Oscars: Where Are All the Best Actress Contenders?

Illustration by: Vidhya Nagarajan

The numbers haven't changed much since the 1940s: Only 15 percent of all film protagonists are female. Now, in 2014, amid a glut of potential best actor nominees, Oscar will be forced to find enough contenders among a virtually nonexistent field of the fairer sex

This story first appeared in the Nov. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

When the Academy Award nominations are announced Jan. 15, one thing is sure: There will be five best actor nominees, five best actress nominees and another five men and five women anointed in each of the supporting categories, all neatly listed in their respective columns. The suggestion will be that when it comes to the year's best movies, gender equality reigns. And, like lots of things in Hollywood, that will be an illusion.

For as awards season gets underway, the handicappers already are lamenting the fact that there are far too many deserving men trying to squeeze into the best actor category. Awards blogger Pete Hammond of Deadline.com even seriously floated the idea that the Academy should quickly introduce a rule change to allow for a whopping 10 best actor nominees. (Good luck on that one.)

Check off the presumed front-runnersThe Theory of Everything's Eddie Redmayne, The Imitation Game's Benedict Cumberbatch, Birdman's Michael Keaton, Foxcatcher's Steve Carell, among them — and the five available slots are nearly full. But there still are at least two dozen other credible names being pushed forward, from such newcomers as Boyhood's Ellar Coltrane and Whiplash's Miles Teller to veterans like Kevin Costner (Black and White) and Al Pacino (The Humbling), who are making long-shot plays, to potential nominees including Jack O'Connell (Unbroken), Bradley Cooper (American Sniper) and Mark Wahlberg (The Gambler), whose films have yet to screen.

At the same time, handicappers have been scratching their heads trying to figure out which actresses could be drafted to fill out the best actress category, since it's the rare fall release, like Reese Witherspoon's Wild, that actually focuses on a complicated female character. Hoping to take advantage of the vacuum at the top, proponents of smaller indie movies like Obvious Child, starring Jenny Slate, which normally would have their best shot at the Independent Spirit Awards, have begun suggesting they deserve Academy consideration as well. And so when Still Alice, starring Julianne Moore as a college professor confronting early onset Alzheimer's, debuted at the Toronto Film Festival, the blogerati breathed a huge sigh of relief, with THR awards analyst Scott Feinberg predicting that given the proper distribution (Sony Pictures Classics quickly stepped in and picked up the film), Moore would be "the favorite to win the best actress Oscar."

It's not the Academy's fault that the best actress pickings are slim, of course. It simply reflects the fact that the industry as a whole spends much more time and money on movies about men, and that in turn provides lots of opportunities for male actors to strut their stuff while actresses appear mostly in supportive roles as wives, girlfriends and mothers.

Martha Lauzen, executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State, laid it all out in a study released this year. Surveying 300 films released in 2013, the study found that females comprised just 15 percent of the protagonists, 29 percent of the major characters and 30 percent of all the speaking characters. And, according to Lauzen, the number of speaking parts doled out to women hasn't improved much beyond the standard set in the 1940s, when it hovered between 25 and 28 percent annually.

What has changed, though, is that the putative prestige films — the movies that dominate awards season these days — are much more likely to focus on guys. Compare this year's best picture contenders to the golden year of 1939: Among the 10 movies nominated for best picture, movies built around women and starring magnetic actresses had pride of place: Vivien Leigh in the winner Gone With the Wind, Bette Davis in Dark Victory, Greta Garbo in Ninotchka, even young Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz. Today, just about the only place you'd find a lineup of actresses like that is on Ryan Murphy's American Horror Story.

Ironically, on the commercial side of the ledger, things are changing. Having catered for years to men while ceding women's stories to television, the film industry has begun to rediscover that female moviegoers can be an even more powerful and reliable demographic than fickle younger males. Witness the success of Maleficent, starring Angelina Jolie, Divergent and The Fault in Our Stars with Shailene Woodley (who is being touted in the best actress race for the latter film) and the ongoing Hunger Games franchise, starring Jennifer Lawrence.

But those are movies — and performances — that largely will be ignored by voters. For it's the folks who turn out all the awards bait who have yet to get the memo.

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