My gateway into the Oscars was through Best Actress. The first ceremony I ever watched was in 1997 when The English Patient took home 9 statues, but I was most looking forward to who would win the lead actress category. Leading up to the nominations, I was hoping that Madonna would earn her first mention for her performance in Alan Parker’s Evita–thereby solidifying a respectable status that seemed to elude her from Hollywood elites. By the time the 69th annual Academy Awards took place, Madonna wasn’t nominated, Frances McDormand took her first Best Actress Oscar, and an addiction was born.
Everyone has their own connection with the Best Actress race, and Stephen Tapert’s glorious book Best Actress: The History of Oscar-Winning Women celebrates these women while chronicling their personal struggles and triumphs against the misogynistic Hollywood machine.
Even if you consider yourself an expert on Best Actress or the women who were nominated, Tapert’s work is so thorough and detailed that I guarantee that you will learn something about these women. Tapert worked for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for 8 years before curating a Best Actress exhibit in Turin, Italy for the Museo Nazionale del Cinema. Devoting one chapter to each of the first 75 winners, Tapert gives focus to each woman who has won the award, but he also skillfully ties each one to winners before and after her.
People always say that we need to understand our history in order to learn from it, and Best Actress is a gorgeous book that showcases what some of these women had to do in order to gain respect from her peers. Not only is it stunning to flip through (I seriously find myself just picking it up and gazing at the colorful, sumptuous photography), it’s vital in our understanding of how we treat women in the industry and is a perfect addition to any Oscar obsessive’s collection.
Awards Daily: Who is your favorite Best Actress winner?
Stephen Tapert: I think there’s a few. I think, sentimentally, would be Audrey Hepburn’s performance in Roman Holiday because it was introduced to me at a pretty young age. The first city I visited in Europe was Rome and when I was 15 I got to stay with a family there. I remember going around and visiting all the places in that film when I was there in 1990. But the film that in more recent years that stands out to me is Maggie Smith in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. It’s such a fun film and not as well-known as I think it should be. I teach a class at the school where I work, The New York Film Academy, on women’s history by way of the Best Actress winner. I love introducing people to I Want to Live! with Susan Hayward and it’s not as well-known as it should be. I love Jane Fonda in Klute, Jennifer Jones in The Song of Bernadette, Natalie Portman in Black Swan. I could go on about all of my favorites, but Audrey Hepburn is right there at the top.
AD: I started watching the Oscars in the mid-90’s so I was particularly excited to get to the years when I started watching.
AD: You state in the introduction that the Best Actress Oscar “uniquely represents the most long-standing, non sports-related honor annually given to a woman.” I thought that statement was so good to start with. This is one of the only annual traditions that celebrates women in this way. Would you consider that a mantra of the book or could you talk about why you mentioned that at the top?
ST: Sure. The only other honor I could find in my research that every single year went to a woman—that pre-dated the Academy Awards—was the U.S. Tennis Open. The Olympics could only do it every four years. The Pulitzer Prize and Nobel Peace Prize are more often given to men. Of course there’s a lot of criticism that more women haven’t won Oscars, but we do need to acknowledge that the Academy did decide, at the beginning, that one category would guarantee a woman an Oscar. Supporting Actress didn’t come until 9 years later, and Best Actress is the most coveted.
ST: It’s important to take note of that detail, I think, because we don’t acknowledge that the Best Actress Oscar ties in with the Women’s Rights Movement. Since the Academy decided that they would honor women, it sends a strong message. You have to remember too that all of these films—every single one of them—are tied to issues of discrimination and prejudice and therefore serve as a blueprint as to where we are towards gender equality. That’s why I was interested in doing this one book on this category, because, to me, it’s the most important category. It reflects where we are as a society much more so than the other categories do.
AD: A lot of younger awards shows have done away with gendered categories. The Academy is a more traditional institution, so do you ever see them going in that direction?
ST: That’s a great question, and someone at one of my book Q&A’s asked that. She was a scientist and she said she would be deeply offended if there was an award for best male or female scientist.
ST: That would be offensive. As you say, they are locked in tradition, and you have to remember that the Academy membership mainly consists of older, white men. It’s difficult to imagine them abolishing the gender categorization of the acting awards. I can see that point, but the tradition indicates that it won’t go in that direction.
AD: We are all, obviously, for diversifying the acting categories, but you know if there was only one category for acting…there would be one year that it would only consist of men.
ST: That’s true. If they treat it like they treat the Best Picture winners…let’s consider that the majority of the Best Picture nominees are not Best Actress winning films. In a way, that’s why I’ve always had issue with the Best Picture category—it tilts too masculine in the protagonists that are connected with it. It can overlook and ignore these great films about women.
AD: We just saw that this year.
ST: For sure. Something like Judy wasn’t involved.
AD: Little Women was the only one.
ST: In a way, I kind of hope they don’t do it because it will minimize the Best Actress and Supporting Actress categories, and we don’t need that.
AD: Even though you worked at the Academy for so long, was there an era that you were particularly eager to go back to, and was there a performance that changed in your estimation after you did more research?
ST: Hmmm. That’s a great question. I was never truly fond of the film As Good As It Gets for which Helen Hunt won her Oscar. I came across a greater appreciation for her and her contribution to film history by way of writing about her. Marie Dressler is a forgotten name on the list for some reason, and I always love sharing her story to my students. She was not conventionally attractive, she was on the older end when she won, and when she won she was already diagnosed with cancer. She died a few years later, and it was a deeply mourned passing. Maybe because of her appearance, she hasn’t stayed in our memory as much, but I always love showing the clip of Min and Bill where she’s having her physical fights with the Wallace Beery character. My students really respond to that. It’s fun to bring the forgotten names back into the fold and she’s one of those for some reason.
