This Oscar season, it struck us how there have been eight movies nominated for the Best Picture Oscar this year—and of those eight movies, none of them tell stories about women (The Theory of Everything comes closest, because it tells the story of a man and a woman). As NPR‘s Linda Holmes points out, most of these movies all share a common trait: they’re about white men with “‘complicated genius’ profiles.”
Five women have been nominated for Best Actress, and except for Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything), none of their movies have been nominated for Best Picture. Marion Cotillard has been nominated for Two Days, One Night, a drama which centers on a Belgian woman struggling to keep her job. In Still Alice, Julianne Moore plays a college professor battling early onset Alzheimer’s disease. The Atlantic points out how Best Actress and Best Picture rarely coincide: “What this all points to—a dearth of leading roles for women—is by no means a novel observation. But these numbers are stark. They provide a glum response to the question of why Wild, a film whose Rotten Tomatoes score (91 percent) puts it ahead of The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything, and American Sniper, got zero nominations in non-actress categories.”
Sadly, 2015 marks the lowest nominations for Best Actress films since 2003. Not to mention, zero actors of color have been nominated, and Selma only received two nominations (Best Picture and Best Original Song), sparking the #OscarsSoWhite trending hashtag on Twitter started by @ReignOfApril.
To that note, we put together an analysis of the portrayal of women in this year’s Oscar nominated films — American Sniper, Birdman, Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game, Selma, The Theory of Everything, and Whiplash — and graded them accordingly. Our ratings aren’t necessarily indicative of the quality of the films themselves; they’re designed to draw attention to women’s representations, or lack thereof.
This post contains mild spoilers.
American Sniper | F
Fast-paced, emotional, and impactful, American Sniper is exactly what you would expect from a Clint Eastwood directed film. Nominated for six Academy Awards this year, this film is unfortunately no different when it comes to the majority of other films up for Best Picture this year—namely, that there is a distinct lack of female representation in the film.
Sienna Miller was the sole woman in the film (besides a few unnamed actresses with background roles throughout), and did nothing to drive the plot besides play the dutiful wife waiting back home. The film is semi-biographical, with parts taken from the late Chris Kyle’s biography. While I understand that there is only so much they can do with the material, it’s curious to me that there was not one interaction between Chris’s character and a female co-worker—movies, especially war and action movies, still remain a heavily male-dominated realm, one that I hope will begin to change in the future. [Michelle]
Birdman | C
The leader in this year’s number of Oscar nominations is Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) which is about a man who chooses to stake everything on a play in order to pull himself from out of the shadow from the immensely popular superhero movie he starred in 20 years ago. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu pairs up with Emmanuel Lubezki for a film widely touted for its strong acting, writing, score and cinematography, but let’s delve further into how Birdman handles its female cast. The film passes the first part of the Bechdel test (does the film have at least two named women?) with flying colors. In terms of the latter two parts of the test, Andrea Riseborough and Naomi Watts’ characters talk to each other once about “making it” in the biz, but that snippet of not talking about a man is stuck in between Naomi Watts’ character complaining about her asshole boyfriend who just tried to rape her. Then Watts and Riseborough unexpectedly kiss and their stories are largely dropped. Technically, Birdman passes the test, but it’s a squeaker.
Unfortunately, the rest of the movie mainly shows how the main female characters, Andrea Riseborough, Naomi Watts and Emma Stone, are largely fixated on men over any other pursuits. The fact that Birdman has received nearly universal acclaim with little mention of how it shortchanged its female characters jives with the fact that about half of current movies do not pass the Bechdel test.
The problem is misogyny, and racism for that matter, are much more often implicit these days. Since those harmful biases had been the norm for decades, the movie studio infrastructure has incorporated them into the system itself so the average person doesn’t normally bat an eye at how little actresses are given to work with. It’s time we start thinking about the subtle transgressions that occur daily instead of the fewer overt comments that briefly send the media into an uproar. It troubles me that all the Best Picture nominees this year have male protagonists, and what’s more — that thought hadn’t crossed my mind until I sat down to write this piece. [Sarah]
Boyhood | B+
It’s called Boyhood, but its subtitle could have easily been Motherhood. While the film focuses on how Mason (Ellar Coltrane) changes and grows over twelve years, much of that time revolves around his interactions with his mother and sister. His father (Ethan Hawke) is mostly absent, and that makes Patricia Arquette’s role as Mason’s mother, Olivia, huge — for both Mason, as she is the major role model in his life, and the film itself. We see a mother watch her children grow up and try to muddle through adulthood, swapping husbands and career paths until it feels like she has lived out ever path she ever could have taken. The film is so powerful because while Mason grows up, beginning to become excited about his future, Olivia is already living out that future and moving through adulthood. We see her, as a middle-aged single mother, truly live throughout this film, something that women all too often aren’t allowed to do on screen.
So, when it comes to the presentation of women, Boyhood shows us something truly impressive. Olivia is a more fully realized character than anyone else on screen in the film. So, for the characterization of women in general, Boyhood gets an A. What the film doesn’t do, however, is talk about what life is like for women that aren’t white, as The Atlantic‘s Imran Siddiquee has discussed. But besides the issue of race, I can’t think of a more fluid, interesting or full portrayal of a woman that came to life on our screens this award season.
It is hard, however, to imagine this film being such a success if it were called or focused more directly on girlhood. That doesn’t diminish from the success and power of Boyhood, but it is an interesting and important question to ask (as Flavorwire already has) when looking at such a white and male-centric group of Oscar nominees this year. [Laura]
The Grand Budapest Hotel | C
I’ll always be the first to say I’m a big fan of Wes Anderson, but I don’t understand why he only has three named female characters in The Grand Budapest Hotel that never even interact with each other, thus not passing the Bechdel Test. The first is Madame D. (Tilda Swinton), a rich dowager countess who is one of M. Gustave’s many lovers. When Zero is retelling the story of when he worked at the hotel, he makes sure to emphasize Gustave’s necessities in his lady lovers: they must be “rich, old, insecure, vain, superficial, blonde, [and] needy.” The second, Clotilde (Léa Seydoux), is simply a French maid who is mainly in the background and has very few lines.
The third is Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), a baker at Mendl’s Bakery who falls in love with Zero and he with her. While Madame D. and Clotilde are merely props in M. Gustave’s story, Agatha is perceived by Zero as a savior. At first glance, she’s a beautiful and charming girl who simply paints and decorates baked goods, but Zero is quick to point out that she’s incredibly brave. She helps M. Gustave escape his prison cell by hiding hammers, nails, and other tools in the cookies they send to him. Although she is introduced as a love interest, she develops into a more three-dimensional character. She’s the one who essentially gets M. Gustave out of prison. She’s the one who retrieves the painting “Boy with Apple” for Zero. She’s the one who notices that there’s something hidden behind the painting. The admiration Zero has for her is easily depicted, making the viewer love her all the more, too.
In writing this, I had decided to re-watch the film again and was surprised to find that I hadn’t even noticed the lack of women the first time I saw the film. Whether it’s because of the time period in which the film is supposed to take place or if it’s just weak writing, my ignorance just goes to show how we’ve become so used to these sexist norms. I don’t necessarily blame Anderson for this portrayal since he has done so well in previous films like Moonrise Kingdom in making sure that women are developed individually and are not simply romantic interests, but I do think it was possible to make use of the brilliant actresses on hand. [Isabella]
The next page has The Imitation Game, Selma, The Theory of Everything, and Whiplash.