Why Oscar Doesn't Favor Redheads

red head oscars illo - H 2014
Illustration by: Lars Leetaru

red head oscars illo - H 2014

Among them, they have 11 noms for best and supporting actress — and zero wins. Now Julianne Moore, Jessica Chastain, Amy Adams and Emma Stone will try to defy odd prejudices and show that auburn and gold do go together

This story first appeared in the Jan. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

At last month's Governors Awards, Liam Neeson rose to pay tribute to the legendary Maureen O'Hara and, as if confessing a schoolboy crush, testified, "She started in black-and-white films and later became the queen of Technicolor, leaving us mesmerized not just by her performances but by her fiery red hair and gorgeous green eyes."

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For O'Hara's fellow redheads who are vying for Oscar's attention this year -- Julianne Moore, Jessica Chastain, Amy Adams, Emma Stone -- the moment could be read two ways. Either it was an encouraging omen that redheads are deserving of Academy recognition, too (even though the big acting prize most often has gone to blondes or brunettes), or it was a cautionary reminder not to get their hopes up. After all, O'Hara had to wait until she was 94 to get Oscar's validation. During the course of her career, she never got a nomination.

Sure, someone is bound to object that discussing hair color is a pretty frivolous way of assessing any actress' awards potential, but since every other factor is parsed to death in the run-up to Oscar, why not? After all, blondes and brunettes long have dominated American culture, from its serious literature to its breeziest pop artifacts -- leaving redheads to fend for themselves. In his Love and Death in the American Novel, literary critic Leslie Fiedler identified the archetypes, tracing them back to James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans, where, he argued, women are presented as either "the passionate brunette and the sinless blonde … the pattern of Dark and Light that [became] the standard form in which American writers project their ambivalence toward women." That duality -- the good-girl blonde and dangerous brunette -- have persisted all the way to Archie's Betty and Veronica.

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Redheads largely were left out of the equation, and that in turn often limited the roles they were given to play onscreen. When young, they sometimes appeared as tomboys (the most recent example being Princess Merida in Pixar's Brave). As adults, they often were asked to play fiery spitfires (as was true of both O'Hara and her contemporary Rita Hayworth) or zany clowns (the role Lucille Ball took up when she moved from film to TV then passed on to Carol Burnett).

True, a few redheads have beaten the odds to win best actress: Ginger Rogers in 1940's Kitty Foyle and Greer Garson in 1942's Mrs. Miniver (though both films were in black-and-white), Shirley MacLaine in 1983's Terms of Endearment (on her fifth acting nom) and Susan Sarandon in 1995's Dead Man Walking (on her fifth nom). It's tougher for ginger guys, who have been denied best actor honors.

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This year, though, redheads are storming the gates, and if there is such a thing as a redheaded jinx, at least one of them is bound to beat it. Ever since her film Still Alice, in which she plays a college professor confronting early-onset Alzheimer's, debuted at the Toronto Film Festival, Moore has been considered the best actress frontrunner. If she secures an Oscar nom, it will be her fifth Academy nomination. She last was nominated in 2003 for both lead actress in Far From Heaven and supporting in The Hours. That she was up in two categories may have contributed to the fact that she didn't prevail in either -- for the record, she lost best actress to The Hours' Nicole Kidman, who may have started her career as a redhead but has found more success as a blonde.

Chastain -- with two previous Oscar nominations -- also is in the game. Ever industrious, she's got four movies in contention, including Liv Ullmann's adaptation of the August Strindberg play Miss Julie and Christopher Nolan's sci-fi epic Interstellar. But her best shots may be a supporting nomination for the crime drama A Most Violent Year (for which she already has picked up a Globes nom) or a best actress nom for The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, in which she plays a woman whose marriage is coming to an end. The Weinstein Co. is giving Chastain a big push for Rigby, even as it promotes Amy Adams for playing painter Margaret Keane in Big Eyes.

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Adams, too, already has put together quite a résumé, with five previous Academy noms, including her recent best actress nom for American Hustle. She lost that race, though, to Blue Jasmine's Cate Blanchett, who does just happen to be blond, not that anyone's suggesting there's a pattern. And, finally, there's Stone, who could well earn her first Oscar nom for playing Michael Keaton's daughter in Birdman.

So is it safe to predict the Oscars will feature a parade of redheads? Maybe not. Because whoever's nominated, she's always free to change the color of her hair. As Mark Twain once observed, "When redheaded people are above a certain social grade, their hair is auburn."