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by Peter Knegt
December 12, 2011 1:07 PM
29 Comments
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For Your Consideration: We Need To Talk About Women In This Year's Oscar Race

Meryl Streep in her Oscar-Winning Role as Margaret Thatcher in "The Iron Lady"

Last year around this time, we published an article highlighting "the year of the actress." 2010 was an exceptional year for female performances both from the U.S. and around the world. From Natalie Portman in "Black Swan" and Lesley Manville in "Another Year" to Julianne Moore and Annette Bening in "The Kids Are All Right" and Tilda Swinton in "I Am Love," there were probably a dozen performances that, in less crowded years, stood a chance at winning the Oscar. 

This year is a sorry state by comparison. Not simply for actresses, but for women in film altogether.

Outside the acting races and costume design, it seems unlikely that many women will find themselves Oscar nominees. This is perhaps most notable with regard to the directing and screenwriting categories, where women have historically struggled to be included (not necessarily always Oscar's fault, but the society in which Oscar exists).

Despite considerable progress in the past few years (Kathryn Bigelow's directing win the centerpiece of said progress), this year could potentially see no female contenders in any of the categories.  Indiewire's current predictions suggest Bridget O'Connor (who co-wrote "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy") and Kristin Wiig and Annie Mumulo (the team behind "Bridesmaids") as the best bets to avoid this fate, but they are far from locked nominees.

Michelle Williams in Simon Curtis' "My Week with Marilyn." The Weinstein Company.

But let's get back to the actresses, the only mandatory female Oscar nominees and thus an interesting window into the year in film when it comes to women.

The best actress race this year has boiled down to three performances -- Michelle Williams in "My Week With Marilyn," Meryl Streep in "The Iron Lady" and Viola Davis in "The Help." All fantastic performances, to be sure. But also all performances forced to rise above mediocre screenplays and unfocused direction. Each of the films look back at 20th-century history with the introspection of a TV movie. They are worth watching simply because of Williams, Streep and Davis (as well as the half-dozen other actresses in the "The Help") and how they transcend the films themselves.

The films dominating the Oscar discussion right now are dominated by male characters: "The Artist," "The Descendants," "Drive," "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," "Hugo," "Midnight in Paris," "Moneyball," "Shame," "The Tree of Life" and "War Horse." 

Their plots all revolve around a sole male character's journey of discovery. A few have sizable supporting female characters, but they're the wives, ex-wives, dead wives, girlfriends, mothers, sisters and daughters that aid in the male's quest for self-fulfillment. And these films give their lead actors juicy roles backed by strong screenplays and accomplished directing.

Last year, "Black Swan," "Winter's Bone" and "The Kids Are All Right" were among a multitude of deserving best-picture nominees that focused on female characters; two of them were -- believe it or not -- directed by women. This year, "The Help" is really the only possible best picture nominee that focuses on female characters, and it's not exactly a shining representation. The film has been strongly criticized for distorting and trivializing the experiences of black women and -- not that it necessarily matters -- it's adapted and directed by a white man.

Sean Durkin's "Martha Marcy May Marlene" Fox Searchlight

This is not to say 2011 hasn't seen excellent films that dominantly explore female characters.

Lynne Ramsay's "We Need To Talk About Kevin," Sean Durkin's "Martha Marcy May Marlene," Kelly Reichardt's "Meek's Cutoff" and Lars von Trier's "Melancholia" are likely to be the 2011 films driven by female characters that are most remembered. All extremely unlikely best picture nominees (in large part due to how challenging they all are) and they each take their female protagonists on journeys far more drastic than their 2011 cinematic male counterparts.

How would Billy Beane of "Moneyball" or Matt King of "The Descendants" fare against their son going on a shooting rampage, surviving a sexually and emotionally abusive cult, travelling across the Oregon Trail in 1845, or brutal depression during an impending apocalypse? Sure makes your wife having an affair or your baseball team not having enough money seem like pretty unremarkable problems.

Unfortunately, the actresses at the center of those films -- Tilda Swinton, Elizabeth Olsen, Michelle Williams (at least for this role), Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg -- all face uphill battles in recieving any Academy recognition (though Swinton probably stands the best chance of the five).

