It’s the year that a woman is a major party candidate for president for the first time in America’s history. There is a pretty good chance she will, in fact, be president. It has also been among the most brutal, ugly elections in recent history. You think you know about hatred. You think you know about bullying and viciousness, but you really don’t know until you see it done to a woman. Men have dominated women physically, economically, and politically since the country’s founding. The transfer of power has caused great discomfort on both the right and the left. In an effort to bolster their candidates, both sides made it their mission to dehumanize Hillary Clinton, and in so doing uncorked a level of unprecedented vitriol. Last night, the Republican nominee declared he would throw Hillary in jail if he were president. Nevermind that he doesn’t understand the law; he stalked her all night long to both set her ill at ease and to send the message that he was her watchdog. Because Trump is so tall, and his expression so menacing, it sent a collective shiver down the spines of all women out there. We know.
That a woman is running for president is a situation that really does shed light on how women are portrayed, mostly, in film now, but especially in the Oscar race. It’s an odd thing that we’ve come to appreciate, out of necessity, the supportive wife or mother, the background character whose main purpose is to make sure the male characters save the day. So desperate are we that we’ll settle for screentime at all so that it doesn’t really matter how we’re portrayed – just put us in movies. Just let us talk. Expecting something on the level of an actual real person doing important things in the world is unheard of.
This year, however, because there are so many roles for women, we can see the ones that stand out as putting women at the center of the story. Of course, these women will probably not make the Oscar grade. I don’t know why that is, but perhaps the more strident the character, the more powerful the character, the more independent the character, the less palatable she becomes to voters. We’ve seen some great women characters recently, like Cate Blanchett in Carol, Jennifer Lawrence in Joy, Marion Cotillard in Two Days, One Night. But in general, it seems to me that it’s not easy finding women who are indisputably the central protagonist.
Generally, the available roles for women are, in some way, an arm of or a dimension of a male character. This has always been true, throughout Hollywood and Oscar history. Love stories or family dramas often mean there has to be a wife or a mother or a daughter or a mistress involved. One of the greatest wives in history will be on screen with Natalie Portman playing Jackie Kennedy. Annette Bening, just named the frontrunner by Anne Thompson, plays a mother to a boy coming of age. Emma Stone, while the star of La La Land, is the other half of a couple, Viola Davis is a wife and mother, Ruth Negga is a wife and mother. Whatever their character arcs, their goals, their struggles, their triumphs, they must all exist within those parameters. That is who they are.
Perhaps this is required to earn the votes of mostly male voters. A softer approach to a character, a woman who is lost and not quite in control of her world might be a better choice than a woman who is, well, like Hillary Clinton. And in fact, the frontrunners at the moment do seem to be less threatening overall – Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Annette Bening – these are performances that are easy to love, easy to let in. On the other side of things are these surprising lead roles of women who are not only the central figure in their films, but are somehow defined by who they are rather than whom they love or whom they mother.
In Queen of Katwe, the main character is a chess champion. In Florence Foster Jenkins, the main character is a bad singer. In Christine, the main character is a suicidal news anchor. In Miss Sloane, the main character is the smartest person in the room taking on the gun lobby. And in Arrival, Amy Adams is the scientist called upon to communicate with aliens to, perhaps, save humanity. Even if these characters have love interests, the main point of their identity is to exist as human beings in their own right.
Regarding Annette Bening, who was said to be the one to beat by Anne Thompson just today: Bening, I figure, if nominated could knock out Meryl Streep as a veteran going on her 20th nomination. Bening, who has yet to win, is not only radically overdue but considered Hollywood royalty by now. She’s royalty not just because she married Warren Beatty, but because she has worked long and hard in the industry and has yet to win a single Oscar after a very promising early career. That career, many believe, was cut short when she began having children and staying home to raise them. She made the right choice if you’re asking me. Either which way, she’s come close but she’s not won — Thompson is banking on her veteran status and industry position to beat Emma Stone, the girl of every voters’ dreams in La La Land. And she’s banking on her beating Viola Davis who is also overdue and already lost once to an overdue vet when Streep won for The Iron Lady. Both women are in that category where it is difficult to say whose plight voters will be more concerned with.
