Throughout its 83-year history, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has established a remarkable record of recognizing pioneering performances by film actresses—performances that have reflected an ongoing sea change in ideas about female beauty and power.

Some Oscar winners—Shirley Booth, Ruth Gordon, and Jessica Tandy, for instance—may have been more acclaimed for talent than looks, especially in their later careers. Others had plenty of sizzle but not much steak. But to the Academy’s credit, for the most part it’s honored substance over style. The hugely talented Katharine Hepburn, winner of the most Oscars to date with four, was never paper-doll-pretty. But her strong-boned New England beauty helped set a new standard of desirability, even into her later years, when she won her final Academy Award for On Golden Pond.

Eleven years after the first awards were handed out, Hattie McDaniel became the first African America to win for her supporting role as Mammy in 1939’s Gone With the Wind. It would take another 15 years before an African-American woman won a Best Actress nomination: Dorothy Dandridge in 1954 for Carmen Jones. Dandridge’s nomination made it clear that the concept of who and what was beautiful was starting to change. (Emphasis on ‘starting:’ the winner that year was the blonder-than-blond Grace Kelly.)

In 1999, Halle Berry paid homage to Dandridge, portraying her in the television movie Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, directed by pioneering woman director Martha Coolidge (Berry executive produced). Berry went on in 2001  to become the first—and to date only—African American to win Best Actress, for Monster’s Ball.

The winners whose appearance defied conventional ideals of female beauty include Italian actress Anna Magnani, whose smoldering Mediterranean looks were a far cry from Grace Kelly’s aristocratic elegance. Magnani took the top prize in 1956, two years after Kelly, for The Rose Tattoo, and was nominated again in 1958 for Wild is the Wind. Other mold-breakers include hearing-impaired Marlee Matlin for Children of a Lesser God in 1986 (the youngest Best Actress winner at the time, at age 21), and the generously proportioned Kathy Bates in 1991, for her unforgettable role as an overzealous writer’s groupie in Misery.

Although a nominee, not a winner, Anne Bancroft expanded the boundaries of sexually desirable older women in her role as the seductive Mrs. Robinson in 1967’s The Graduate. Was it a sign of the times that Mrs. Robinson’s eroticism required that she also be a secret alcoholic with problems galore? Looking back, it certainly seems that way: conventional wisdom held that no “decent” woman of, as the French have it, “a certain age,” could aggressively pursue a younger sexual partner unless she were fatally flawed. (Take that, Demi Moore and Susan Sarandon!)

This year’s nominees have already challenged conventional thinking in several directions. As mentioned in an earlier WVFC story, three of the five Best Actress nominees are 45 or older, and there’s not a Shirley Booth lookalike among them—in fact, you’d be hard put to find a more glamorous and sexy bunch. For her role in Precious, Gabourey Sidibe stands to double the number of African-American Best Actress winners, while striking an image-changing blow on behalf of large women everywhere. The same goes for Mo’Nique, a standout in a field of grass-slender Best Supporting Actress nominees.

Too safe, too staid, too predictable? On the contrary—you might say that the Academy Awards has, in its own modest way, been pushing the envelope on feminine beauty for years. And with luck, this year’s winners may give it another nudge or two.

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  • Creel McCormack November 1, 2010 at 1:42 pm

    Billie Brown you are such a good writer with insight into so much! Keep writing!

  • Billie Brown February 27, 2010 at 5:28 pm

    Family and friends: gotta love ’em!
    I’m thrilled with these comments and in all fairness need to acknowledge the substantial contributions of the newest member of our family, Susan Delson, who made numerous improvements, including the catchy headline.

  • A Taylor February 27, 2010 at 3:27 pm

    Great article! The only thing I’d posit is regarding Mrs. Robinson and your analysis of her; a much larger proportion of suburban housewives were secret alcoholics in 1967 than now, and it was a hotter issue then. The late ’60’s were all about exposing the chinks in traditional and conservative society, especially in Hollywood. And most interesting characters are fatally flawed, are they not?
    Overall, a very good read and lots of good points made.

  • Ben Sumerau February 27, 2010 at 3:20 pm

    Hello Billie. Enjoyed your article very much. I believe all women are beautiful in many different ways and you did a remarkable job putting your thoughts into words so we could enjoy
    them. As your friend of many years, I thought of you as a movie star in high school, now I see you as a super star. I’m always learning from you. Your a beautiful person. Thanks for adding me to your mailing list. Continued good thoughts. Ben

  • Dianne Parker February 27, 2010 at 12:05 pm

    Hi, Billie Brown. I knew when I FIRST laid eyes on you, there was something about you that was uniquely wonderful. I think I’m starting to get it. Loved this article. Love the idea that just as there are 10 zillion personalities God created in us, there are that many types of “bodies” to hold them. I was skinny once. I probably won’t be again. God forbid I should have to become ill to achieve my high school weight. I’m comfortable in my “conveyance”. Especially at my age of 60+. Besides, we won’t always need it. But, for this “plane”, mine has served me well. It deserves to relax now. Thanks for sharing this link. I’ll bookmark.