First, an admission: I spend a lot more time mining the Oscar nominations list for trends or sociological meaning than anyone probably should. But this year, as I examined the four acting categories, I struck a promising vein: In terms of box office, the pictures for which women are nominated are kicking the men's pictures' butts.
So you can keep the players straight, here are the nominees:
Lead actor: Demian Bichir, A Better Life; George Clooney, The Descendants; Jean Dujardin, The Artist; Gary Oldman, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy; Brad Pitt, Moneyball.
Supporting actor: Kenneth Branagh, My Week with Marilyn; Jonah Hill, Moneyball; Nick Nolte, Warrior; Christopher Plummer, Beginners; Max von Sydow, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.
Lead actress: Glenn Close, Albert Nobbs; Viola Davis, The Help; Rooney Mara, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo; Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady; Michelle Williams, My Week with Marilyn.
Supporting actress: Bérénice Bejo, The Artist; Jessica Chastain, The Help; Melissa McCarthy , Bridesmaids; Janet McTeer, Albert Nobbs; Octavia Spencer, The Help.
Now, let's look at the North American grosses. The top three films starring actress nominees were The Help, Bridesmaids and Dragon Tattoo, which made $170-million, $169-million and $101-million respectively (all figures U.S.). The top three films starring actor nominees were Moneyball, The Descendants and Extremely Loud, which made $75.6-million, $71-million and $29.5-million respectively. You don't even have to be able to add to see that discrepancy.
I looked back at the last couple of years, too. In 2010, the highest-grossing films with nominees in the acting categories were, in descending order, True Grit, The King's Speech, Black Swan and The Social Network. The first two of those had both lead actor and supporting-actress nominees – Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld, Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter. But in the next two, the ballerinas of Black Swan outgrossed the geeks of The Social Network $107-million to $97-million.
In 2009, the gap was more extreme. The top three pictures with female nominees – The Blind Side, Julie & Julia and Precious – grossed $256-million, $94-million and $47.5-million, while the top three with male nominees – Up in the Air, Crazy Heart and Invictus – made $84-million, $39-million and $37-million. And please note, Up in the Air and Crazy Heart also had female nominees, so their numbers can't count exclusively for the guys.
So what does this mean? Well, it seems to suggest that pictures headlined by women are finding a way to be both commercially successful and lauded by their peers. Perhaps women's pictures have to try harder – to be richer, more thoughtful, more satisfying – to get made in the first place, but, in general, those are the kinds of films Oscar favours. The ones with more conversation than CGI, more relationships than gunfights, and more drama than action. Those things are the purview of films that star women.
Or rather, they've been ceded to women in Hollywood's relentless pursuit of its key demographic – young males. As a result, there's a more either/or feel to the films starring men. In 2011, the kinds of movies typically headlined by men were either blockbusters that get no Oscar love – such as The Hangover Part II, Fast Five and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, which together grossed over $670-million – or they were art-house films that generated nominees, such as Warrior, My Week with Marilyn and Beginners, which together grossed about $32-million.
Keep in mind, the vast majority of employed actors are men, and the vast majority of movies are centred around male characters. So de facto, in any given year, there should be more male performances from which to select the Oscar nominees. Yet the most often mentioned also-rans of 2011 – Michael Fassbender in Shame, Ralph Fiennes and Gerard Butler in Coriolanus, Michael Shannon in Take Shelter, Brad Pitt in The Tree of Life, and Ryan Gosling and Albert Brooks in Drive – were, again, far more art house than multiplex, both in their sensibilities and their grosses.
With fewer actresses working in fewer films, in some years, the actress lists feel like Oscar is scraping the bottom of a rather shallow barrel. But not this year. This year, you could fill the lists all over again with equally worthy performances, among them Mia Wasikowska in Jane Eyre, Olivia Colman in Tyrannosaur, Shailene Woodley in The Descendants, Elizabeth Olsen in Martha Marcy May Marlene, Tilda Swinton in We Need to Talk About Kevin, Charlize Theron in Young Adult, Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia and Vera Farmiga in Higher Ground. That feels exciting.
So does this: For decades, a majority of leading-actress characters appeared in stories that revolved around men. They were supportive wives, stormy girlfriends, scrappy aides and the like. This year, however, most of the actress nominees are playing the title characters: Albert Nobbs, Marilyn, the iron lady, the girl with the dragon tattoo, the bridesmaids and the help are the stars of their own stories. In fact, Bejo is the sole nominee in the 10 whose film title, The Artist, refers to her male co-star.
Digging deeper, the supporting-actress list used to be considered the place where ingenues shone, then quickly flamed out, to the point where people spoke of a supporting-actress curse. This year, only Bejo and Chastain appear to fit that bill, and only at first glance: Bejo, who is from Argentina, actually has 39 credits on the Internet Movie Database. Chastain, though a newcomer, exploded onto screens in six films this year, with many more already in the can. And McCarthy, Spencer and McTeer are character actresses of long standing, doing their most exciting work in mid-career.
So studio heads, please take note. Stop relegating so-called "women's pictures" to the bottom of your priority list. Stop being shocked or calling it an exception when good films starring women do well financially. Realize that a romance can be just as lucrative as a thriller – which was proven last weekend, when Rachel McAdams's The Vow edged out Denzel Washington's Safe House, $41-million to $40-million.
And please, take more chances with challenging, adult-oriented scripts starring either sex. Unless, that is, you want the bulk of your audience to see only comic-book films and sequels, and to tune out altogether on Oscar night.