Film & Television

The Academy Moves in the Right Direction . . . at a Glacial Pace

Hollywood is an all-or-nothing town. You’re either in or out, box office gold or box office poison. A movie is “a runaway blockbuster hit” or an embarrassing flop. The industry is as quick to laud success as it is to condemn failure.

So, it’s little wonder that the powers that be are patting each other on the backs right now after this week’s announcement of a more diverse set of Oscar nominees.

After two years of #oscarssowhite, this year’s individual nominees represent a pendulum swing, albeit a modest one. But, progress does not mean perfection. In fact, in this case, it isn’t anywhere near parity.

This year’s Best Director category, often highlighted as an example of the Academy’s predictable male whiteness, includes one woman (Greta Gerwig) and one black man (Jordan Peele). (It’s interesting to note that in its 90-year history, these are only the fifth woman and fifth black person nominated for that coveted honor.) The category also includes Mexican director Guillermo del Toro, so if you’re inclined to look at a glass half-full, there’s far more diversity than usual.

Greta Gerwig’s inclusion is certainly to be celebrated. Although her rich, quirky, coming-of-age drama Lady Birdwon the Golden Globe for Best Musical or Comedy just a couple of weeks ago, she was not in the running for Best Director there. If she wins in March (and, alas, it seems unlikely), she will be only the second woman to ever win the award. As Melissa Silverstein, founder and publisher of Women and Hollywood pointed out, Kathryn Bigelow won the prize in 2010 for a war movie, a genre typically by and about men. Gerwig is being honored for directing a movie about a young woman. And, it’s up for Best Picture as well.

Gerwig is also nominated for Lady Bird’s original screenplay. Along with her in that category are two other women: Emily V. Gordon for co-writing The Big Sick, and Vanessa Taylor for co-writing The Shape of Water. In adapted screenplay, Dee Rees received a nod for co-writing Mudbound. That’s four women out of a field of sixteen. And, only one (Gerwig) crafted her screenplay without a man by her side. Progress? Maybe. But, hardly a banner year for women’s voices.

There is a noteworthy first this year for women behind the camera (literally). Rachel Morrison is the first woman nominated for Best Cinematography for MudBound. (That’s one out of 650 nominations over the years, but who’s counting?)

In the current climate of #MeToo and Time’s Up, more than the usual attention is being paid to the nominees for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress (which is a bit silly; unless I’m mistaken, those categories are always filled with women). The excitement — or at least the positioning with the press — is that a new and unusual number of these fine actresses are playing women who are strong central figures, not helpmates of male leads. Whether you want to buy into that promotional rubbish or not, any indication that movies with powerful women at their core can be as successful as movies focused on men can only be a good sign. Hopefully, it opens the door to more movies with — and for and about and by —women.

For Best Actress, Frances McDormand appears to be the frontrunner with her brutal, heartbreaking turn in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. McDormand has already won the Golden Globe, BAFTA and SAG Awards. Margot Robbie is nominated for I, Tonya, infusing a confused humanity into Harding, the Olympics’ real-life stock villainess. Saoirse Ronan has earned her third nomination as Gerwig’s young heroine in Lady Bird, and, the ubiquitous Meryl Streep, her twenty-first for The Post, an utterly timely drama about the freedom — and responsibility — of the press. Set against the Viet Nam War era, Streep’s character, publisher Katharine Graham has to prove that she can run a major newspaper without a man. Some version of this feminist assertion is shared by all the characters in the category. In fact, the only nominated actress embroiled in a love story is Sally Hawkins in The Shape of Water. And the object of her character’s infatuation is a sea monster, so even she is challenging the patriarchy in her own way.

The Best Supporting Actress category is also being lauded for its inclusion of two African-American actresses: first-time nominee Mary J. Blige for Mudbound and three-time nominee, one-time winner (for The Help) Octavia Spencer for The Shape of Water. Allison Janney and Laurie Metcalf are nominated for playing larger-than-life mothers in, respectively, I, Tonya and Lady Bird. And, Lesley Manville has earned her first nomination for Phantom Thread. Again, these are marvelous actresses in strong female roles. But, why is that still news?

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