There are a number of films vying for awards attention this year that feature a certain female trope that’s grown increasingly popular since the dawn of the 21st century — one that often catches Oscar’s eye come nomination time.
Call it the “Stand by Your Man” role, in honor of Tammy Wynette’s classic country ballad celebrating a woman’s unconditional love and unwavering support for her mate, no matter how imperfect he might be, because — as the lyrics say — “After all, he’s just a man.”
Part of the problem is the popularity of factual stories — stories about men, that is. Between such male-centric biopics as Lincoln and The King’s Speech and truth-based tales dominated by men like Argo and Captain Phillips, more actresses have made it onto the ballot by providing an emotional anchor for a man suffering from a handicap, beset by self-doubt, battling various demons, or simply looking for guidance.
A few leading ladies in the past 14 years have actually won the prize by sticking by their guy — most notably, Reese Witherspoon as June Carter Cash opposite Joaquin Phoenix’s hard-living Johnny Cash in 2005’s Walk the Line and Jennifer Lawrence’s young widow opposite Bradley Cooper’s mentally unstable teacher in 2012’s Silver Linings Playbook.
But “Stand by Your Man” parts more often lead to supporting actress nominations, since the main purpose of the characters is to provide — what else? — support.
The millennium began with supporting victories for two actresses whose characters fit this mold to a T: Marcia Gay Harden as painter Jackson Pollock’s much-abused artist wife Lee Krasner in 2000’s Pollock and Jennifer Connolly as the steadfast wife of math genius and paranoid schizophrenic John Nash in 2001’s A Beautiful Mind.
At least 25 other supporting nominations since have gone to actresses whose part involves being there for the man in their life, ranging from Laura Linney indulging her husband and fellow sex researcher in the 2004 biopic Kinsey and Catherine Keener’s Harper Lee offering counsel to Truman Capote in 2005’s Capote to Marisa Tomei’s stripper helping a washed-up wrestler cope with life outside the ring in the 2008’s The Wrestler and Berenice Bejo giving hope to a dejected silent star in 2011’s The Artist.
Not that men don’t fulfill this function occasionally. Jim Broadbent won a supporting Oscar for playing a devoted husband to Judi Dench as author Iris Murdoch as she suffered through the horrors of Alzheimer’s disease in 2001’s Iris. As for nominations, Albert Finney’s lawyer gave a boost to Julia Roberts’ eco-crusader in 2000’s Erin Brockovich and John C. Reilly was Renee Zellweger’s sweet chump of a husband in 2002’s Chicago. But they happen with much less frequency.
The Academy took a welcome breather last year from rewarding these secondary roles where women basically serve the needs of men. Yes, June Squibb was recognized for her sarcastic wife in Nebraska and Amy Adams was there for her fellow con artist in American Hustle. But Dench in Philomena and Sandra Bullock in Gravity were the main attractions in their films. As for supporting winner Lupita N’yongo, her Patsey had her hands full just looking out for herself and warding off physical harm in 12 Years a Slave.
Also offering some hope was a relatively rare occurrence: Two supporting actress nominees who stood by a woman. In Blue Jasmine, Sally Hawkins took care of her delusional sister, played by lead actress winner Cate Blanchett. And Julia Roberts tried to help her ill-tempered, drug-addicted mother as brought to life by lead nominee Meryl Streep in August: Osage County.
To top that off, it was a year of the animated game-changer Frozen, a fairy-tale love story about two sisters.
But this year, unfortunately, has the potential to be business as usual.
It’s true that Wild, which is expected to garner a nomination for both Witherspoon as a long-distance hiker trying to forge a fresh path in life and Laura Dern as her inspirational mother, stands out as one of the lone Oscar-level biopics of recent vintage centered around women. Still Alice is also mainly about Julianne Moore as a professor struggling with early onset dementia.
But Felicity Jones is the put-upon caretaker wife of Eddie Redmayne’s disabled astrophysicist Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything. Keira Knightley acts as a spunky ally and confidant to Benedict Cumberbatch’s social-misfit genius in The Imitation Game. Anne Hathaway’s space scientist is overshadowed by Matthew McConaughey’s mission leader in Interstellar, while co-star Jessica Chastain mainly reacts to McConaughey’s status as an absent father. Emma Stone is a personal assistant to Michael Keaton as her needy actor father in Birdman. That is quite a lot of incredible female talent to use in what are essentially subservient roles, no matter how impressive their performances might be.
“It’s a way to diplomatically have these actresses be more prominent onscreen without letting them get too uppity,” says Tom O’Neil of the awards prediction site Gold Derby. Despite such female-driven box-office bonanzas such as The Hunger Games franchise and Maleficent, “Most studios don’t have the guts to greenlight something like Wild.”
The trouble is, Oscar voters have seen these types of secondary parts occupied by top-notch actresses one too many times before. That might be one reason why they attract nominations but don’t often get the gold. “We call them the long-suffering wife role,” O’Neil says. His theory why Harden in Pollock and Connolly in A Beautiful Mind won? They were co-leads passed off as supporting. “Same thing with Rachel Weisz,” who won for 2005’s The Constant Gardener. “They are allowed more screen time to impress Oscar voters and get the nomination.”
One movie that remains a question mark and could improve the picture this year for strong female characters is Tim Burton’s Big Eyes, which has yet to be shown for critics.
The real-life story of Margaret and Walter Keane, who took credit for painting his wife’s popular portraits of large-eyed children, stars Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz. O’Neil says that studio insiders at The Weinstein Company told him that the initial cut of the film had Waltz overshadowing Adams.
But it was re-edited so that Adams, a five-time nominee with no wins, was more dominant and Waltz, a two-time winner for 2009’s Inglourious Basterds and 2012’s Django Unchained, could be considered a supporting player — a somewhat less competitive category for men this year.
As O’Neil notes: “They gave her more prominence, which is a smart way to grab both Oscar attention and to attract female moviegoers.”
If the strategy works, it could be a small sign that maybe Hollywood could change its tune when it comes to too often placing women second.