Our Oscars, Ourselves

As the Oscars approach, analyzing what our Best Actresses say about us

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A Presidential race limps into its first few rounds, the NFL nears its 50th Super Bowl, and “Best of” lists trickle out, yet they all sit bloodless next to my personal favorite horse-race: the Oscars.

The Academy Awards is a glitzy, glamorous evening of over-produced and stupendously boring television, but I love to watch it: the thrum of a seeing a favorite victorious and the satisfaction of seeing artistic taste vindicated are powerful emotions. But for all its flaws — or perhaps because of them — the Oscars do feel oddly vital, like it matters and like it says something about us, if for no other reasons than how much we talk about it and its reported purpose: to measure the ambit of that year’s dreams.

But that’s impossible. We dream about too many things for all the winners in every category each and every year to mean everything. Instead, it is the most competitive races in a given year that almost do what the Oscars says it does.

This year, the most talked-about Oscar race is Best Actress, which makes the Oscars very much alive to the cultural consciousness. 2015 was a landmark year in the popular consciousness. Feminism became more than a dirty word or an outlier — it became mainstream philosophy (for good and bad). The push for true equality for women became an unstoppable force, which popular media embraced, from Ex Machina to Star Wars: The Force Awakens; a trend that the Best Actress mirrors fully. Yet this year’s leading contenders do not only match their time, they also bear the pressures of the past — but almost none of the pressures I imagined.

Likely the oldest saw about the Best Actress race is that actors are awarded the statue more for playing prostitutes than anything else, but, cynically believable though that might be, it is not true. Best Actress has been awarded to an actor portraying a prostitute only five times out of the 87 times it has been awarded, which was an absolutely pleasant shock to discover.

I can also happily report that the other extreme of the Madonna/whore complex is equally unrepresented. Only one actor has won for a full on religious Madonna role: Jennifer Jones as Bernadette Soubirous in 1943’s The Song of Bernadette, and there have been only four other Madonna-esque roles that have won: that is, four actresses playing characters who sacrifice themselves for the good of their children or husband have won the award, and none of those occurred after 1982 when Meryl Streep won for Sophie’s Choice.

Two Madonnas:
Two Madonnas (left to right): Jennifer Jones and Meryl Streep

On a quick side note, the most intriguing victories from these two groups are Sophia Loren and Jane Fonda. One might be forgiven for believing that Loren would have won for the salacious role and Fonda the virtuous, but that is not the case. Loren won her Oscar for her heartbreaking Madonna-esque role in 1961’s Two Women, a film based on the true story of the horrible abuse of Italian women by French Moroccan soldiers, and Fonda first won for her role as Bree Daniels in Alan Pakula’s Klute, a complex neo-noir focused on paranoia and the cruelty of male domination.

Having happily exhausted these basic categories, I turned to another classic Best Actress trope: the tragic performer. However, it only accounts for the same number of winners as the Madonna/whore duality, and one of them, Diane Keaton (as herself) in Annie Hall, is only tragic from Alvie’s/the movie’s point of view, while the audience — and she herself — feel very differently. The other winners are more traditionally tragic: Barbara Streisand as Fanny Brice, Julie Christie as Diana Scott, Marion Cotillard as Edith Piaf, and Natalie Portman as Nina Sayers.

I was quickly running out of potentially exploitative tropes, but was to gladly lose more still. The assumed prevalence of actors that win for playing disabled people is flat out wrong-headed, and the idea that actors win overwhelmingly for portraying characters that are deeply ill is not really correct.

Only one actor has won Best Actress for playing a handicapped person: Marlee Matlin for Children of a Lesser God, and as Ms. Matlin is herself a deaf advocate, her victory is a triumph rather than a trope. Three other winning roles centered on women who are dealing with a temporary or self-imposed physical disability: Holly Hunter being mute in The Piano, Frances McDormand’s pregnancy in Fargo, and Hilary Swank’s paralysis in Million Dollar Baby, but no other winner has portrayed someone with a handicap.

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While more actors have won for playing characters that are very ill than for any of the previous tropes, this prominence is a recent development. While the first of these winning roles was Joanne Woodward’s turn as Eve White, Eve Black, and Jane in The Three Faces of Eve in 1957, followed by Jane Fonda’s Bree Daniels in Klute in 1970, the seriously ill female protagonist does not come into vogue until Kathy Bates’ psychopathic turn in Misery won in 1990, and, of the 11 winners in this category, seven have won since 2000.

The more I looked at the whole body of Best Actress winners, the more I realized that none of these simplistic or cynical assumptions have any serious reality to them. There are seven traits that occur far more prevalently than any others, and many of those traits are, in my opinion, positive.

