01.11.13 Truth & Wisdom

By Default, the Best Actress Is…

By Default, the Best Actress Is…

BY Jessica Tholmer

It is an unfortunately true statement when people claim that “this was a bad year for women.” The Academy Awards, the hands-down most prestigious award in cinema, are a really big deal. Though there are the people who claim to not care for the way the award show is set up, though there are always the actors and actresses that claim to not have taken a role just to win, though it is an “honor just to be nominated,” everyone wants an Oscar. Anyone and everyone in the movie business would be honored to receive one, this we know. But it seems like “anyone and everyone in the movie business” are men. Is this new news? Not even slightly, however, why are we not questioning this on a more intense level? Why have we settled, in 85 years of bestowing gold men, for accepting the fact that women have few to absolutely no roles worth anything in the movies?

Much of this is discretion, of course, but I come from a place of knowing about the Oscars, about understanding those little gold dudes that are so prestigious to so many people. Sure, the first Academy Award ceremony I watched was simply because I wanted to catch a glimpse of Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet potentially sitting next to each other, maybe even hugging at some point!!!!, because I had just gotten done seeing Titanic eleven times in the movie theater (yes, I am single, thank you) and I was obsessed with everything involving ships, or blue-eyed boys, or red haired women, or James Cameron, so. I happened to really enjoy the show, all a million hours of it. I was hooked on the Academy from that point on, little ten-year old movie buff that I was. I feel entirely confident speaking to the patterns of the Academy, and the awards they choose to give out to who, and why, and when.

The most prestigious categories of the night, typically called the “The Big 5,” remain Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, Best Picture, and Best Screenplay (Adapted, or Original, depending on its applicability). For indisputably the entire history of the Academy Awards, of the Big 5 awards, the weakest category has always been either Best Actress or Best Supporting Actress. Typically, Best Picture (obviously) and Best Actor are the most competitive categories, but at times, even Best Supporting Actor (see: this year!) is highly anticipated. In fact, the Academy is typically reaching for straws when it even comes to nominating five women in either of the female-based categories. How do we know this?

The respective Actress categories are typically filled with more “wild card” responses than the Actor categories. Upon predicting the nominees, the struggle in assuming which actor will receive a nomination in either Acting category is not about filling the category, it is typically more focused on who out-acted who in order to earn one of the only five spots. The roles for men are consistently more involved, more prominent, and constantly more celebrated. This year, for instance, the Best Actor contenders are for roles like: arguably the most well-known former President of the United States of America (Daniel Day-Lewis), one of the most well-known and heroic protagonists in literature/film/theater history Jean Val-freakin’-jean (Hugh Jackman), and World War II veterans (Joaquin Phoenix).

The Best Actress category had much less buzz before the nominations were announced. When the nominations came out yesterday morning, there were at least two “snubs” in the Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor categories, yet no one said much about either Actress group. Everyone assumed Jessica Chastain would be nominated for her role as a CIA officer in Zero Dark Thirty, and everyone expected Jennifer Lawrence’s portrayal of a neurotic girl who gets a neurotic dude to fall in love with her to get her a nod.

And that is about it. Those two women have been the only names consistently thrown around this entire Oscar season. Jessica Chastain will likely win Best Actress, and I am in no way claiming she does not deserve an Oscar, but how embarrassing is it that I can sit here and almost tell you who will win the Best Actress Oscar when the nominations were just announced?

It gets worse—not only are women completely ignored by the Academy, but when it comes to Black women, it is an even sadder story. Halle Berry is the only Black woman to ever win the Best Actress award. Even worse, only nine Black women have ever even been nominated for Best Actress, compared to the 18 Black men that have been nominated for Best Actor (four wins). Now I am no mathematician, but that is twice as many Black men as women. Not only that, but the first Black man to win a Best Actor Oscar was Sidney Poitier (though the offensiveness surrounding his win was not lost on him, because he is wise, and perfect, and lovely) in 1963. Berry won hers in 2001. It took almost forty years from Poitier’s recognition to credit a Black woman for her ability. To portray? A grieving mother.

Berry was not even all that mind-blowing in Monster’s Ball; it was just long overdue for a woman of color to get up on stage as a Best Actress.

It should be recognized that Quvenzhané Wallis’ name was called yesterday morning, making her not only the youngest Black woman (girl, in this case) to be nominated for a Best Actress Oscar, but the youngest actress to be nominated for the award ever. Good for her, though with the non-American name (the latter half of her name means “fairy” in Swahili), I have read a lot of excitement over an African being nominated for an Oscar. For the record, little Wallis was born and thus-far raised in Louisiana. Assumptions should not be made off of a name alone.

Other things: the record for a Black woman’s nomination is two (Viola Davis and Whoopi Goldberg both hold the title); for a white woman, it is 17 (Meryl Streep). In the Supporting categories, five Black women have won—almost always for portraying the only roles Black women in Hollywood seem to be able to land. Hattie McDaniel won in 1939 for playing a character named “Mammy,” 72 years and only three more Black Best Supporting Actresses later, Octavia Spencer won the award for portraying pretty much the same character McDaniel played. Spencer won for playing a mammy-type character named Minnie in a movie called The Help. The Help. Black women are still only winning awards for portraying exactly who society thinks they should be portraying. Besides Goldberg’s portrayal of Oda Mae Brown in Ghost in 1990, which was not necessarily a race-related role, every other gold man handed to a Black woman has been racially-related. Why can’t a Black woman (or even man, in this instance) win an award for a role that is not about race? We have incredible Black actors in Hollywood that continually go ignored if their last name is not Washington, or if their film is not about slavery or submission, even if we are celebrating the “overcoming of the struggle.” (See: this year’s Django Unchained.)

