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So What Do These Oscars Mean For Women In Hollywood?

Posted on Thursday March 11, 2010, 16:42 by Helen O'Hara in Empire States
So What Do These Oscars Mean For Women In Hollywood?

It's been a few days now since the 2010 Academy Awards finally saw a woman (only the fourth nominated) take home the Best Director and Best Picture prizes. Speech of the night, by pretty much anyone's reckoning, also went to a woman - Best Actress winner Sandra Bullock. A few cautiously laudatory articles about women in Hollywood have followed - here and here for example - but they all feel a little forced.

Here's the thing: Kathryn Bigelow's win is a great thing for her, a well-deserved acknowledgment of a brilliantly made film that never got its due. And Sandra Bullock's the most likeable actress in Hollywood, a star whose classiness during awards season (even turning up to collect her Razzie) just confirms the impression that she's a lovely person - and she's a very good actress, whether in dramatic turns in the likes of Crash and, yes, The Blind Side or in comedies like Miss Congeniality (where she is really rather good; give it a chance). But nothing at this year's awards has made me think that the position of women in Hollywood is changing.

After all, Bigelow doesn't particularly make films about women, making it spectacularly easy to dismiss her as an anomaly or the exception that 'proves' the rule that women can't direct action. recently unfairly described her as a male director "in drag" for not making films about women - although frankly it's her business what films she makes, and no one's giving Garry Marshall grief for not making more films that are just about men*, or James Cameron grief for creating strong female roles. Far more offensive are the internet comments suggesting that Bigelow can only direct action / direct visually because of Cameron's influence and 'training'. Way to dismiss an Oscar winner, assholes.

But the fact remains that few female directors have had the opportunities Bigelow's had to make action movies, and fewer still (cough cough Karyn Kusama) have managed to make successful mainstream hits. Their records probably aren't much worse than comparable men who started in indie movies and shifted to big popcorn fare, but every failure reconfirms the belief and makes it that much harder for the next one. Even Bigelow took years to get another gig after the failure of K-19, far longer than a male director of a comparable flop. What she does next - and how long it takes her to find something - will be instructive in showing if any progress at all has been made.

 As for Bullock and the Best Actress category - and emphasising again that I really like her and don't begrudge her the prize - it's recently felt to me like there's a worrying trend in Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress over the last few years to give the prize to the biggest star not already to have won an Oscar (or Hilary Swank). Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Julia Roberts, Halle Berry, Penelope Cruz, Kate Winslet, Rachel Weisz, Catherine Zeta-Jones: all these are names that sell tabloids as well as films. The Best Actress categories have become an award crowning the ability of a female star to open a film, payable as soon as she turns in a good performance in a more muted (preferably indie) role. The male acting categories have often felt fit to bursting over the past few years; in the female categories, there's sometimes a sense of straining to fill up space because the roles just aren't there. (And no, trolls, you can't make a case that women just aren't as good at acting**).  It was suggested recently on Jezebel that the Oscars should no longer divide their acting categories by gender, which I agree should one day be an aim, but the net result of that, here and now, would be fewer female nominees and fewer female winners.

But it's also a question of demographics. Seriously: compare the Best Actress and Best Actor winners of the last ten years. There are more than twice as many female winners under 40 as male winners; seven times as many male winners over 50. Women are only getting decent roles until they turn 50 (and of the winning roles, 15 were under 40; only 4 between 40-50). They're getting roles at their career peak, and that ends quite suddenly, usually, in their late 30s. Men get meaty, Oscar-attracting parts for a good 20 or 30 years after that. Men are allowed to age onscreen; women, not so much.

Sure, there may be elements of vanity for some actresses who don't want to play old, but performances like Mirren's in The Queen, Julie Christie's in Away From Her and the utterly un-vain Mo'Nique in Precious tend to suggest that female stars will abandon vanity if the role is good enough (I'm counting eight of the 20 winners from the past ten years who significantly uglied-up for the role). It's just that, with less than 30 percent of all roles in Hollywood going to women, the opportunities for female leads aren't really coming up except in brainless rom-coms and as the straight woman / lust object in comedies. And still, every time a Blind Side or a Mamma Mia! or a Devil Wears Prada opens, the analysts stand round amazed (again) that people will go see films with female leads and without a dash-for-love to the airport at the end.

