One thing that’s important to note about the Oscar race for Best Actress — and Best Actor too, come to that — is that much of the time being in a Best Picture contender makes all the difference.
With ten Best Picture nominees, the number of Best Actresses from films driven by those performances rose. Last year there were three Best Actress contenders — Natalie Portman, the winner; Annette Bening and Jennifer Lawrence. If there had only been five Best Picture nominees, probably only Black Swan would have been represented. This is one of the many reasons having ten Best Pictures was, in my mind, such a great idea. But the Oscars aren’t designed to please people like me. They’re designed to please hundreds of thousands of people who see maybe two or three movies at the theater every year during Oscar season. The rest of them they catch up with later on cable or Netflix. A shorter list for Best Picture is more manageable, more profitable, more suspenseful.
Now that we’re back to a scenario maybe closer to 5, but perhaps 7 or 8 Best Picture nominees, we have a slightly better chance of seeing some women in the race with Best Picture contenders represented. Of course, the strongest of these so far is Viola Davis in The Help which would slide in easily with ten, and might still even with five. The other contenders — Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady, Michelle Williams in My Week with Marilyn, Glenn Close in Albert Nobbs, Ellen Barkin in Another Happy Day, Tilda Swinton in We Need to Talk About Kevin, Olivia Colman in Tyrannosaur, Keira Knightley in A Dangerous Method — are all actresses who must work outside the mainstream in order to get the better parts, some of them, like Barkin and Close, became producers themselves, involved in the earliest stages of development in order to carve out a great part for themselves.
Only Rooney Mara in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and perhaps Charlize Theron in Young Adult have the unseen potential to sit where Viola Davis is sitting — both roles are dark, of course. Both are anti-heroines, if you will. Yet their directors have enough heat to have their films earn enough votes to be included. Young Adult because it is uncompromising and interesting for this director. And Fincher because he is the best American director working in film today, whether the Academy has the good sense to recognize this or not.
Therefore, theoretically we could have three actresses working in the race with Best Picture contenders standing firmly behind them. Of course, none of them are a done deal. Not yet.
So why is it so important to have a Best Picture contender? It simply means more Academy members liked the movie enough to give it their vote. There is strength in numbers. But let’s look back at a little bit of Oscar history.
Going back to the 1970s, the period where I think things really changed within the Academy – things were changing in film everywhere and that change was reflected in how the members voted. Women’s lib, civil rights, film criticism were all exploding at once and that battle was clearly felt.
Since the 1970s, when has an actress in a movie NOT nominated for Best Picture beat another actress whose film was. *signifies a year when there were no Best Actress contenders in any of the five Best Picture nominees.
1970 -Glenda Jackson for Women in Love beat Ali McGraw in Love Story
1971 – Jane Fonda in Klute beat Janet Suzman for Nicolas and Alexandra
1974 – Ellen Burstyn for Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore beat Faye Dunaway for Chinatown
1982 – Meryl Streep for Sophie’s Choice beat Sissy Spacek for Missing
1985 – Geraldine Page for Trip to Bountiful beat Meryl Streep for Out of Africa and Whoopi Goldberg for The Color Purple
1988 – Jodie Foster for The Accused beat Melanie Griffith for Working Girl and Glenn Close for Dangerous Liaisons
1990 – Kathy Bates for Misery*
1994 – Jessica Lange for Blue Sky*
1995 – Susan Sarandon for Dead Man Walking beats Emma Thompson for Sense and Sensibility
1999 – Hilary Swank for Boys Don’t Cry beats Annette Bening for American Beauty
2001 – Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball beats Sissy Spacek for In the Bedroom and Nicole Kidman for Moulin Rouge
2003 – Charlize Theron for Monster*
2005 – Reese Witherspoon for Walk the Line*
2007 – Marion Cotillard for La Vie en Rose beats Ellen Page for Juno
When Best Actress and Best Picture Matched wins
1975 – One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Louise Fletcher
1983 – Terms of Endearment, Shirley MacLaine
1989 – Driving Miss Daisy, Jessica Tandy
1991 – The Silence of the Lambs, Jodie Foster
1998 – Shakespeare in Love, Gwyneth Paltrow
2004 – Million Dollar Baby, Hilary Swank
Now let’s look at Best Actor in the same period. How many times has an actor won for a film that wasn’t nominated for Best Picture? I’m going to bet that it has never happened, that there was never a year when none of the five Best Actor contenders appeared in a film nominated for Best Picture. Let’s see if I’m right.