The honorary Oscar, a noncompetitive, but still prestigious award, also very rarely goes to a woman. In the entire decade of the 2000s, one woman was a recipient.

What it all boils down to is the fact that there are not enough roles for women in Hollywood, period. I need to see our incredibly talented actresses nominated for the roles that their male peers are being nominated for instead of these “traditional” female roles. I am sick of seeing sad mothers, or widows; Black women playing slave housekeepers and indignant servants to white men, or men in general. This year alone, the roles of women in all of the major films released in the past few months are embarrassing. Kerry Washington killed her performance in Django Unchained, but she was playing a damsel-in-distress slave. What if Washington played a fighter pilot instead? What if Washington played a Wall Street journalist, or a television executive? I think it was two hours (felt like three or four) before I saw a single woman in The Hobbit. Lincoln basically had two female characters, and one of them (though I give it up for Miss Sally Field for her accurate portrayal) was shown as not much more than a whiny, grieving wife. The other was a housekeeper/nanny/servant.

Though this is a clear focus on the acting categories, it seems important to note that in Oscar history, there have only ever been four women nominated for Best Director, with only one win in 2009. Kathryn Bigelow holds the exclusive honor for her film The Hurt Locker (which also won Best Picture that year), but when nominations were announced yesterday, she was shockingly snubbed for her Zero Dark Thirty this year, despite its nominations for Best Picture, Actress, and Original Screenplay. But no nomination for Bigelow, she was edged out by unexpected names like Ang Lee, Benh Zeitlin, and Michael Haneke. Though all of their films were undoubtedly worthy, it should be recognized that yet again, all of these names are the names of men.

What would you guys like to see women in Hollywood portraying? Do you think we are stagnant, or that we have made vast improvements in Hollywood’s representation of women? Let’s talk.

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Jess has been told she reminds people of Scarlett Johansson, Victoria Beckham, Carrie Bradshaw, Raven Symone, George Costanza (she's serious) and Cece from New Girl, so basically, she's every human ever. Using her multiple personalities, she proudly writes for HelloGiggles.com and breaks mugs and hearts as a manager for Starbucks in the Pacific Northwest, where coffee was like...invented. She believes in song lyrics, hair diffusers, red wine, eating food before liquor, respecting her elders, not washing her hair everyday, big brothers, little brothers, medium brothers, Beyoncé, breaking walls down, her childhood, full fringe, turning the heat on, mismatched socks, being serenaded, tweeting, shots of espresso, a thing called love, red lipstick, crying openly, Barack Obama, and even more, his wife. You can find her pretty much all over the internet, because what's real life anyway?


  • Alexandria Collins

    THANK YOU. It seems that Black actresses have to create the roles for ourselves! THAT’S why I’m doing my own productions. Black women don’t WANT to play these beaten-to-death roles, but there’s not much else for us! We are multi-dimensional, complex and intelligent women. When will these hollywood execs stop categorizing us? I feel like sometimes they don’t know what box to put us in, so they go back to stereotypes. Hello, we can play ANYTHING. Hopefully, with my career, something will change.

  • cdcw

    Great insight. I agree with the comment re: the dearth of roles for women of colour, and in fact Whoopee after receiving her Oscar for her role in Ghosts was offered mostly roles as maids following her win – but while I feel Hollywood is very hard on creating roles for women over 40 in comparison to the myriad roles for males- I don’t agree that there was a lack of strong female leads this year. Helen Hunt for example had critically acclaimed performance in ‘The Sessions’ but was not in the running at the Globes and you mentioned the famous male role of Jean Valjean that Hugh Jackman was recognized for, but neglected to mention the equally legendary role in the same film that Anne Hathaway played that she won an award for yesterday and is the favourite at the Oscars as well. Rachel Weisz, Marion Cotillard, Helen Mirren and Naomi Watts had great meaty roles and were hardly picked just to make up space along with Jessica Chastain. Meryl streep also had her usual strong roles and Julianne Moore was recognized for her stellar work on HBO playing Sarah Palin. An interesting question to ask as well is why 4 of the 5 nominated women for the Globes this year were all from outside of the united states and what does that say about the standard of U.S. women actors if anything? There was an interesting interview with legendary French actress Catherine Deneuve two years ago when asked why so many great female roles in Hollywood are going to European women, and she said it is increasingly difficult for Hollywood film makers to find women actors in Hollywood over the age of 30, who actually look like they are over the age of 30 due to the increasing amount of cosmetic surgery which seems to commence immediately after turning 30 for many Hollywood starlets. Is this to be a trend going forward or is it merely a blip?

  • jess

    Do you want a script or something?

  • Great topic. As part of our career documentary interview series, we asked Emmy Award winning director Tricia Regan about the film career challenges she’s faced given the scarcity of female filmmakers. Her response is powerful and thoughtful: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q1ofY4VGD2E&feature=share&list=PL09410BF0E96340C6

  • Jo G

    My book Lacey’s House is published on May 1st. I would love to see it made into a film, not just for selfish ‘wow look what I did’ purposes but also because the two main character’s in it are both very different but equally independent women.
    I wonder, if it were ever to be made into a film, would a love interest for the younger of the two women be written in so that a male character could be introduced? It seems to me that we are rarely given the opportunity to watch a female driven story without being reminded that we are only truly valid if we love a man!

  • Mel

    I love Laura Dern’s character on “Enlightened”. She is deeply flawed, but with good intentions & big dreams – hilarious and touching to watch. I would like to see more women like that on the big screen(funny, no Golden Globe for her either!).

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