Beyond those three films, there's exceptional female representation it would be irresponsible not to note. In this regard, "Albert Nobbs," "The Arbor," "Bridesmaids," "Carnage," "Certified Copy," "Circumstance," "The Future," "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo," "Higher Ground," "In The Land of Blood and Honey," "Jane Eyre," "The Lady," "Like Crazy," "Pariah," "A Separation," "Tyrannosaur" and "Young Adult" all -- to varying degrees -- deserve recognition. But collectively they make up just a teeny tiny fraction of 2011's releases as a whole. And for a variety of reasons, none of them will end up best picture nominees.

So as critics and bloggers start trying to sum up 2011 in film, it seems just as imperative to note what wasn't present as it does to note what was. With no disrespect to Ms. Williams, Ms. Streep or Ms. Davis, "the year of the actress" 2011 most certainly was not. Not because of the actresses themselves, but because of the limited roles that had to work with.

29 Comments

  • Alex | December 21, 2011 8:21 PMReply

    This is cherry-picking which movies are getting recognition. You mention "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," but you completely downplay the attention not only the film is getting, but also how much people love Mara as Lisbeth. "TGwtDT," if it performs well at the box office, could be one of the most important films in regards to women in film because it shows a fantastic and fascinating lead in a high-paced thriller that isn't a 30-something white male.

  • Andrew | December 21, 2011 8:02 PMReply

    Have to wait and see about Catherine Zeta-Jones in ROCK OF AGES. You can never count her out whenever she is given a role that displays her acting, singing and dancing. BTW: Mila Kunis deserved a Best Supporting Actress nom for BLACK SWAN.

  • Mr. Burns | December 21, 2011 7:51 PMReply

    Stupid article - same thing said every year.

  • Ellyn | December 21, 2011 4:39 PMReply

    This is a fairly good article but my problem is that this is nothing new. Even last year, the supposed "year of the actress" wasn't that female driven. Ten films were nominated for Best Picture last year and only three of those films focussed on a female lead. And some of the other films that were nominated didn't have sizeable or strong female supporting characters at all. "The Social Network" is a perfect example of this. The only females you see in that film are girls serving beer, getting drunk in the background and the girlfriend that was portrayed in a mousey and unkind way. Honestly, this is nothing new. And may I ask why films such as "We Need To Talk About Kevin" or "Martha Marcy May Marlene" wouldn't get nominated but "Midnight in Paris" would? That was a terrible film with little substance, insight or character. I understand where you were trying to go in this article but you really should have thought this through a bit more.

  • David Ferguson | December 21, 2011 4:14 PMReply

    I would add Brit Marling for Another Earth to this list, and would say that while it may not have been "the year of the actress", the number of key roles for actresses is really pretty impressive. The real issue, as stated earlier in the article, seems to be the paucity of female directors and writers.

  • Julia Greenfield | December 21, 2011 3:05 PMReply

    What about Glenn Close in Albert Nobbs? I saw this film at TIFF. Not a great film but she gave a great performance and the Academy loves gender bending roles.

  • Reginald | December 21, 2011 12:55 PMReply

    So, not even going to mention Roony Mara? What a joke. She is the one who deserves to win for Best Actress, she is incredible in 'The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo'. This is a terrible article.

  • kirst | December 21, 2011 11:01 AMReply

    I thought Carey Mulligan's work in the magnificent Shame was every bit Michael Fassbender's equal. She is most deserving of a supporting actress nod.

  • Peter Nellhaus | December 21, 2011 8:10 AMReply

    One of the sadder aspects of 2011 is that while everyone went gaga over "Shame" when it premiered at Venice, Ann Hui's much praised, "A Simple Life" got no traction for the director or winning star Deannie Ip. I couldn't even persuade people who were attending the Toronto festival to see Hui's new film. Not only sexual, but cultural biases at work here.

  • overwatch | December 21, 2011 4:59 AMReply

    "Not because of the actresses themselves, but because of the limited roles that had to work with."
    What's your basis for this statement, is there are shortage of available roles for actresses?

