How crowded are this year’s Oscar actress categories? So crowded that there was no room for Nicole Kidman, Viola Davis or Julia Roberts. Each is a certified star, a previous winner and multiple nominee, and each did some of the best work of her career in 2018: Kidman as a damaged police detective in Destroyer; Davis as a wronged wife and criminal mastermind in Widows; Roberts as a mother trying to keep her addict son (Lucas Hedges) clean in Ben is Back. Yet none registered on Oscar’s radar.
Nor was there room for Claire Foy, for either The Girl in the Spider’s Web or First Man. Nor Emily Blunt, for either Mary Poppins Returns or A Quiet Place – despite the critical and commercial success of both films, Blunt’s delightful personality and no lack of campaigning. (Not only was Julie Andrews nominated for playing the same role in 1964, she won, against Anne Bancroft and Sophia Loren.)
No room for Toni Collette, who elevated Hereditary; or Regina Hall, so great in Support the Girls; or Natalie Portman, who took a leap in Vox Lux. No love for either Saorise Ronan or Margot Robbie (previous nominees both) and their staunchly feminist take on Mary Queen of Scots. No Cate Blanchett or any of the women from Ocean’s Eight. No Tilda Swinton (Suspiria) or Zoe Kazan (The Ballad of Buster Scruggs). No Michelle Yeoh or anyone from Crazy Rich Asians. No Maura Tierney, who gave the definition of a crucial supporting performance in Beautiful Boy. No Kathryn Hahn, so moving in Private Life. And no Rosamund Pike, although she delivered one of my favourite performances (and movies) of the year, A Private War.
Ten years ago, Pike would have been a shoo-in. Her character, Marie Colvin, is classic best actress bait: a complicated woman, a heroic war reporter, based on a true story. It wouldn’t have mattered that hers was a little-seen film, because where else would a best-actress candidate come from? As recently as a decade ago, most woman-centred films were “worthy,” smaller-budget affairs that languished at the bottom of the box office.
Think about 2008: Kate Winslet won for The Reader, which was the 82nd-highest-grossing film of the year, over fellow nominees Anne Hathaway for Rachel Getting Married (No. 135), and Melissa Leo for Frozen River (No. 192). The spotlight roles went to men, in both tentpole projects or Spielberg/Scorsese dramas. And a best-actress nod was often the only honour a film received, a bone thrown to the so-called “woman genre.” (As if all movies starring women were alike.) Indeed, since the 1980s, when Hollywood began courting young males to the exclusion of all other demographics, whole decades went by in which it was hard to scrape together five movies that centred on women.
In those years, the crowded race was best supporting actress. There were always plenty of those, because almost every drama that focused on a man boasted a lone woman in the cast, usually the long-suffering wife of the hero. The one who, like in Amy Schumer’s brilliant sketch, stood by the phone saying, “Come home to me.” This year, Linda Cardellini played a version of that, in Green Book, and Foy did what she could to elevate that in First Man. But only one such role made the supporting-actress cut this year: Amy Adams as Dick Cheney’s Lady Macbeth in Vice. Although she is the only important female character, she more than holds her own.
Interestingly, the actor categories experienced an inversion this year: Best supporting actor, for a change, is the more competitive one, crowded as it is with memorable, near-lead performances. While over in best actor, there’s a clear front-runner (Christian Bale, Vice), and the rest of the field feels a tad padded. Rami Malek in a critical bomb (Bohemian Rhapsody)? Willem Dafoe for a little-seen art film (At Eternity’s Gate)?
It’s tempting to credit movements such as #MeToo and #TimesUp with this rise in the prominence – and cultural importance – of woman-centred films. But this year’s crop were in development long before those movements had names. Take The Favourite: Screenwriting nominee Deborah Davis showed producer nominee Ceci Dempsey her first draft 20 years ago. It wasn’t just the queer love triangle that financiers were reluctant to embrace, or even the complex female lead – it was the fact that there are no major male characters. Alfonso Cuaron could not have made Roma, an homage to the women who raised him – and without name stars – if he hadn’t been riding the success of Gravity. And as Glenn Close, best actress nominee for The Wife, remarked so memorably when she won the Golden Globe, “It took 14 years to get this made. It was called The Wife – I think that’s why.”
It’s crucially important to seize this year’s love for, and momentum of, women-centred stories, because huge disparities remain. Of the eight best-picture nominees, only three have female leads, and one of those is a co-lead. There are no female roles of note in either Bohemian Rhapsody or BlacKkKlansman; no actresses (or actors) nominated for Black Panther; and only the aforementioned lone woman in Green Book and Vice.
More importantly, not a single woman was nominated in five – five! – key Oscar categories: directors, cinematographers, film editors, visual effects artists or composers. Only two women screenwriters were nominated, and both share their nominations with male co-writers. In fact, outside of the acting categories, which are evenly split, only 53 out of the 211 nominees are women, or 25 per cent. And many of those are in traditionally female categories such as costume design and hair and makeup.
Since 2015, when the #OscarsSoWhite campaign raised overdue awareness in Hollywood, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has made strides to double its female and minority membership. But the gains are incremental: of the roughly 8,200 current members, only 16 per cent are people of colour, and only 31 per cent are women.
As always, I urge you to vote with your wallets. Go to women-centred films. Seek out female directors. Celebrate the victories, such as Hannah Beachler’s: She’s the first African-American woman nominated for best production design (Black Panther). But keep pushing. Because small gains are easily lost, and parity lies a long road ahead.