 So are these Oscars a giant leap for womankind? I don't think so, even though the sight of Bigelow with two fists full of statuette is a step in the right direction. Women haven't come any closer to equality in Hollywood, and while we can hope that Bigelow's win proves a small step on the road to changing people's attitudes and encourages the odd executive to give a female director a chance, there's a long road ahead. 

*Well, they might; they see him as lightweight, but you try thinking of an A-list equivalent male director who mostly makes films about women.

**Especially since you misogynist trolls are usually the same people who claim that women are manipulative.

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1 mighty mick
Posted on Friday March 12, 2010, 17:24
I think I'm in love with Helen O'Hara.

2 hatebox
Posted on Friday March 12, 2010, 17:42
The lead actor nominations for women do tend to be noticably weaker just about every year, and I don't doubt that's due to a lack of brilliantly written parts on offer.

It's a tired argument perhaps, but to an extent I wonder if women viwers themselves maintian the status quo - how many times have you seen a 'chick-flick' do well at the box office and the news headline is always something smug like 'see! Women do go to the movies!' Yeah they do, unfortunately, like men, a lot of them are paying to see garbage movies aimed cynically at their gender - Sex in the CIty, Mamma Mia and any Sandra Bullock film.

3 monkeyfish
Posted on Friday March 12, 2010, 17:48
I think having a woman finally winning a directing Oscar is a big step forward. Even if it may be more of a symbolic step than a practical one, it still demonstrates a bit of a shift in attitude. Don't forget, as well, that one of the other Best Picture nominees was also directed by a woman, and featured the performance that should have won for Best Actress (I know that there being ten nominees increases the likelihood of this but have there ever been two Best Picture nominees in one year directed by women before?) I think that is an indication that there are more opportunities for women than maybe twenty years ago. At the time that The Hurt Locker came out, there were a bunch of other films with female directors garnering a lot of attention, An Education, Fish Tank (an impressive Bafta winner), Bright Star, Jennifer's Body (despite Helen's harshness towards Karyn Kusama, a film that's commercial failure seems as much down to poor marketing as the film's failings) to name just a few. Not as many, obviously, as those made by men, but still more than usual. These, too, are films made about women, in a variety of different styles and genres.

If you are trying to think about a-list directors making films about women (Almodovar too foreign to be a-list?), look no further than one of the other directing nominees - Tarantino. Basterds may be Christoph Waltz's triumph and Brad Pitt's name may be above the title, but Melanie Laurent has the central protagonist role and it gives a pretty good part to Diane Kruger. This is coming after the obviously female led ensembles of Death Proof and Kill Bill and the great leading roles given to women in Jackie Brown (oddly a performance ignored by the Oscars) and Pulp Fiction.

4 monkeyfish
Posted on Friday March 12, 2010, 17:51
In terms of women as action filmmakers, I think that the opportunity will come. There are already successful women working as screenwriters in this medium. Just look at the last action heavy big Oscar winner (including for writing), Lord of the Rings. It was written in large part by two women, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, also behind the action spectacular of King Kong (given the number of units operating at once while LOTR was shooting, it's quite possible that one or both of them even directed a couple of scenes). Empire's current glowing review of Kick Ass as a different kind of action movie also praises writer Jane Goldman as one of the creative forces behind it. So, there are women filmmakers making action hits, just not yet so many as directors.

5 billythehick
Posted on Friday March 12, 2010, 20:59
you want a director who writes good female roles, look no further than woody allen.
Diane Keaton, Mira Sorvino, Dianne Weist and Penelope Cruz all saw their oscar wins under his guidance, and Mariel Hemingway, Geraldine Page, Maureen Stapleton, Judy Davis, Jennifer Tilly and Samantha Morton were all nominated in his works. Has any director given that many actresses that kind of recognition?

this isn't accounting for his other movies, such as Anything Else, which has my favourite Chritina Ricci performance.

6 spark1
Posted on Saturday March 13, 2010, 13:27
sorry but i see no progress unless the current run of female directors take on the kind of commerical work that male contempories are willing to do to get autonomy in hollywood.

they should follow the example of hardwicke, meyer and betty thomas, who deilivered $200mil+ gross 'alvin 2' last year, then they can get to do what ever they want.