  • Michelle | December 13, 2011 6:01 PMReply

    Hey check out (and like) an awesome video interview with the talented actress Tilda Swinton, who currently stars in "We Need to Talk About Kevin" at: http://culturecatch.com/vidcast/tilda-swinton

  • Peter Knegt | December 13, 2011 12:35 PMReply

    @Speakeasy: Pariah is indeed noted in the second to last paragraph, though I completely agree with you: In retrospect I would have discussed the film at greater length, particularly in comparison to The Help - which Pariah puts to shame in terms of representations of women of color. Dee Rees is also sadly a near-anomaly as a female director of color and that warrants discussion in itself. Apologies for the oversight.

  • Speakeasy | December 13, 2011 12:15 PMReply

    Great article Peter. I do have to wonder why (and how) Dee Rees, a female director of color, who directed Focus Features' 'Pariah' and the extraordinary Adepero Oduye (the protagonist) were omitted from this list.

    Kudos to Dee Rees for furthering a timely conversation. I could be wrong, but I strongly feel (in my humble opinion) that she as well as Ms. Oduye should be mentioned in this article alongside the likes of Ramsay, Durkin, Von Trier, and Reichardt (and their respective female leads). 'Pariah' is a beautifully told and crafted film filled with stellar female performances.

    As a side note: As talented as Viola Davis is, it will be a shame to see such an esteemed actress awarded for playing a maid. It's 2011 for crying out loud.

  • Ann | December 13, 2011 10:35 AMReply

    I appreciate this article very much. And I kind of think it's OK for women to have gone through a year where they didn't dominate. Not because it's always OK, but in the sense that Latinos didn't exactly dominate either, or Asian Americans, etc. I'm not in the film industry so perhaps I feel it's up to them? What I do know for sure is that NO ONE should see Certified Copy. This is a tangent for sure, but please, despite Juliette Binoche being a lovely woman, that movie was TERRIBLE. I am baffled at the attention it got in the film world. If you are not in the industry, do not subject yourself to it. It needs no attention whatsoever and it's not about male/female. It's a huge stretch to say it deserves recognition.

  • Andreas | December 21, 2011 9:50 AM

    Um, why shouldn't anyone see Certified Copy? I'd really like to hear some reasoning there. For what it's worth, I thought it was incredible, and that Juliette Binoche gives one of the greatest performances in recent memory. (Aside from that, I have no idea what "perhaps I feel it's up to them" means, but whatever.)

  • Peter Knegt | December 13, 2011 10:01 AMReply

    @ Sketchbook... Its a tiresome topic, sure.. But one that needs to continue being brought up. And this year is exceptionally problematic. The previous two years actually seem quite progressive by comparison.

  • Sketchbook | December 13, 2011 9:18 AMReply

    This is a tiresome topic. Nothing else to fill up space?

  • alison Noni Richards | December 13, 2011 2:29 AMReply

    If we keep drawing distinctions there will always be distinctions. Inequality in the film industry is the result of a problem created in the 1940's when the media and government seized an opportunity to shape the future of America.
    The messages kids receive on TV, in music and on the internet amplify the imbalance. This isn't limited to make-believe and the entertainment in the industry, this is a problem rooted deep within our society.

    We objectify women and use them as props for mans purpose. That's the message for our youth today. Hopefully more films will be written by women, directed by women about interesting and accomplished women to counteract this damage.

  • Peter E. | December 12, 2011 4:44 PMReply

    As has been noted elsewhere, we'll know when this stops being a problem (if it does in my lifetime) when it won't be remarkable to have a large or equal representation of women central to film plots and central behind the camera. That said, I'm surprised your article neglected to mention the excellent indie film directed by and starring Vera Farmiga, "Higher Ground."

  • Migdia Chinea | December 12, 2011 3:20 PMReply

    I agree -- even with the noted error.

