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.
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
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?
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.
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.
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.
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:
........Annette Bening, Being Julia
........Emmy Rossum, Phantom of the Opera
........Kate Winslet, Eternal Sunshine
of the Spotless Mind
........Laura Dern, We Don't Leave Here
........Catalina Sandrino Moreno, Maria
Full of Grace
........Natalie Portman, Garden State
........Julia Roberts, Closer
........Imelda Staunton, Vera Drake
........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
........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
by Emanuel Levy
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