1973 – Jack Lemmon for Save the Tiger beats Robert Redford for The Sting
1974 – Art Carney for Harry and Tonto beats Al Pacino for Godfather II, Jack Nicholson for Chinatown and Dustin Hoffman for Lenny — what a year, huh?
1986 – Paul Newman for The Color of Money beats William Hurt for Children of a Lesser God
1987 – Michael Douglas for Wall Street beats William Hurt for Broadcast News
1990 – Jeremy Irons for Reversal of Fortune beats Robert De Niro for Awakenings and Kevin Costner for Dances with Wolves
1993 – Tom Hanks for Philadelphia beats Liam Neeson for Schindler’s List and Anthony Hopkins for Remains of the Day
1995 – Nic Cage for Leaving Las Vegas beats Massimo Troisi for Il Postino (though worth noting, this was almost a year where there were no Best Actor contenders represented, and it’s weird that Tom Hanks was snubbed for Apollo 13)
2001 – Denzel Washington for Training Day beats Russell Crowe for A Beautiful Mind and Tom Wilkinson for In the Bedroom
2006 – Forest Whitaker for Last King of Scotland* (wow, one year it actually happened)
2009 – Jeff Bridges for Crazy Heart beats George Clooney for Up in the Air, Morgan Freeman for Invictus, Jeremy Renner for The Hurt Locker and Colin Firth for A Single Man
Best Picture/Best Actor match for wins
1970 – Patton, George C. Scott (he declined)
1971 – The French Connection, Gene Hackman
1972 – The Godfather, Marlon Brando
1975 – One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Jack Nicholson
1979 – Kramer vs. Kramer, Dustin Hoffman
1982 – Gandhi, Ben Kingsley
1984 – Amadeus, F. Murray Abraham
1988 – Rain Man, Dustin Hoffman
1991 – The Silence of the Lambs, Anthony Hopkins
1994 – Forrest Gump, Tom Hanks
1999 – American Beauty, Kevin Spacey
2000 – Gladiator, Russell Crowe
2010 – The King’s Speech, Colin Firth
The conclusions —
14/41 times, the Best Actress winner did not star in a Best Picture nominee.
27/41 times, the Best Actress winner had a role in a Best Picture nominee
6/41 times, the Best Actress and Best Picture winner matched.
4/41 times, the Best Actress race had no corresponding Best Picture nominations.
10/41 times, the Best Actor winner did not star in a Best Picture nominee.
31/41 times, the Best Actor winner had a role in a Best Picture nominee
14/41 times, the Best Actor and Best Picture winner matched
1/41 times, the Best Actor race had no corresponding Best Picture nominations.
Only once since 1970 were all five Best Actress nominees in Best Picture, 1977. Thanks to Grantland’s Mark Harris for that one.
Most of the time, the Best Actress winner also stars in a Best Picture nominee.
Most of the time, the Best Actor winner also stars in a Best Picture nominee.
It is twice as likely for a film that wins Best Actor to also win Best Picture than it is for a film that wins Best Actress to also win Best Picture.
It is twice as likely for a Best Actress winner whose film isn’t nominated to win Best Picture than it is for an actor whose film isn’t nominated.
The long and short of it is most of the time, Oscar favors Best Picture/Best Actor combinations for nominations. Best Picture is almost always driven by the lead actor’s performance. And that actor often wins along with the film.
That leads me back to this year’s race. Viola Davis is, as far as I can tell, the only potential Best Actress nominee in a film with a shot for a Best Picture nomination. In the past actresses in such a position have seen the Oscar go to someone whose film wasn’t nominated — you can see above that it’s happened 14 times in 41 years. But that means that 27 times out of the last 41 years, Best Actress has gone to an actress in a film that was also nominated.
As far as Best Actor goes, we have no problem there – George Clooney, Jean DuJardin and Brad Pitt should sit in the Best Actor category with a corresponding Best Picture nomination. Then you have a sentimental favorite with Gary Oldman for Tinker, Tailor, who might finally win, even if the film isn’t nominated for Best Picture. You have fifth slot that could be Leo in J. Edgar, could be Michael Fassbender in Shame, could be Michael Shannon in Take Shelter, could be Woody Harrelson in Rampart. Of all of these, Harrelson and DiCaprio maybe land in that “too big to ignore” category, performance-wise. But we’ll have to wait and see.
Glancing back over Oscar history, though, I am still struck by how many mainstream Hollywood films used to star women. Not hot young things but actual grown women. The days when women-driven films featuring Jane Fonda and Sally Field and Cicely Tyson sold tickets and made money. Great female performances in mainstream Hollywood films now are few and far between. And what a shame that is.