Oscarmetrics: Is Best Actress a Lesser Award?

Jemal Countess/Getty Images Oscar Statue

Every so often, some progressive thinker in the world of awards suggests that the longstanding distinction between Best Actor and Best Actress is arbitrary and outmoded. Acting is acting, the argument goes, and if there’s no prize for, say, Best Female Director, why should women be patronized by separate-but-equal performance categories? From 1999 to 2005, the haute-austere Village Voice Film Poll, in which select critics are invited to choose rarefied favorites and grind artisanal axes, abolished the division altogether, consolidating both genders into one “best lead performance” category.

But even the Voice eventually gave it up, acknowledging that there’s a big difference between pretending the playing field is level and actually working to level it. Because Best Actress isn’t a separate-but-equal classification after all — in the eyes of Academy voters, it’s separate and lesser.

That probably strikes you as sexist. I agree. But the numbers don’t lie: Movies that win Best Actress nominations are, as a whole, less respected by the Academy, less supported by the film industry, and less liked by audiences than those that receive nominations for Best Actor. Let’s look at four different stats:

    1. Correlation to Best Picture nominations.
    This is a simple way to gauge the overall esteem in which a movie is held by Oscar voters, and it’s telling. Of the past 50 Best Actor nominees, 25 received their nominations for movies that were also up for Best Picture. By contrast, that held true for only 13 of the past 50 Best Actress nominees.

    2. Correlation to overall Academy enthusiasm.
    Over the past 10 years, films nominated for Best Actor received an average of 4.8 total Oscar nominations, whereas films nominated for Best Actress received an average of just 3.3 nominations. That’s the difference between a movie that picks up some real across-the-board support and one that grabs nominations for, say, Actress, Costume Design, and Makeup but stays on the sideline of the big-boy contests.

    3. Correlation to support from the Hollywood establishment.
    Nominated movies fall into three categories: Those released by major studios, those made (or acquired) by the boutique or “dependent” divisions of those studios (Fox Searchlight, Sony Pictures Classics, etc.), and those made completely independently. Most indies and dependents are made for a tiny fraction of the average studio budget, so nominations can be a reasonable indicator of how often the studios are willing to put money behind a prestige project for a man versus one for a woman.

    And the answer is — can you guess? — more often for a man. Forty-six percent of Best Actor nominees since 2001 have been recognized for their work in major studio movies, as opposed to just 26 percent of women. In other words, if an actress wants material challenging enough to propel her to an Oscar nomination, there’s about a 3-in-4 chance that she’ll have to look for it outside Hollywood — and therefore constrain her choice of roles to something that can be staffed and shot modestly.

    4. Correlation to popularity with audiences.
    Since 2001, films that showcased Best Actor nominees have grossed an average of $60 million — their Best Actress counterparts have grossed just $43 million. Twelve of the past 50 Best Actress nominees couldn’t even drag their movies across the $10 million line at the U.S. box office; that’s true for just six of the past 50 Best Actor nominees.

There’s a problem here, but it’s a problem with the Academy Awards only insofar as the Oscars reflect a self-perpetuating catastrophe within the movie business: The belief that men star in movies, but women star in “women’s movies.” Treated as an irksome niche by their own industry, actresses have to settle for lower budgets and shakier financing, which means the films for which they get nominated are more likely to be underdeveloped performance showcases than richly conceived and produced movies with top-of-the-line talent in all creative and technical areas.

Nominated actresses are also less able to rely on experienced A-list directors to help shape their work and their films. Take a look at the top five contenders for Best Actor and Best Actress as currently predicted on the aggregation site Goldderby.com. The five guys currently projected to be Best Actor nominees were directed by men (yes, all men) who have, collectively, directed 18 Oscar-nominated performances over the years. The five women currently predicted to be Best Actress nominees are in the hands of five directors, none of whom has ever directed a single nominated performance.

I hope this is at least the start of an explanation for the kind of dispiriting inequity that characterizes these races every year — this year being no exception. Let’s look at the 10 current Best Actress contenders; just about all of them will leave you marveling at what they might do if the industry even met them halfway. I think Michelle Williams, one of the best American actresses of her generation (she’s only 31) gives an astonishingly subtle, original performance as Marilyn Monroe in My Week With Marilyn; her work amounts to a kind of filmed essay on how Monroe played with her own surfaces (and surfacey-ness) as a way of attempting to manage her own sense of being unmoored. It’s a level of work — part impersonation, part deconstruction, part embodiment — that only a great actress can achieve, and the kindest thing I can say about the movie is that it doesn’t get in her way. Why anybody making a film about Laurence Olivier, Marilyn Monroe, and a gofer would decide that the interesting one is the gofer is a mystery to me, but I’ll give director Simon Curtis credit for at least knowing enough to point the camera at his star and leave it there.

