..Gary Dretzka
..Leonard Klady
..Emanuel Levy
..David Poland
..Ray Pride

 



Oscar 2004: Women as Second Bananas?

It's hard to recall a year in which women have featured so marginally in the Oscar race. It may be a random anomaly, but this season, most of the high-profile Oscar pictures are male-dominated, centering on strong lead roles with women mostly in secondary parts.

Just two years ago, Chicago broke records not only for being the first musical to win Best Picture since Oliver! but also for being a female-driven film, focusing on a triangle of women, played by Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Queen Latifah. Competing for Best Picture, and winning Best Actress for Nicole Kidman, The Hours also made history by offering not one but three lead roles for women -- never mind the politics of lead versus supporting -- played by Kidman, Meryl Sreep , and Julianne Moore. In the same year, Moore was the star of another Oscar contender, Far from Heaven, in which, for a change, the men took the back seat.

Is there a new ideological backlash against women in Hollywood? Is it sheer coincidence? Bad timing? Film history often repeats itself. This year's paucity of good female roles may recall 1975, the worst year in Oscar's history, when the Acting Branch had hard time coming up with five decent leads. Under normal circumstances, Best Actress Louise Fletcher (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) would have qualified in the supporting category. With the exception of Isabelle Adjani (The Story of Adele H.) the other women were weak: Ann Margret in Tommy, Glenda Jackson in Hedda (Ibsen's play "Hedda Gabler") and Carol Kane in Hester Street. Ellen Burstyn, the previous year's winner (Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore) asked her colleagues not to nominate any actresses in the lead category as a protest against Hollywood's marginalization of women.

This year, genre by genre, women have been left out in the cold, relegated to supporting roles and second bananas. The dominant genre in the 2004 race is the biopicture, particularly the showbiz biopicture. To name a few of the frontrunners: The Aviator, about Howard Hughes (Leonoard DiCaprio); Kinsey, about the (in)famous sex researcher (Liam Neeson); Finding Neverland, about J. M. Barrie (Johnny Depp), the creator of Peter Pan; Ray, about the legendary musician Ray Charles (Jamie Foxx); and The Sea Inside, about a Spanish writer (Javier Bardem), who fought for decades to end his life with dignity. On a second tier, there are smaller biopictures such as Beyond the Sea, with Kevin Spacey as Bobby Darin, and Hotel Rwanda, with Don Cheadle as the heroic hotelier Paul Rusesabagina, who housed thousands of Tutsis during the 1994 genocide.

Historical epics have always favored men, evidenced by the Oscar-sweeping Ben-Hur, Lawrence of Arabia, A Man for All Seasons, and Braveheart. This season, Mel Gibson's The Passion of The Christ, and Oliver Stone's Alexander are no exception, though neither is a serious Oscar contender.

Actioners, noir thrillers, and popcorn movies have followed the same pattern. Michael Mann's well-received Collateral offers not one, but two substantial male roles, for Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx. In The Bourne Supremacy, Matt Damon's girlfriend, played by Famke Potente, is killed off in the first reel and Joan Allen plays a decidedly supporting turn. The hero and villain of this summer's ultimate popcorn movie Spider-Man 2 are males, while Rosemary Harris plays the traditional role of the sensitive aunt, and Kirsten Dunst the romantic ingénue.

Steven Soderbergh's terrifically entertaining heist sequel, Ocean's Twelve, contains a dozen good roles, only two of which are female: Catherine Zeta-Jones, in a solid supporting turn, and Julia Roberts, who appears briefly in the beginning and then reappears at the very end.

Adding insult to injury, the most prominent "women's director" working in international cinema today, Pedro Almodovar, best-known for such femme-centered vehicles as the Oscar-nominated Women on the Verge of Nervous Breakdown, and the Oscar-winning All About My Mother, is represented this season with the nourish, blatantly gay Bad Education, a sublime melodrama in which there are no women at all!

So what's left?

The "Relationship" genre, a traditional women's domain. This year, the genre is repped by several high-profile movies like Mike Nichols' Closer (Julia Roberts and Natalie Portman), We Don't Live Here Anymore (Laura Dern and Naomi Watts), A Love Song for Bobby Long (Scarlett Johansson) the comedy-sequel Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, with Renee Zellweger (who was nominated for the original), and Jean-Pierre Jeunet's schmaltzy French melodrama, A Very Long Engagement, with Audrey Tautou (of Amelie fame) in the lead.

Beyond genre, there are other factors that account for the marginalization of women's roles in 2004, factors that for better or worse will have impact on the two female acting awards.

Bankability Vs. Prestige: Hollywood's bankable female stars are now in their late twenties and thirties, but none has made an Oscar-caliber movie. Sandra Bullock and Cameron Diaz have not made films this year and Jennifer Lopez, barely recovered from Gigli, is in the lukewarm Shall We Dance? After scoring big with the Legally Blonde comedies, and Sweet Home Alabama, Reese Witherspoon followed up with Vanity Fair, an artistic and commercial flop. Pushing the theatrical release of a film like Proof, based on the Pulitzer prize-winning play, to next year has certainly made things worse. Proof offers two good roles for women, played by Oscar-winner Gwyneth Paltrow and the estimable Hope Davis.

