Thanks to a guy named Oscar, 2014 began on a cinematic high note for women.
And not just because Idina Menzel composed herself enough to soar through the night’s eventual best-song winner, Frozen’s unavoidable anthem of self-acceptance “Let It Go,” even after a befuddled John Travolta introduced her as “Adele Nazeem.”
Congenial host Ellen DeGeneres fumigated much of the misogynistic tastelessness left behind by previous Academy Awards emcee Seth McFarlane with her trademark brand of good-natured ribbing, along with such crowd-pleasing stunts as a mid-show pizza delivery and group selfies with the nominees.
Cheryl Boone Isaacs would grace the stage in her debut as the first African-American woman to hold the position of Academy president.
It was also an exceptionally strong year for female acting contenders, with a solid roster of multigenerational A-list talent that ranged from Jennifer Lawrence to Judi Dench. As for the winners, 12 Years a Slave newcomer Lupita N’yongo, who has snagged a role in the next Star Wars chapter, took the supporting Oscar.
Meanwhile, Cate Blanchett, who next appears as the scheming Lady Tremaine in Disney’s live-action Cinderella this March, finally claimed a long overdue trophy as a lead actress for her cash-strapped spin on Blanche DuBois in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine.
Anyone looking for a feminist rallying cry during the ceremony couldn’t do better than Blanchett’s acceptance speech when she observed, “Those of us in the industry who are still foolishly clinging to the idea that female films with women are niche experiences — they are not. Audiences went to them and, in fact, they made money. The world is round, people.”
Speaking of money, the cultural aftershocks of Frozen, including Jennifer Lee as the first female director of a full-length animated feature from Disney to win an Academy Award (shared with Chris Buck), continued apace as the musical fairy tale of sisterly devotion overtook Toy Story 3 as the most successful animated film of all time with $1.3 billion in worldwide ticket sales.
But a chilling effect arrived at the end of the year — one that is likely to have long-term repercussions for women in Hollywood, including in the Oscar race. It came in the form of leaked corporate emails of an insensitive and occasionally nasty nature, exchanged by Sony honcho Amy Pascal and super-producer Scott Rudin, that were made public after a cyber attack protesting the North Korea-baiting comedy The Interview.
The gossip-hungry media had a field day, posting the private content for all to see, including confirmation that even female stars as big as Lawrence and Amy Adams are subjected to disparities in pay compared to their male peers.
There has also been speculation that Pascal, one of the most influential women in the film industry, could possibly lose her job over such questionable remarks as her racist jokes about President Obama’s movie preferences. And Rudin did himself no favors by belittling Angelina Jolie — the award-winning actress and one of the year’s box-office champs for Maleficent (currently ranked No. 6 with $241 million) — by describing her as “a minimally talented spoiled brat.”
Actions, however, speak louder than words, and both Pascal and Rudin have long been at the forefront of producing movies that center around women.
Since her early days at Sony, Pascal has championed such female-driven titles as Little Women and A League of Her Own. Meryl Streep has regularly sung her praises for backing many of the films responsible for the actress’ late-life career surge, such as Julie & Julia, It’s Complicated, and Hope Springs. Sony also distributed Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow’s second best-picture nominee after her Hurt Locker wins and a rare action film with a female protagonist.
Meanwhile, Rudin has long been a supporter of femme-centric projects, ranging from The First Wives Club and Clueless, to such awards-worthy fare as The Hours and Doubt. In an industry where creative risk-taking and adult-oriented fare is often devalued, he is a rare proponent of such efforts.
It is unlikely, however, that Rudin’s rep will suffer much because of this exposure. Much like his sometimes awards-season rival, Harvey Weinstein, whose The King’s Speech trumped his The Social Network in the 2010 Oscar race, Rudin has often been portrayed as tough, demanding, and argumentative — traits that men can get away with much easier than women given the sexism that is still ingrained in the business world.
But as a high-profile rep of a studio, Pascal is in a much more vulnerable hot seat. It would be a terrible loss if she lost her much-deserved position of power in Hollywood.
But between the Oscar highs and the tabloid-headline lows, there was plenty to applaud (and a bit to boo) in the world of movies when it came to female achievements, especially during awards season.
–A directing first. Selma, the critically praised and all-too-relevant account of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s fight for voting rights, was overlooked by the Screen Actors Guild because it was unable to be screened in time for voters. But the Golden Globes compensated for the oversight when it made history by nominating Ava DuVernay as the first black woman to complete in the directing category. The biopic is also up for best picture, drama; best actor, drama (David Oyelowo); and best song at the Globes.
On the down side, Angelina Jolie’s much-anticipated POW survivor tale, Unbroken, was completely snubbed by the Globes. And these are the same foreign press members who nominated her as best comedy actress in the 2010 trainwreck The Tourist. It remains to be seen whether Unbroken can break into the best-picture or directing category at the Academy Awards.