I feel much the same way about The Help, an often shrill and silly take on early ‘60s Southern race relations that seems almost intimidated by the unflinching seriousness and honesty of Viola Davis. She gives the movie its center of gravity (in both senses of the word); kudos to neophyte director Tate Taylor for realizing that when she’s onscreen his job is to stand back and let us watch her. Some of the movies built around this season’s other contenders feel thin as well. Glenn Close has what should be a showpiece role in the 19th-century drama Albert Nobbs as a woman who — for reasons insufficiently explored by the script — spends decades of her adult life disguised as a self-effacing male servant, but the low budget is evident in a kind of visual and narrative drabness; the film focuses endlessly on Albert’s masklike expression, but keeps a safe distance from her inner churn. And word on Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady is that, while she is typically spectacular (she just won her fifth award from the New York Film Critics Circle), the rigor and intelligence of her work are not matched by the script and direction. What else is new?

There are a number of actresses in contention whose work is guided by stronger directorial hands. I haven’t seen The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, but the buzz about Rooney Mara from Monday’s screening for New York film critics is very positive, suggesting the benefits of working with a tough, top-tier filmmaker like David Fincher. Charlize Theron is joltingly funny as a rancid bitch who’s just self-aware enough to know she’s past her sell-by date in Jason Reitman’s black comedy Young Adult, and in the best moments of a performance that is in its way as vanity-free as her work in Monster, you can feel the confidence that comes when a director, an actress, and a screenwriter are all in sync. Tilda Swinton, as the mother of a school shooter in We Need to Talk About Kevin, and Elizabeth Olsen, as a recently escaped cult member in Martha Marcy May Marlene, appear to give themselves over completely to their directors. Their commitment is impressive, and if I can’t muster as much enthusiasm for their performances, it’s because their effectiveness is severely constrained by scripts that withhold crucial information about the inner lives of their characters for reasons that ultimately feel conveniently evasive rather than dramatically justified. And in Like Crazy, the British newcomer Felicity Jones gives an appealing performance opposite Anton Yelchin, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of two improvising actors don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world, or that wan, wistful, and wispy isn’t an especially Oscar-friendly genre.

That leaves Kirsten Dunst, going deeper than perhaps even she knew she could to explore the restlessness, anger, eroticism, irrationality, and even strength within a young woman’s depression in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia. This movie, more than any of the others, strikes an ideal harmony between an actress surrendering herself in the service of a directorial vision and a director honoring something unique and powerful in a leading lady. Melancholia is too strange to win an Academy Award; I fear it’s also too strange to win Dunst the Best Actress nomination she deserves.

And speaking of awards: We’ve finally got some real prizes to talk about, not just my idle conjectures. Trophy season has kicked in hard in the past 24 hours with the announcement of the New York Film Critics Circle winners, the Gotham Award winners (for movies that fit some weird set of “independent” parameters), and the Independent Spirit nominations (ditto). So what do you need to know? First, that in this phase of the contest, it’s absurd to talk about a loss as a “snub” or a “collapse” and equally silly to characterize a win as “creating Oscar momentum.” The goal, at this stage, is simply to stay in the awards conversation if you’re already there, and elbow your way in if you’re not. Those films that didn’t will still have a few more chances in the next couple of weeks, so I’m not declaring any losers yet. With that in mind, here are three quick takeaways:

    1. The Tree of Life is a factor.
    Eat it, naysayers, brontosaurus haters, and Sean Penn! I’ve been saying since my first freakin’ Oscarmetrics column that adherents of Terrence Malick’s breathtaking study of a Texas childhood are devoted to it with an intensity that other movies this season are hard-pressed to match, and now I have corroboration: It topped Sight & Sound’s critics’ poll of the best films of 2011, and the New York Film Critics Circle honored Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki with prizes (although Pitt was also recognized for Moneyball and Chastain for The Help and Take Shelter). More significant, though, may be Tree of Life’s somewhat surprising win (in a tie with Beginners) over The Descendants at the Gothams. “Significant” may sound like an overreach to describe an award that’s chosen by a jury of five. But in this case, the jury included Jodie Foster, Nicole Kidman, and Natalie Portman — a possible indication that the first-place votes Malick’s film needs to secure a Best Picture nomination could come not just from aesthetes but from the actors’ branch. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it until you’re sick of it: This film has more awards muscle than its detractors are imagining, because passion counts.

    2. Brad Pitt is back.
    To the stupid Grantland blogger who said several weeks back that “even his road to a nomination is challenging”: Shut up, fool! As other Oscar contenders come and go, suffering the fate of elevated expectations and “It’s not all that” backlash, Moneyball is holding up very well. The movie plays beautifully on DVD, and feels even richer and smarter on second viewing. New York Film Critics Circle prizes for Pitt and the screenplay are a welcome boost for a film that needed to demonstrate early on that it has awards-season legs.

    3. There is no front-runner.
    Yes, I’m serious. While The Artist’s Best Picture and Director prizes from the New York Film Critics Circle suggest that it is going to be exactly the formidable contender that everyone expects, the group spread the wealth this year, and the movie still needs to prove itself with audiences. And campaigners for The Descendants don’t have much to cheer about right now; even its strong showing in the Indie Spirit nominations was marred by the jarring omission of George Clooney from the list of Best Actor candidates. Yes, it could be The Artist’s year. But no movie is currently dominating the entire field — nor is any actor or actress a preemptive leader. The forecast, in short, is blurry — which means we’ll have a lot more to talk about soon.

Mark Harris is the author of Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood and is currently at work on his next book. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkHarrisNYC.


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