Hidden Figures was the top-grossing Best Picture nominee this year but 2004’s Million Dollar Baby is still the last Best Picture winner to be fronted by a woman
This year’s Oscars, both in nominations and wins, saw a breakthrough in non-white talent in front of and behind the camera. From Moonlight to Fences to Hidden Figures, the diversity pledge by the Academy last year after its two years of #OscarsSoWhite seemed to work wonders when it added 683 new members, members that helped create a voting group that more accurately reflected a ‘melting pot’ of diversity.
But the Oscars still has a woman problem, a serious one.
It’s 2017 and the Oscars have not had a female-led Best Picture winner since 2004’s Million Dollar Baby (it’s amazing how many benchmarks this movie holds). That’s 12 Best Picture winners that were male led or only had a female co-lead, usually a suffering wife or beefed up supporting (like The Artist, for example). It’s especially odd when you look at this year’s Best Picture Oscar nominees and notice that the top three box office grossers, the only films to cross $100M – Hidden Figures, La La Land and Arrival – are all female-led. Hidden Figures went home empty-handed, Arrival won Sound Editing and La La Land, well, we know what happened there. Not to take away from Moonlight’s historic win, it is curious that it was able to overcome the LGBT and all-black cast threshold most likely because it was, at its foundation, a male perspective. What about Jackie, Elle, Certain Women or 20th Century Women? These were female-driven films with a huge critical response that ended up as female acting vehicles, only two of which ended even being Oscar-nominated in Best Actress.
The screenplay categories saw a glimpse of female support. Arrival, 20th Century Women, Hidden Figures and La La Land. That’s five of 10 films, equal odds. But, of all ten screenplays nominated only one (Hidden Figures) was written or co-written by a woman.
Look at Carol last year; another LGBT drama with the highest critical ratings of the year but snubbed in Best Picture and Best Director. People called the film ‘too cold’ for the Academy as the justification for its snubs but it seems, it feels, like more an issue with a film wholly from a female point of view. That year saw no less than three of the five Adapted Screenplay nominations go to female-fronted films (Carol, Room, and Brooklyn) only to lose to the completely male-driven film The Big Short.
Let’s look at 2014, which might have one of the worst cases of anti-female sentiment in recent Oscars history. Overwhelmingly male-dominated in every regard, no matter what the subject matter; war, coming of age, biopic dramas, you name it. All male-led. Of the eight Best Picture nominees, only ONE even had a female co-lead attached to it – The Theory of Everything. That film won Best Actor for Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones was nominated for Best Actress. Films like Theory and Best Picture nominee (and Adapted Screenplay winner) The Imitation Game were modestly received biopics that earned 72 and 73 scores on Metacritic. Then you have Still Alice, which won Julianne Moore the Best Actress Oscar. It also had a 72 on Metacritic but was referred to as a ‘Lifetime’ or ‘disease of the week’ movie and was the film’s sole nomination. A bit of a double standard, no? That same year, Reese Witherspoon (Wild) and Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl) were Best Actress-nominated but their films were both snubbed in Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay, proving how much disdain they can have for female-led films outside of a Best Actress nomination. 2013’s Gravity was a female-led film that ended up winning the most Oscars that year (seven) but fell short of Best Picture. This is called a pattern.
You know what the really weird thing about all of this is? It’s not gotten better over the decades, it’s actually gotten worse. In the 80s we had Best Picture winners like Ordinary People, Terms of Endearment, Out of Africa and Driving Miss Daisy all with female leads, two of them also winning Best Actress. In the 90s we had The Silence of the Lambs, The English Patient, Titanic, Shakespeare in Love, and American Beauty, two of which also won Best Actress. The 00s gave us Chicago and Million Dollar Baby, with the latter winning Best Actress. So far, the 10s have produced zero female-led Best Picture winners.
Let’s look at some other Oscar stats, by the numbers:
10/17 (59%) Best Actress winners of this century were in Best Picture nominees: Julia Roberts (Erin Brockovich), Nicole Kidman (The Hours), Hilary Swank (Million Dollar Baby), Helen Mirren (The Queen), Kate Winslet (The Reader), Sandra Bullock (The Blind Side), Natalie Portman (Black Swan), Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook), Brie Larson (Room), Emma Stone (La La Land).
14/17 (82%) Best Actor winners were in Best Picture nominees.
18/68 (26%) of the losing Best Actress nominees were in Best Picture nominees: Juliette Binoche (Chocolat), Nicole Kidman (Moulin Rouge!), Sissy Spacek (In the Bedroom), Renée Zellweger (Chicago), Ellen Page (Juno), Carey Mulligan (An Education), Gabourey Sidibe (Precious), Annette Bening (The Kids Are All Right), Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone), Viola Davis (The Help), Emmanuelle Riva (Amour), Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty), Quvenzhané Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild), Amy Adams (American Hustle), Sandra Bullock (Gravity), Judi Dench (Philomena), Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything), Saoirse Ronan (Brooklyn).
32/68 (47%) of losing Best Actor nominees were in Best Picture nominees.
Remember too, in the Oscars’ 89-year history there is still only one female Best Director winner and that was only seven years ago. We haven’t even had another female nominee in that category since.
To be clear, this is more than an Oscars problem, it’s an industry problem. So, how does this get fixed? First off, there needs to be more female directors, producers, writers, and film critics. No one else is going to tell or promote their stories. Female executives in charge of green-lighting scripts need to be in place to ensure parity. Gender-blind casting can also find itself to be enormously successful. The blockbuster Gravity was originally intended to star a man but was switched to a woman in development and Sandra Bullock was ultimately cast. The film won seven Oscars and a nomination for Bullock and earned $723M worldwide at the box office, $274M of it in the US.
Independent film has always been the bastion for the sector of filmmaking that isn’t exclusively white, straight and male but it shouldn’t be the only place they’re allowed to flourish. We are seeing, every day, films about women, by women, for everyone receive critical acclaim and generating box office receipts. Yet for women, the climb is still higher, the obstacles still taller to secure funding. I compare it to government where there always seems to be money to spend on the military but education requires parents to have a bake sale to buy uniforms and teachers buy their own supplies. Or, more recently – when the most qualified person ever to run for President is a woman and still loses the most unqualified male candidate in the history of the United States. It’s a wickedly diabolical double standard women face. Men can do an indie film and be given the next Marvel movie but women need to “prove” themselves over and over. Men can be handed a $200M budget, fail, and be given multiple chances. Women, not so much. You screw up once, you might as well unplug your phone because no one’s going to call.
The support of women in the film industry also needs to come from the audience. IMDb has added an ‘F-rating’ to its search engine which indicates whether a film is directed by a woman, written by a woman, or includes significant women characters. It’s a fantastic start in the effort to give women recognition but also for audiences to seek out films by and about women to broaden their spectrum. Representation in art, media, and culture is vital to a self-sustaining society. Equally so, exposing yourself to a world, a life, a gender that isn’t yours builds your understanding and empathy for the world around you.