–Moore is more than ready. Julianne Moore, 54, rarely gets enough credit for being one of the most fearless, accomplished, and in-demand actresses of her generation, equally at home in challenging indie fare like Short Cuts (1993), Safe (1995) and The Big Lebowski (1998), as she is in commercial vehicles, including The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1992), The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997) and Crazy, Stupid Love (2011).
She wraps up 2014 with not only a hit (Non-Stop) and a franchise blockbuster (The Hunger Games – Mockingjay: Part 1), but also two stellar lead roles that are already up for Golden Globes: as a fading movie star in Cannes favorite Maps to the Stars and as a sufferer of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease in Still Alice.
Moore is considered way past due due for an Oscar, with four previous tries — lead for 2002’s Far From Heaven and 1999’s The End of the Affair, along with supporting for 1997’s Boogie Nights and 2002’s The Hours — and zero wins. She was also squeezed out the best actress category for 2010’s The Kids Are All Right after she and co-star Annette Bening were both designated as leads. As a result, in a weak year for powerhouse female roles, most pundits have placed Moore in the win column for Still Alice.
–Career renewal. While Moore might be blocking Reese Witherspoon’s path to a second Oscar, the actress is still a winner for reviving her career, which went into decline after her best-actress trophy for 2005’s Walk the Line. But she is still a winner for having taken control of her own destiny and buying the rights to Wild, a biopic about how a 1,100-mile hike can save your life. She also took on two supporting roles in polar-opposite films, The Good Lie and Inherent Vice. On top of that, she produced Gone Girl, one of the fall’s biggest success stories, and thus could find herself in the best-picture race twice.
Also fighting her way back: Hilary Swank, a two-time Oscar winner for 1999’s Boys Don’t Cry and 2004’s Million Dollar Baby, who is the best reason to see Tommy Lee Jones’ female-themed Western The Homesman.
And Keira Knightley decided to enter the 21st century with two charming films, Laggies and Begin Again (ignore that Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit action nonsense). Yes, she is once more in a period piece in the World War II thriller The Imitation Game, in a supporting role that is expected to provide a second chance at an Oscar in addition to her lead-actress nod for 2005’s Pride & Prejudice. But her standout accessory as a young career woman with a genius IQ isn’t a corset for once, but a hat pin.
And how about rom-com queen Jennifer Aniston trying once more to convince Hollywood to take her seriously as a tart-tongued chronic-pain sufferer with a pill problem in Cake?
–Senior romance, well done (and done wrong). With the success of 2011’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, whose sequel arrives in March, silver-haired matchups have been a growing trend — one that relies on the devotion of older female moviegoers. Helen Mirren and Indian acting legend Om Puri kept whatever attraction their rival restaurateurs shared on a slow and easy simmer in The 100-Foot Journey. Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan were fascinating as long-marrieds at odds during an anniversary trip to Paris in Le Week-end.
But the only way these pairings work is if the script is equal to the potentially potent chemistry of the actors. It’s a sin to finally put Michael Douglas and Diane Keaton in the same movie when the results prove as utterly forgettable as And So It Goes. Ditto Christopher Plummer and Shirley MacLaine (who previously appeared together in 2007’s Closing the Ring) in Elsa & Fred. More ambitious but still unsatisfying was Annette Bening and Ed Harris in the gothic romance The Face of Love.
The best bet for the AARP crowd proved to be the touching Love Is Strange, with Alfred Molina and John Lithgow as gay newlyweds forced to live separately because of a dip in their financial status. A bonus treat: Marisa Tomei, terrific as Lithgow’s put-upon daughter-in-law.
–Horror with a feminine twist. Who would have thought two female writer-directors, one from Iran and the other from Australia, would find inspired ways to pump fresh blood into old-fashioned scares? Ama Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night features a female vampire skateboarder who targets men who disrespect women. Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook concerns a single mother who unwittingly allows a force into her house that threatens her and her young son.
–Hope for the future. Hollywood can’t live by that sassy lass Jennifer Lawrence alone when it comes to young female stars. That is why Shailene Woodley, who has the fiery spirit of a young Debra Winger but leavened with a neo-flower-child vibe, is such a welcome presence at theaters these days. Not only does she have her own YA franchise with the Divergent series (the next edition, Insurgent, arrives March 20), the breakout from The Descendents also turned The Fault in Our Stars into one classy disease-of-the-week tearjerker.
–Other younger actresses on the rise. Mia Wasikowska (Only Lovers Left Alive, Tracks, Maps to the Stars), post-Twilight Kristen Stewart (Still Alice, the upcoming Clouds of Sils Maria), Chloe Grace Moretz (The Equalizer, Laggies, If I Stay, voice in The Tale of Princess Kaguya, and Clouds of Sils Maria) and Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Belle, Beyond the Lights).
–In a league of her own. Scarlett Johansson, whose presence dominated 2014 in a quartet of films of mind-blowing diversity: Under the Skin, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Chef, and Lucy.
Alas, DeGeneres will be sitting out this year’s Oscar ceremony. But we can only hope that Neil Patrick Harris dons his Hedwig gear during his hosting stint and calls in an order for Korean BBQ takeout during the proceedings when the show airs on February 22.