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The Big O: The State of the Race — and Where the Women Are

The Big O: The State of the Race -- and Where the Women Are

I had a sinking feeling when the Producers Guild announced their ten nominees for Best Picture on Monday.

Take a gander at what was selected: American Sniper, Birdman, Boyhood, Foxcatcher, Gone Girl, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game, Nightcrawler, The Theory of Everything, and Whiplash.

What is wrong with this lineup? Nearly every single film focuses on a man or a group of men. As for Gone Girl, you could argue that Rosamund Pike’s Amazing Amy spends too much time gone from the movie while Ben Affleck, as her knucklehead husband Nick, too often monopolizes the story.

It matters weren’t macho enough, there are Birdman and Boyhood to emphasize the male dominance. There have been films called Girlhood, including a French coming-of-age story that premiered at Cannes and is opening January 30, but it’s a foreign film about a gang of girls of color and will garner nowhere near the amount of attention received by Richard Linklater’s 12-years-in-the making achievement.

With some editing, Boyhood could easily have been remodeled into Motherhood, given Patricia Arquette’s invaluable contributions as a flawed yet devoted matriarch who grows up along with her son.

But would Hollywood ever do a movie about a struggling middle-aged actress best known for portraying a character known as Birdwoman? Heck, they can’t even figure out how to turn a comic-book icon like Wonder Woman into a franchise, though it seems as if every male superhero in existence, including Ant-Man, is finding his way into theater.

The PGA list manages to include four fact-based films – American Sniper, Foxcatcher, The Imitation Game, and The Theory of Everything – where males are the primary subject. There could have been more if Mr. Turner, Unbroken, and Selma had been selected.

Poor Selma. How could they overlook it? The excuse this time is that screeners weren’t sent to Guild members. That is a darn shame, because director Ava DuVernay’s highly relevant achievement deserves to be considered among the best of 2014. Here is hoping that members of the Directors Guild, whose feature-film nominations arrive on Tuesday, were able to find room on their list of five to make history by selecting its first black female nominee.

What about the fate of Unbroken? Can an unexpectedly strong box-office performance (closing in on $90 million after just two weeks) for director Angelina Jolie’s pet project compensate for a lack of enthusiasm on the part of critics who find her biopic approach too staid and reverential? Jolie’s movie is currently also the only women-directed movie among the 100 top-grossing movies released in 2014.

Also on the outside looking in: The female-centric Big Eyes, Wild, and Into the Woods.

At least last year the PGA nominations squeezed in several movies with actresses front and center: American Hustle, Gravity, Blue Jasmine, and Saving Mr. Banks. Oscar voters, however, ended up snubbing the last two films in the best-picture category while at least opting to place the sublime Judi Dench biopic Philomena there instead.

Well, chin up, ladies. Here are a few ways that women will probably get to shine on Oscar night — that is, if they all hear their names called when the nominees for the 87th Academy Awards are announced on January 15.

–If Julianne Moore and Arquette win their expected Oscars for lead and supporting actress respectively, anticipate enthusiastic standing ovations that could draw a tear or two. Moore is long overdue after four other attempts at winning an Academy Award. And her sensitive, heartbreaking embodiment of a victim of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease is the single best reason to see Still Alice.

Meanwhile, Arquette — who hails from a long line of actors, some of whom could vote for her — has quietly established herself as an unforgettable presence in film (Ed Wood, True Romance, and Flirting With Disaster are all essential viewing) and on TV (Medium, Boardwalk Empire). And Boyhood is her best showcase to date. After more than a quarter-century in the business, she at the very least deserves to be recognized with an Oscar.

–The only woman expected to be up for a screenplay honor is being pegged as the one to beat in the adapted category. Few things are harder than tampering with your own work, especially after the original material has been certified a monster must-read best-seller. Gone Girl’s Gillian Flynn — with guidance from director David Fincher — managed to shape her first-ever script into a tense thriller with cinematic echoes that drew from iconic films like Vertigo and Fatal Attraction. She crafted the type of smart, sophisticated adult fare that Hollywood rarely bothers to make anymore. That it resulted in Fincher’s best box-office results ever, taking in $166 million for an R-rated movie, is also a feat worth rewarding.

–If Poland’s Ida, with its exquisite pair of performances by actresses Agata Trzebuchowska and Agata Kulesza, claims the foreign-language film Oscar, it will go a long way to fill the female void among the best–picture contenders. A plus: The black-and-white story of a naïve nun-to-be and her worldly aunt was directed by Pawel Pawlikowski, who shares writing credit with a woman, Rebecca Lenkiewicz — a fact that you can guess just by the way certain scenes knowingly unfold between the main characters, especially one that involves high-heeled shoes.

–Not only is DuVernay expected to be in the directing race for Selma, but one of the favorites in the documentary feature category also has a woman calling the shots. Laura Poitras’ Citizenfour doesn’t just dig into Edward Snowden’s whistleblowing revelations about how the CIA was snooping on our private emails and phone calls. Her camera is there as the news of his leaked documents made headlines around the world and captures a rare, first-hand account of how he tracked the NSA’s invasive surveillance of US citizens. Rarely are docs this gripping or scary.

Poitras does face stiff competition from Life Itself, Steve James’ remarkably candid and moving account of the life and career of movie critic Roger Ebert, who died in 2013 after a long struggle with cancer and related physical infirmities, including the loss of his voice. One of the outstanding accomplishments of the documentary is how it captures the incredible love story between Ebert and his wife Chaz, a true soul mate and pillar of strength who not only kept him going despite his illnesses, but clearly inspired him to be his best self.

–It will be difficult to top last year’s best song winner, “Let It Go,” from the animated film champ, Frozen, written by the husband-and-wife team of Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez. As melodic feminist declarations go, it has topped even Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman” as an anthem for the ages.

Sisterly love propelled the storyline of Frozen. And, this year, the twin sisters that make up the musical duo Tegan and Sara are just one reason that “Everything Is Awesome” from The Lego Movie, one of the frontrunners this year, is so insanely catchy. One hopes those in charge of the Academy show are smart enough to allow them to perform their pop version live — along with a massive amount of dancing Legos, of course.

The song category could provide another highlight, if moody chanteuse Lana Del Rey performs Big Eyes, the haunting theme that she co-wrote and is featured in the Tim Burton movie of the same name.

–Of course, what would an awards ceremony be without fashion? That includes the costume category, which could be a doozy this year. Some of the biggest names in the biz are expected to compete. Jacqueline Durran, a three-time nominee who won for 2012’s Anna Karenina, is likely to be in the running for her groovy apparel for Inherent Vice. Anna B. Sheppard, a nominee for 1993’s Schindler’s List and 2002’s The Pianist, is the visionary behind that curved headdress in Maleficent. The legendary Milena Canonero, an eight-time nominee who won for 1975’s Barry Lyndon, 1982’s Chariots of Fire, and 2006’s Marie Antoinette, outdid herself by clothing the sprawling cast of The Grand Budapest Hotel.

But those in the know believe that ten-time nominee Colleen Atwood, who took home trophies for 2002’s Chicago, 2005’s Memoir of a Geisha, and 2010’s Alice in Wonderland, is the one to beat for her stunning and sometimes cheeky designs for the fairy-tale musical Into the Woods. She also has a better-than-average chance of competing for her work in Big Eyes, which was the essence of mid-century chic.

Let’s hope at least some of these wishes come true when all is revealed when the Oscar nominations are announced on January 15.

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