stars,” a kind of “20 Feet From Stardom” that focuses on the chorus and not the stars who perform at the San Francisco Opera. It was co-directed, co-produced and edited by spouses Irving Saraf and Allie Light.

The second time a couple said “I do” to a feature documentary Oscar was for 1993’s “I Am a Promise: The Children of Stanton Elementary,” about the pupils at an inner-city school in Philadelphia. Its makers, Susan and Alan Raymond,  split up the work — she directed and narrated while he was in charge of cinematography and editing.

If the power of the Notorious RBG doesn’t get in their way, expect to see Chin and Vasarhelyi at the podium together. Otherwise, you might witness another rarity, two women — Betsy West and Julie Cohen — accepting on behalf of their popular Ruth Bader Ginsberg doc. They would be just the second set of women since Laura Poitras and Mathilde Bonnefoy  (along with Dirk Wilutzy) to share an Oscar in this category for their 2014 Edward Snowden feature “Citizenfour.” 

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