“It’s a depressingly masculine world, Dolores.”
Women can’t really catch a break because ultimately the film world, like politics, is always going to be viewed through the lens of the male gaze. They believe themselves immune to it but trust me, there is a dividing line, which is the main reason there hasn’t been a Best Picture winner with a female lead since Million Dollar Baby in 2004. Don’t believe me? Let’s take a look:
2016 – Moonlight – supporting actress
2015 – Spotlight – supporting actress
2014 – Birdman – supporting actress
2013 – 12 Years a Slave – supporting actress
2012 – Argo
2011 – The Artist – supporting actress
2010 – The King’s Speech – supporting actress
2009 – The Hurt Locker
2008 – Slumdog Millionaire
2007 – No Country for Old Men
2006 – The Departed
2005 – Crash (the closest thing to it is ensemble work)
2004 – Million Dollar Baby – Swank is the only Best Actress nominee or winner to star in a Best Picture winner in this period
Things look even more dire for women as the subject of films in the Best Picture race when you just look at nominees over that same period. Expanding to ten nominees briefly changed things – with films like The Kids Are All Right and An Education getting in, but once the Academy shrunk the nominees back to five everything snapped back to male-centric storytelling. It’s one of the most bizarre evolutionary adaptations I’ve seen in the years I’ve been covering film. Some of it can be explained by the rise of fanboy culture covering film and Hollywood’s inclination towards aiming their product at 13 year-old boys. But a lot of it, let’s face it, is because of the people who cover movies – mostly male, gay and straight males, but males all the same. They’re quite simply less interested in stories about women, I’ve found, far more critical of those stories and inevitably they fall away, leaving only the unassailable typical male narrative standing. So, now that Telluride has made an effort to include female directors and has a few female-driven films headlining, you are seeing the very kind of pushback that will limit choices by year’s end.
Some might call this discussion “identity politics” – and indeed this is the same argument that swirled around the left last year and remains one of its biggest problems. Most people get irritated if you even bring it up (“Here she goes again”) and sink back into the comfortable lukewarm tub of male-driven stories. However, it is disappointing to see it play out somewhat here. It is what it is and this year won’t be different from any other year.
But Telluride, and Venice before it, offers up so many great roles for women – so many brilliantly told films about real and imaginary women: a gay rising tennis star, a cleaning lady who falls in love with a monster, an aging movie star, a bratty teenager, a young Cambodian girl, and on and on it goes. Todd Haynes’ Wonderstruck is another. If you’re looking for female-driven stories look no further than here. But movies about women have a funny way of disappearing from the Best Picture race, because the tastes we’re dealing with across-the-board tend to be male. That is the fact of Oscar season. Just read the pushback I got on my own Oscar column regarding Battle of the Sexes. I don’t mind people arguing with me, but it gets a bit tiresome to be doing this for almost 20 years, and having been right about some very tough calls only to have people continue to disregard my own opinion. For what reason? Well, you can probably guess. Someday I’ll put it all in a book.
The female-driven films that so far have the best shot of getting in are Battle of the Sexes, The Shape of Water, and maybe Lady Bird, with Wonder Wheel still to come. Victoria and Abdul got treated fairly harshly out of Venice so that is probably out too. Frances McDormand joins the Best Actress race with Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, although I’m not sure about the film itself.
It’s too early to call a frontrunner or even a winner. In a year like this you can’t. The reason that I put Battle of the Sexes high on my own list was that it seemed like a film no one I spoke with hated. And that’s what you’re looking for: the film no one hates. But alas, I forgot that a key component to that is whether it stars a woman or not. Women rile hatred just by standing there. Perhaps you can’t even have a movie starring a woman at all that isn’t, by its nature, divisive. In our question to find the Best Picture winner on a preferential ballot, we need to find the one that is loved, liked, and not hated. And it looks to me, at least right now, that that movie is never going to be one that stars a woman again. Not until they either expand the nominations to ten or they get rid of the preferential ballot entirely.