Nothing has really demonstrated where women stand in American culture like this year’s election. It’s strange to think about how few films now (especially those in the Oscar race) put women at the center of their stories, much less specifically in powerful positions. Very few of them do. Here is a quick look back at the ten actresses who won Best Actress this past decade:
Brie Larson, Room
Julianne Moore, Still Alice
Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady
Natalie Portman, Black Swan
Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side
Kate Winslet, The Reader
Marion Cotillard, La Vie En Rose
Helen Mirren, The Queen
There is no doubt that these are all great roles. Three out of the ten winners are women who are at the center of their films and are the smartest people in the room. They are all well-acted, well-deserved Oscar winners, without question. Now let’s look at the 1970s:
1970 – Glenda Jackson, A Woman in Love
1971 – Jane Fonda, Klute
1972 – Liza Minnelli, Cabaret
1973 – Glenda Jackson, A Touch of Class
1974 – Ellyn Burstyn, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore
1975 – Louise Fletcher, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
1976 – Faye Dunaway, Network
1977 – Diane Keaton, Annie Hall
1978 – Jane Fonda, Coming Home
1979 – Sally Field, Norma Rae
1980 – Sissy Spacek, Coal Miner’s Daughter
There have been more than five Best Picture nominees since 2009, and yet in the last ten years only five Best Actress nominees have come from Best Picture nominees, and none of those were Best Picture winners. Compare that with the 1970s, where eight came from Best Picture nominees and two from winners. Two more from almost-winners, like Cabaret and Network. Yes, times have changed. They’ve dramatically changed. They’ve unforgivably changed for women.
I point this out because the ugly truth of it is that if women want to find roles where they are the central performance worthy of a nomination, they have to find movies that simply won’t get nominated for Best Picture. They have to mine them from the world of independents, and in that world most of the roles that ultimately get nominated do not have the cred from the critics (like Jennifer Aniston, for instance, in Cake — the critics pitched a fit when it almost looked like Aniston’s chosen showcase role would get her an Oscar nod so they inserted their preferred choice, Marion Cotillard).
But this year, we do seem to have a more competitive Oscar race, and it’s possible some of these films with Best Actress frontrunners could be headed for the Best Picture race and gasp, one might even win. Those are:
Emma Stone, La La Land
Amy Adams, Arrival
Natalie Portman, Jackie
Ruth Negga, Loving
Annette Bening, 20th Century Women
Meryl Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins
Yet we don’t know if all of these movies will make it in. Even now pundits have doubts about Arrival, which is one of the few films offered up this season with a female in the center who is the indisputably the smartest person in the room. Almost every other performance features a vulnerable or lost woman who is defined in varying degrees by her position to her husband. They are smart, strong women, no doubt: in Loving, Ruth Negga takes an active role in challenging anti-miscegenation laws, and in Jackie, the entire film focuses on a wrecked but ultimately strong widow of an assassinated president. But the exceptional position of Amy Adams in Arrival seems not to be important to those who predict the Oscars, many of whom have written it off as “too complex” or whatever. Even with 100% at Rotten Tomatoes with 65 reviews already. To me, this is like living in bizarro world. Is it one of the best films of the year? Without a doubt. But they are saying once it’s served up to Oscar voters, or SAG voters, or PGA voters or DGA voters, they will reject it because it is not familiar enough, or bland enough, or comfortably sensible enough for their tastes.
Jessica Chastain will challenge voters once again with the kind of role that is mostly unimaginable to the Hollywood power elite these days. I can promise you that. Though it seems to spring from the world where Aaron Sorkin dwells, he does not write female characters like this. Imagine if Steve Jobs was a female character — that’s Chastain in Miss Sloane. This is one of the few complex, complicated female characters introduced this year. Most of the time we tend to see women as all good or all bad, with not a lot of complexity hard-coded in. Miss Sloane is not only the smartest person in the room, she comes with baggage. Lots of baggage. Personal baggage. Sound familiar?
I would love it if we had two of the smartest people in the room also nominated for Best Actress in the same year the first female was elected President of the United States. That would put an exclamation point on the end of the sentence. As it is, that’s no more likely to happen as it is that the Best Picture race will include one of these films. But a girl can dream.
Finally, Hidden Figures, which I have not yet seen, is potentially a film with women, lots of women, women of color who are also the smartest women in the room. I will be very curious to see how that one goes down.
In the end, all must be filtered through the same gaze that got us into this mess. Whatever it is, whatever forces are at play, women have become diminished in the power seat on screen. They are lucky to get a nomination playing a wife or a mother. But for the few times a director takes a chance on a woman at the center, like Denis Villeneuve has done with Arrival, like John Madden has done with Miss Sloane, like Stephen Frears did with Florence Foster Jenkins and 10 years ago with The Queen — it just doesn’t happen that much. Actresses fight for these good roles, and when they don’t come along, they try to acquire properties that they can produce themselves so that they can have a chance to just do good work.
If we look at the films that are most likely headed for Best Picture, we have:
La La Land – Best Actress nominee, maybe winner
Manchester by the Sea – Supporting Actress nominee
Moonlight – Supporting Actress nominee
Fences – Supporting Actress (but a woman of color and potentially a winner)
Loving – Best Actress nominee (woman of color)
Lion – Supporting Actress nominee
Jackie – Best Actress nominee
Arrival – Best Actress nominee
Hidden Figures – All female cast, Lead and Supporting Potential
Hell or High Water
20th Century Women – Best Actress nominee
We don’t know how this whole thing will shake down. But of all of these potential Best Picture nominees, there is only one where the central character and the smartest person in the room is a woman. And as of now, it is still considered a long shot for a Best Picture nomination.