7 Jenzy
Posted on Sunday March 14, 2010, 15:33
Could not agree more. There always seems to be at least one of the five nominations (in both actress and supporting actress) that is either because the academy just generally likes the actress or, as is mostly the case, they are struggling to fill up the catagory. It's a shame that most of the decent female roles do not get noticed (Melissa Leo in Frozen River aside) because the academy just relies on the select bunch of commercially successful and tabloid-selling actresses for their nominative suggestions.

8 baerrtt
Posted on Sunday March 14, 2010, 16:04
The reason why Kathryn Bigelow, however unfairly, found it difficult to get studio financing after K-19 is that despite her talent she's never had commercial success despite spending years making movies that were INTENDED to be commercial.

NEAR DARK flopped, BLUE STEEL flopped, POINT BREAK was a summer tentpole movie for '91 and underperformed in theaters despite the presence of Patrick Swayze, post GHOST, in the lead, STRANGE DAYS flopped, K-19 flopped etc.

The difference between Bigelow and other indie contemporaries like the Coens or Spike Lee who were courted by the big companies during that time is that Kathryn was making studio product first and foremost, albeit in her own unique eye, and continually came up short at the box-office. I won't downplay the sexism rife in the movie industry but like it or not it's a business and after awhile it's easy to understand why the studios wrote her off.

9 tejrai
Posted on Monday March 15, 2010, 13:45
I second mighty mick...Helen, I think i have a huge lesbian crush on you! you've written exactly what i was thinking! women in hollywood are so defined by being women, wheras men are free to try any genre because they are merely directors (wheras Bigelow is a female director).
I agree on the whole Sandra Bullock thing as well. i knew when watching that she was the only choice to win really. no way they were gonna give it to a beginner (like Carey Mulligan and the girl from Precious); thats what the Supporting Actress award is for after all, Helen MIrren was in an unknown film and Meryl Streep, well, she was never gonna get it, i think it was more a courtesy nomination. It felt as if they felt they owed Sandra Bullock an Oscar after her services to Hollywood over the years (which i am not contesting; i love her; while you were sleeping was my childhood movie) but it makes you wonder how much they look at the actresses performance in the chosen film.

10 Barry
Posted on Monday March 15, 2010, 16:59
I want to click on the "manipulative" link but I'm too scared as I'm at work.

I agree though Sandra deserved the Oscar, she's as cute as a button. (heh heh)

My other highlight of the ceremony, man, was, you know man, Colin Farrell just doing his thing, man.

11 JoeyG
Posted on Monday March 15, 2010, 17:59
Disagree about Winslet - it wasn't about the tabloids...

Unfortunately, Oscar is even more concerned with how he is perceived than most of the women on the red carpet and has a tendency to give peole 'make-up' awards, to reward them for their past losses - Winslet is an example of this, people were sick of seeing her losing and she is, give or take, the best British actress working today; thus Oscar was embarassed and rewarded her for a role which was by no means the best of the year (which was, funnily enough, Winslet in Revolutionary Road). It happened this year - Bridges was 'due'. And was The Departed, while an excellent film, really the first film for which Martin Scorsese deserved an Oscar? It's happened a lot this decade, Kidman should've won for Moulin Rouge, so they gave her the proze for The Hours the following year, Renee Zellweger should have won for Chicago, but was beaten by Kidman, so they gave Renee a consolation prize the following year.

The point I'm trying to make, as off-topic as it may be, is that AMPAS are far too busy trying to compensate for past mistakes to be concerned with naming the big stars (except for Witherspoon - wtf?).

It's for this reason that the next time Meryl Streep is nominated, she will win, a record number of losses like hers looks bad, guaranteed, she won't be going home empty handed next time.

PS. Sorry, I know this was a post about women in film, but the politics of the Academy are so fascinating and complex, I had to get this out. Grrrr....

12 SallyAlbright
Posted on Thursday March 25, 2010, 10:04
Couldn't Empire help the status of women in film by doing a feature issue? I mean, no disrespect to the magazine, lord knows I love it, but really, the last woman to feature on the front cover was Megan Fox - well known for her contribution to the status of women being taken seriously!! I'm trying to encourage my two daughters to take an interest in film, but if all they see are superheroes and semi naked women, how can they identify with anything? I know you have to sell the magazine but ONE issue with a focus on women woudn't hurt, would it?

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