AD: I have never seen that movie and I was making a list of all the performances I wanted to come back to. She’s near the top of my list because I didn’t know anything about her.
ST: She’s just such a great presence and she was a top star of MGM and the biggest box office star in Hollywood when she died. Even Louis B. Mayer said that he only had three great stars at MGM: her, Garbo, and Spencer Tracy.
ST: That’s a huge statement to make.
AD: There are some things while reading your book that surprised me. For instance, I didn’t know Ginger Rogers was so conservative. I remember watching her movies as a kid, and it made me realize that I maybe only knew things about screen performances and not the actresses themselves?
AD: Maybe it’s because, in my mind, anything that’s staunchly conservative weirds me out, but that was an instance where I knew that I might need to revisit some of these women’s performances.
ST: Certainly by way of her mother, that comes out really strongly. Sometimes the performances they choose to participate in cloud their political persuasion in real life. You would almost have the impression that it would be the reverse.
AD: Something that I love in the book is how you make a point to include the names of other nominees or winners in every chapter. For instance, in the Frances McDormand entry, you talk about how she moved around a lot as a kid and make the parallel to Faye Dunaway, Jessica Lange, Sandra Bullock, and Julianne Moore and their childhoods. You relate the winners to other people.
ST: It was important to me to make sure that you know it’s about the first 75 winners. I wanted to focus on the first 75 women to have won the Oscar. But I wanted to make sure that whenever you came across another winner’s name, it was bolded.
AD: Yes. I loved that.
ST: It makes them all stand out. I wanted to create a unified narrative. If you’re looking at the McDormand chapter or the Audrey Hepburn chapter, you’re going to find great information about the other actresses, too, connected by themes that link these women together. It’s consistent throughout the book and that was something different to contribute that I couldn’t find elsewhere. It’s about these 75 women collectively, not separately.
AD: Were you surprised that this book didn’t already exist? I had thought that there would be something like this already, probably because I’m a gay guy obsessed with Best Actress and I follow a lot of other guys that think the same way.
ST: Absolutely. I think it was something I realized when I was working at the Academy. My job was, as a researcher for the museum project, to look at these different things that the Academy wanted to include in the museum. Over the course of that time, I was coming across very interesting stories about Best Actress—some we’ve heard, some we haven’t—and I assumed there was a book where they had come together. Because I was working at the Margaret Herrick Library, I realized there wasn’t something like this, and as time passed on, I thought I wanted to be the person to make this happen. I’m on the same page with you. The people I associate with are interested in the Best Actress category, too. It was a pleasure to spend the last 10 years on this.
AD: Is there someone you’d love to write a chapter about?
ST: Well, the book has to stop at some point.(laughs)
AD: Of course (laughs).
ST: I had some clean numbers to work with—the first 75 winners and the first 90 years—so, unfortunately, Olivia Colman and Renee Zellweger didn’t make it in, but there will be another version that includes them. Last year, when it was so neck and neck with Colman and Glenn Close, and I think a lot of people thought Close could take it. I wouldn’t have been able to write about her because the cutoff had already happened, but she’s been nominated so many times.
AD: Yes. That broke my heart a little bit.
ST: Deborah Kerr would be in that category too, but, of course, she’s no longer with us. What about you? Is there someone that you think is super deserving who hasn’t received it yet?
AD: There’s like a small list in my brain of women who I just need to have an Oscar, you know?
AD: For the longest time, it was Julianne Moore.
AD: The other three that are on the top of my list are Annette Bening, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Angela Bassett.
ST: Oh yeah. Absolutely. Let’s talk about the fact that more women of color need to be recognized here. It’s such an elephant in the room that only one woman of color has won, and only 15 women of color have even been nominated.
AD: That statistic is staggering. I think we forget how small that number is. Cynthia Erivo was the only one nominated this year, so it feels like it has to be about black pain and black misery to get recognition. No Lupita Nyong’o or Jennifer Lopez.
ST: I should correct myself since Erivo and Yalitza Aparicio have been nominated since then. But 17 ever? And most of the time, these women are experiencing poverty or on the precipice of that. We can’t get away from these stereotypes. To me, that’s very disturbing and I hope we recognize that that needs to change. We’re stuck in the mud, so to speak. It should be noted that the Academy has, in the last few years, tried to up its membership in terms of people of color and women.
ST: The film industry needs to follow suit, too, in realizing that it’s a very diverse moviegoing public. If they aren’t seeing themselves represented on the big screen, that’s a problem. The vast majority of films that the major studios continue to pump out feature white, male, heterosexual protagonists. The people in charge fit that category as well.
AD: That’s so depressing.
ST: I know! But we have to think positively, and if you look at the other acting categories, in the last 20 years, so many more people of color have been nominated and won. For some reason, the Best Actress category is the least progressive in that regard.
AD: If you didn’t do another installment of Best Actress—since we would have to wait a number of years for that—would you consider researching another category in this fashion? Maybe Supporting Actress?
ST: I am thinking about the next project and the one that is sort of getting my attention is Best Actor, but that would be such a different book.
AD: Yeah it would. I’d love it though!
ST: Best Actress it’s so compelling because of what these actresses had to overcome. Once they achieved Oscar-winning status, they’ve done some incredible things in the world like creating more opportunities for women or humanitarian work and issues related to equality, visibility, and diversity. Best Actor would be a different book, but there’s a part of me that wants to explore the examination of masculinity and how that’s shifted throughout the eras.
AD: Men are sometimes rewarded for that showcase of masculinity. Leo toiled through the mud and wrestled a bear…
ST: Or Russell Crowe in Gladiator or Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront or George C. Scott in Patton. It would be a whole other world for me. If I did do it, I would structure it just like Best Actress. We’ll see.
Best Actress: The History of Oscar-Winning Women is available for purchase now.