Bigelow's films include Point Break, Strange Days and Blue Steel
Kathryn Bigelow has become the first woman in the history of the Academy Awards to win the best director trophy, as her tension-filled Iraq war drama The Hurt Locker collected six prizes.
It is something of a turnaround for the director, whose previous movies have totally bypassed the annual awards season.
The Hurt Locker follows a group of bomb-disposal technicians working in Iraq. Based on the real-life observations of writer Mark Boal, these soldiers speak of explosions as putting you in "the hurt locker".
Bigelow shot the movie with a cast of unknowns, "so the audience wouldn't know who among the three main characters was going to die by virtue of their public profile", she said.
Her uncompromising attitude didn't stop at the casting stage, either. Rather than using the nondescript desert plains of Arizona to stand in for Iraq, she went to Jordan and shot the film in 115 degree heat.
Not only that, she part-funded the movie herself - believing that a major Hollywood studio would not give her the creative control she desired.
"Don't give up on your dream" is Kathryn Bigelow's advice after her win
Critics were gripped by the "convincingly blunt" action sequences and Bigelow's "penetrating study of heroism", but several criticised the decision not to take an ideological viewpoint on the Iraq War.
Bigelow contended the film was "not a documentary", maintaining that her intention was to highlight the plight of soldiers in a war she felt had been "under-reported" in the US media.
She added that the script was informed by war correspondent Chris Hedges' polemic War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning - which argues that war seduces entire societies, like a powerful drug.
As a director, Bigelow is no stranger to such moral ambiguity.
Her 2002 film K-19 focused on a Russian submarine commander who had to sacrifice members of his crew after a missile test went wrong; while the hero in Keanu Reeves' surfer-cop movie Point Break was captivated by what Bigelow called "the darkness inside him".
Bigelow was born in 1951 in San Carlos, California. Her father managed a paint factory, while her mother was a librarian.
The director recalls being painfully shy as a child, and pouring all her anxieties into art. "All my memories are of me brushing some sort of liquid on some sort of natural surface," she once said.
Bigelow wants people to see the Hurt Locker as entertainment, not politics
She attended the San Francisco Art Institute in her teens, but was gradually drawn to film, and went on to study film criticism under Susan Sontag at Columbia University in New York.
"Painting is a bit elitist, while film crosses culture and class," she told the Los Angeles Times in 2002 of her decision to switch disciplines.
Nonetheless, her background in the visual arts is frequently reflected in the stunning, painterly backdrops of her films.
Look at the bold, moody skies of vampire film Near Dark (1987), or the ambitiously wild virtual reality scenes in Strange Days (1995).
Trailer for The Hurt Locker. Clip courtesy of Optimum Releasing.
She has tended to make genre movies that flip expectations - from Near Dark's mixture of Western and vampire tropes, to Point Break, a bank heist film with homoerotic buddy-cop undertones.
Above all, her films are dramatic, immediate and crammed with action.
"Cinema has the capacity to be so physiological," she has said.
"It can definitely propel you into an event and cause your heart to race... if that's the desired response."
Perhaps that should be expected from a director who has climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, enjoys deep sea diving and, once, married James Cameron.
Cameron and Bigelow were married for two years
The couple were together for just two years, from 1989 to 1991 - going head-to-head at most of this year's major awards ceremonies.
However, there is little animosity. They remained close friends after their divorce, with Cameron producing both Strange Days and Point Break.
The Avatar film-maker was magnanimous about his third wife's chances of winning the Academy Award.
As he accepted the Golden Globe for best director in January, Cameron said: "Frankly, I thought Kathryn was gonna get this. And she richly deserves it."
Bigelow was only the fourth woman to be shortlisted for a best director Oscar, (the others were Lina Wertmuller, for Seven Beauties in 1976, Jane Campion for The Piano in 1993 and Sofia Coppola for Lost In Translation in 2003).
Despite her place in Oscars history, she has shunned the "feminist" label. "Strong women are fascinating to me," she told one interviewer. "However, I'm equally inspired by men.
"I don't look at these things in terms of gender lines. It must be odd to hear me say that, but I just don't."
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