About a third of all winners have played either a wife in serious distress or women whose status as a mother is central. These traits might be considered stereotypical or negative, but they might just as truthfully be described as realistic. Wives and mothers constitute a large percentage of the world’s female population, and the number of wives and mothers in distress is, regrettably, even higher.

The same argument can be had in regard to another common trait: roles wherein the female protagonist’s actions are dependent upon the actions of a male character have won slightly less than two-thirds of the time. But though this reflection of male dominance is depressing, it is battled by the other predominant traits:

  • Over half of all winners have played the hero of their respective films.
  • Almost two-thirds have played working women.
  • The same number of winners that have been dependent on a man have also played the central part in the film.
  • And that same large percentage of winners have played women who were liberated for their time (liberation being, sadly, a thing of varying degrees).

I find two central trends to the whole Best Actress race in these recurring motifs. The first is the desire for a certain realism I touched on before: motherhood, imperfect marriages, and the forced dependence of women’s actions upon men’s are undeniable aspects of the world we inhabit, and the Oscars have reflected that. But they have also done more. The second is the unexpected aspirations of the award-winning characters. Heroic, hard-working, liberated women who own their movies — and so, to some degree, their world — dominate the Best Actress Oscar race. The roles that have won most across time are not negative or demeaning pictures of women, but complex and hopeful portraits of women making a place for themselves in the world — a trend that I found even more surprising given that the Academy is three-quarters male.

I did not find just universal trends to the Best Actress race, however. Several time-specific trends revealed themselves as well:

  • In the ‘40’s and the ‘80’s, pro-America movies were prominent winners, reflecting both the original American Pastoral and the Reagan-ite dream to return to it.
  • The ‘50’s were the bleakest time for the award, with a number of actors that played horribly abused and un-liberated wives winning the award. Although, interestingly enough, Vivien Leigh as Blanche DuBois won right in their midst.
  • Also, there have been comparatively few villainous winners, but over half of these were clustered from the late ‘60’s to the mid-‘70’s, in what can be described as a disturbed reaction to the rise of second wave feminism. Also, on another side note, Vivian Leigh played a full quarter of all eight winning villains, doing so all before 1960.
  • More recently, I found the rise of the historical biopic. From 1928 to 1999, 14 actors won for biopics, but from 1999 to now there have been nine: an almost 40 percent increase in the last 16 years from the previous 71. However, as no biopics have won since 2011’s The Iron Lady, that trend may have passed.

With the award between trends, it’s less surprising that the universal aspects of the Best Actress award are coming to the fore so very strongly this year.

This year’s top contenders are Cate Blanchett as Carol Aird in Carol, Saoirse Ronan as Eilis Lacey in Brooklyn, and Brie Larson leading the pack as Ma in Room. Jennifer Lawrence’s turn in Joy and Charlotte Rampling’s in 45 Years, while good (Rampling being much better than Lawrence in my opinion), are not in the race to win — though they too follow many of the award’s universal trends.

The three leading actresses and roles are all interesting, the films they represent are unique, idiosyncratic, and, in a reassuring way, classical in construction and execution (particularly Brooklyn), but what strikes me about this impressive group is how very much they play into the overall trends for the award, particularly the elemental struggle for liberation.

For all their similarities, though, these three contenders fall into two groups, with Cate Blanchett and Saoirse Ronan in one and Brie Larson alone in the other.

Both Carol and Brooklyn are intensely emotional films wrapped around simple central plots. Both main characters are beautiful blonds continually being sucked into traps of conventionality by people who love them. The struggle of these two characters is made real and alive to our moment by the fact that they do not struggle against something monolithically evil or wrong, but instead against those who simply believe they know better — a more complex form of oppression.

In Carol, while the love Carol and Therese feel for each other (and that fills every frame with an elemental tension) cannot be free in their time, this suppression is not the film’s main concern. Carol seeks, instead, to show us a love story with obstacles that are very old: a jilted old lover, children, family, work. The illicit nature of Carol and Therese’s relationship is aired only in conversations with men, specifically men that love both of these characters, and the only indictment of the morality of the time is the awkward, petty, and heavy-handed nature of those men’s attempts at wooing Therese or Carol. By focusing on this tight entanglement, Carol makes itself a conversation and a story more about love than hate and so comes up with a more complex understanding of both, something we are, as a society, very much struggling to do. Hate builds upon small needs to control others, but love grows from an uncorrected freedom.

Also, Cate Blanchett’s acting is exquisite, embodying that frightening struggle for freedom by wearing Carol’s exquisite self like a mask that slips. Blanchett lets us feel seduced by Carol’s perfect finesse and gives this unmistakable lady an unforgettable air, until what cannot be allowed to happen, does, until things uncouple from control, and then the mask moves.