“I still maintain Davis is the frontrunner,” AwardsWatch‘s Erik Anderson told me over email, “even unseen. I won’t change my thoughts on that until Fences is seen and brings a new perspective, if necessary.” When asked if Viola Davis was in supporting who would take the frontrunner’s spot, Erik replied “I don’t think Davis will go supporting but if she does then Stone, being in the current BP frontrunner, becomes the clear leader.”
I could see it going either way but I tend to agree, at least right now, more with Erik on this. Stone’s might be one of those performances in one of those films that can’t be ignored. Then you have Natalie Portman in Jackie to contend with against Stone if you’re not going with a vet but going with a role you think voters will feel an emotional pull for.
If it’s Bening, and it’s time, nothing will stop her. Even if voters do not take to 20th Century Women, they’re still going to go all in for Bening as they did Julianne Moore for Still Alice. Either way, attention from Anne Thompson and Scott Feinberg gives Bening plenty enough buzz to springboard off of.
Jessica Chastain carries Miss Sloane almost completely, as Amy Adams does with Arrival. Both roles are astonishing in that women are treated as actual heroes. They aren’t on the sidelines supporting the hero. They aren’t the hero because they rescue a lost man. They are actually heroes because – wait for it – they’re good at their jobs. They’re not bungling their jobs, they’re succeeding at their jobs within industries that work against them for various reasons.
When we talk about leading roles for actresses, these are the kinds of parts actresses go to sleep at night wishing they could get. While it’s true that much will rest on how the critics see these films, there is no doubt that these two roles, along with Christine, Queen of Katwe, and Florence Foster Jenkins stand out from the pack because it is so unusual now to see women cast this way, much less written about in this way.
Acting is, of course, acting, and if you’re lucky you get that great part. As a woman of, cough cough, middle age, what I see too often are roles where women are helpless. Indeed, many of the Best Actress frontrunners show exactly the opposite. Jackie is a survivor and a titan rising up after the death of her husband, Annette Bening in 20th Century Women is a single mother and unique thinker taking each day as a new opportunity to learn something. Emma Stone is a force of nature, discovering her own talent as a storyteller. Ruth Negga is spearheading a movement against a racist law and eliminating a dividing line between black and white, or gay or straight, when it comes to love. Viola Davis has among the most difficult roles of all of them – playing a woman who is otherwise invisible and has it twice as hard as her husband because of both gender and skin color. These are strong roles brilliantly played. It is indeed an embarrassment of riches.
Still, it’s worth pointing out Chastain’s performance, though it’s embargoed so I can’t say much about it except that between Amy Adams in Arrival and Chastain in Miss Sloane it was an early Christmas present for me. I have not see characters so whole and rich like that at the center of a film in a while. Both of these films I will be watching multiple times because it’s rare to have movies that show you who you’d like to be if you’re a woman. We are often thrust into a dreamworld of beauty where we can imagine being a young and beautiful woman pursued. Or we’re watching a lost woman finding her way out of a metaphorical maze. There is so much tragedy in the female experience but there are superheroes too. They aren’t wearing costumes but they have superpowers. Their superpowers are their brains and their capable skill set.
In terms of the Best Actress race, I’d say the Thompson/Feinberg boost for Bening means she’s in, at least for now, and that means our four locks are potentially:
That leaves us with only one fifth slot. It’s going to either be Amy Adams or Jessica Chastain. If Viola Davis is put in supporting that opens things up a little more, for perhaps Ruth Negga to snag a Best Actress nod. Or perhaps both Chastian and Davis. Then there is Meryl Streep to contend with.
We need to see Fences. We need to see the reviews for Miss Sloane. We need to see the general reaction to Arrival. So we wait. And wait.