    I made a UCLA sci-fi short, "anonymous (street meat)," inspired and metaphored by my horrendous experiences with the bank -- a short film in which a woman is featured prominently and -- since it's a sci-fi -- it's not necessarily a Hispanic subject matter. Unless, of course, Hispanics were subject by the same sorts of trials and tribulations as the non-Hispanic general population -- which, according to conventional wisdom, apparently we are not. We, Hispanics, live and die immigration.

    I'm told that American film festivals give a second look at films directed by females -- even more so, I’m told, when the female director is also Hispanic. Really? Not so. I have not seen a film by a minority woman in any local film festival except the few in which I'm selected. The curious thing is that I've been programmed in various European film festivals -- as far out as Russia, Cyprus and Eastern Europe. In Europe there doesn't seem to be a problem with a female minority film -- they look at vision and quality. My gender and ethnicity are not questioned nor exploited.

    The problem is here. Always here.

    Maybe it's an American psychological white man’s burden kind of block, but if the film is made by a Hispanic woman, the film has got to have a noticeable Hispanic subject matter. Even in tiny Hispanic festivals, the selections are usually based on a Hispanic subject matter -- otherwise I might as well be a white male.

    In fact, I'm not submitting to Hispanic festivals for that reason.

    I wish the industry at large would stop pretending to give a leg up to "minorities" when they really don't and stop trying to stereotype us when they really shouldn't.

    If women (alas, also Hispanic women) don't make it to local short film festivals, how are they going to make it in the grand ballroom of American feature film awards?

    Migdia Chinea - UCLA MFA TFTDM 2012

  • migdia chinea | November 4, 2012 12:14 PM

    I came across this by accident -- looking for an old article about my pooch. The guy who responded below did not read my piece or understood it correctly because I NEVEWR said anything about my films being more deserving about anyone else's. I SAID that "Hispanic film selections are based on a Hispanic subject matter." Peace!

  • overwatch | December 21, 2011 4:47 AM

    So, as a hispanic woman your film is more deserving of screening and distributing by a white man's. Do I dare say that perhaps your film wasn't good enough?

  • Eric | December 12, 2011 3:10 PMReply

    I am getting very confused over all the recognition and praise that Rooney Mara has received as Lisbeth in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Let me get this straight and make sure I am not imagining things....didn't Noomi Rapace play Libeth in the original Swedish version of the movie??? I mean, did Rooney really add anything original when the movie had already been done before??? Seriously???

  • aleksa | December 21, 2011 10:27 AM

    I'm sure Andrew Lau and Alan Mak brought a lot to the table when they directed the Hong Kong film "Infernal Affairs." But you know what? Martin Scorsese won an Oscar for directing the remake ("The Departed").

    Please put your argument to bed, it's really, REALLY tired.

  • Joe | December 21, 2011 8:16 AM

    Seen the movie, and YES! She brings a lot to the character, specially a certain fragility that Lisbeth had in the book and that wasn't there with Rapace. The swedish was made for TV and got recut for film...The Fincher one is really a movie. AND, for those who still think of it's a useless remake. 1- It's Fincher 2- It's a readaptation (like those for hamlet and the Jane Austen books), it has few to deal with the swedish version 3- It's a great movie, tense, dense, well acted, incredible score from Trent Reznor.

  • Cable | December 12, 2011 6:28 PM

    Or Fincher? Or Hollywood? Did not see the remake; will not see the remake. La La Land is deeply lacking...

  • ellen | December 12, 2011 2:52 PMReply

    Don't forget the production designers - As in Jette Lehmann - SHE won the European Film Academy award for best production design - EFA beinf the European Oscar - for Lars von Trier 's Melancholia .

  • Victory | December 12, 2011 2:43 PMReply

    Agree with everything here, specially the lack of women in the Best Director Category, but Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander in Dragon Tattoo should be mention.

  • Zach | December 12, 2011 2:40 PMReply

    This is a consistent problem but you start the article making a completely incorrect comparison. Last year there were 12 potential Oscare winners, this year only three. By December 22 last year, when the linked article was posted, there were only two potential winners of the Best Actress Oscar: Natalie Portman in Black Swan and Annette Bening in The Kids are All Right.