Brooklyn has far less to do with hate — its almost depressingly light brushes with racial politics make Renoir look heavy-handed. However, it does deal with love and freedom very intently, and, like in Carol, the freedom is wrestled from people who love and places that welcome. The key to Brooklyn is not Eilis’ departure from Ireland, but her return and second escape. The machinations of her mother and her town to keep this bright, lovely, loving woman among them are as real as they are basic: expectations. America as an ideal develops in the film’s finely lit lens as it may have looked back then, and as we wish it might today — a place where expectations can be made rather than received. America is not that place today, but Brooklyn makes the image feel real, like it might even have existed once.

Brooklyn is a lovingly rendered fairy tale with an earned happy enough ending, but whose moral is complicated and not altogether pleasant. To make the new the old must be dismissed, which can cause an awful lot of suffering. And Saoirse Ronan’s still, sculpted face allows us to impose a large compass of reactions but makes us receive the even larger body of her emotions, of Eilis’ suffering. Eilis’ struggle to make something new, to be young in the most fundamental sense, resonates through Ronan’s whole being even as her eyes draw us in with their calm.

Sadly, though, I believe that neither of these two actresses will win the Oscar. Though they both act exquisitely and check many of the award’s major historical boxes — motherhood in one case, working in another, heroism and liberation in both cases — neither of them do so to the same elemental degree as Brie Larson.

Room is an out-and-out allegory about the fearful predicament of the freed in the free world. The main villains are the man who captures and holds Ma and Jack (Jacob Tremblay), whose name is Old Nick — that is, “Satan” — and the world that cannot accept people after trauma. Ma and Jack escape from Old Nick very early on, and so, like Carol and Brooklyn, the most obvious conflict is merely the overture to the real problem of getting past it. Much more difficult to overcome than terrible circumstances are the disapproval of parents who cannot shake their despair for a lost daughter, a father’s disgust for his daughter’s defiled child, a woman’s lost time, a child’s lack of socialization. At bottom, Room is even simpler than Carol or Brooklyn out of necessity, but it pulls its complexity from the difficulty of its central idea: how do we grow beyond trauma when trauma is what defines us? — a question Room’s (slightly) more showy script lets Brie Larson inhabit more staunchly than Eilis’ quiet despair or Carol’s pierced glamour.

Room lives the cultural moment. The imposed order of thousands of years is coming to an end. Equality — real, difficult equality — will come. However, we cannot understand what form that equality will take, and how previously marginalized groups will step from the smaller room of dominance into the larger one of a fully peopled world. As such, the happy endings — qualified and “real” though they may feel — of Carol and Brooklyn seem too full of love, too lusciously colored for our harshly divided world.

Room also follows the trends of Best Actress. Brie Larson has so big a historical edge on the competition that it is basically not fair. Ma is a good, loving mother whose actions are dependent on a male (two, in fact) that liberates herself and who owns her own movie, a combination that ticks five of the major winning boxes. In any year, she would be a major contender, but in a year that is almost the essence of the first 87 years of Oscar, she stands out as a paragon among paragons.

Taking these rather hopeful findings to heart, we can perhaps look more fondly on the dumb glamor of “Hollywood’s Biggest Night,” and maybe even feel good about who wins this year.

But before we all pop champagne corks and feel great about the unexpectedly positive state of the Oscars, it must be recognized that for all Room and its competitors do and all the positive trends they conform to, they also conform to the single most prevalent trend of the Best Actress race: its blinding whiteness. Only one woman of color — of any color — has won the Best Actress Oscar. Or, to put it another way, 86 out of 87 winners have been white — a number that can only go up this year.

Given that racism is rooted deeply in America’s core and that Hollywood is America’s dream factory, this overwhelming statistic might not be surprising, but it is still deeply depressing. This year’s race may be all about liberation, freedom, crawling out from the past into the violent new, but not for Asian Americans or Hispanic Americans or Native Americans and certainly not for Black Americans, which is all the more depressing given that the prominence of feminism in 2015 was topped by the prominence of America’s racial cruelty.

In the end, if any concrete things can be taken away from these facts then they are as follows: a better way to place one particular bet for your Oscar pool; a slightly better feeling about one of our largest cultural institutions; a better sense of how the Oscars can be relevant, even in the face of the host’s bad jokes; an even greater sense of anger at the Academy’s whiteness — since they seem to be able to embrace white feminism alright; but also a sense of joy at just how good the roles for women were in 2015 and how talented these actors are.

Here’s hoping that next year continues one trend and ends another. •

Alex Dabertin is a recent graduate of Columbia University and lives and works as an actor, writer, and director in New York City. You can find more of his writing on Bright Wall/Dark Room and on tumblr.
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