Aging: The women who dominated Hollywood in the 1980s and 1990s are now playing supporting roles. Meryl Streep, experiencing a major revival of her career, should grab a supporting nomination for The Manchurian Candidate, as the monstrous senator and domineering mother, but it's yet another film revolving around men. Her contemporary, Susan Sarandon, can be seen as Richard Gere's loyal wife in Shall We Dance? and as an aging seductress in Alfie. But Alfie is basically a one-man show for Jude Law's Cockney Don Juan, and Sarandon is one out of four-all supporting, to be sure--women.

Oscar as a Jinx: Several recent Oscar-winners -- Hilary Swank, Halle Berry, Nicole Kidman, and Charlize Theorn -- are experiencing what's known as Oscar as a jinx. There's a good word about Swank's work in Million Dollar Baby (not seen yet), but after winning the 1999 Oscar, for Boys Don't Cry, Swank has made mostly bad pictures, including the abysmal The Affair of the Necklace.

Halle Berry made history three years ago, when she became the first black woman to win Best Actress for Monster's Ball. However, since then, she has made terrible pictures: the trashy horror flick Gothica, and the cheesy Catwoman, which doesn't even qualify as guilty pleasure or high camp.

The gracefully elegant Nicole Kidman should be admired for her risky choices, but after her Oscar for The Hours, she has made a string of disappointing films: the pretentious anti-American Dogville, the unfunny remake The Stepford Wives and Birth, a flawed but still worth-seeing metaphysical fable. Of the three films, Kidman's the most interesting in Birth, and her stature may be elevated by default, a result of the dearth of flashy Oscar-caliber performances.

The one positive thing about the paucity of meaty female roles in mainstream Hollywood movies is that it may open the door for new and fresh faces in small independent films or foreign language pictures. Two prominent performances that should get awards recognition are Imelda Staunton, for her stupendous performance in Mike Leigh's emotionally wrenching drama Vera Drake, and Catalina Sandrino Moreno, for her flawless performance in Maria Full of Grace.

As of November 23, here are my predictions for the Best Actress Oscar, arranged by category in alphabetical order:

Frontrunners
........Annette Bening, Being Julia
........Emmy Rossum, Phantom of the Opera
........Kate Winslet, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Possible Contenders
........Laura Dern, We Don't Leave Here Anymore
........Catalina Sandrino Moreno, Maria Full of Grace
........Natalie Portman, Garden State
........Julia Roberts, Closer
........Imelda Staunton, Vera Drake

Long Shots
........Kim Basinger, The Door in the Floor
........Julie Delpy, Before Sunset
........Nicole Kidman, Birth
........Laura Linney, P.S.
........Audrey Tautou, A Very Long Engagement
........Renee Zellweger, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason

Buzz about unseen films
........Scarlett Johansson, A Love Song for Bobby Long
........Tea Leoni, Spanglish
........Hilary Swank, A Million Dollar Baby
........Sigourney Weaver, Imaginary Heroes

Right now, unless there's a major upset, Bening is the frontrunner among women, a combined result of the kind of role she's playing (an aging, eccentric, temperamental actress), her Academy track record (two nominations--one lead, one supporting), and membership in Hollywood's royalty via marriage to Warren Beatty. But there could be an upset -- the Oscar is never completely predictable. Bening herself suffered from such an upset in 1999, when Hilary Swank (Boys Don't Cry) came out of nowhere and grabbed the Best Actress, even though Bening was in a major film, American Beauty, that swept most of the Oscars. This year's newcomer threat could come from Emmy Rossum, for the musical Phantom of the Opera, particularly if the film is a hit (which I think it will be). Seen last year in Mystic River (as De Niro's daughter), Rossum holds this musical together admirably with her beautiful voice and graceful presence.

This Oscar race is also smiling on Kate Winslet, who may be in the same position that Jessica Lange, Sigourney Weaver and Julianne Moore have been in the past, namely, grabbing both lead and supporting nominations in the same year. With some luck -- and marketing savvy -- Winslet will receive a lead nod for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and a supporting one for Finding Neverland. Similarly, Natalie Portman excels in two movies this season: Closer, in which she's the standout in a uniformly gifted ensemble, and Garden State, as the Bard Graff's quirky romantic interest. Chances are, Columbia will campaign for Portman in Closer in the Supporting league (See next week's column about the Supporting Oscar).

A month ago, Laura Linney was touted as frontrunner for her luminous performance in the indie, P.S., but the film became a non-event, seen only by few. Similarly, as gutsy and wonderful as Laura Dern is in We Don't Live Here Anymore, and as subtle and understated as Kim Basinger is The Door in the Floor, both actresses may suffer from the fact that their films under-performed, to say the least.

November 23, 2004

- by Emanuel Levy

Visit www.EmanuelLevy.com
Updated twice weekly, the site features: Current Reviews, Oscar Alert, Film Commentary, DVD of the Week, and Festivals/Events.

Samuel Butler once observed that, “Every man’s work, whether it be literature or music or pictures or architecture or anything else, is always a portrait of himself.” About Emanuel Levy ...

 



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