Patricia Arquette, who won the Best Supporting Actress prize for “Boyhood,” gave a call for women’s rights and wage equality that was met with much applause, including seatmates Meryl Streep and Jennifer Lopez caught on camera giving her a whoop of support. It was a passionate, lively moment that set a standard of truth and purpose in the evening’s acceptance speeches, and has since drawn a great deal of heat.
Within hours, the flames of controversy were being fanned by those who took exception with certain aspects of Arquette’s speech. The phrase in question: “To every woman who gave birth, to every taxpayer and citizen of this nation, we have fought for everybody else’s equal rights. It’s our time to have wage equality once and for all and equal rights for women in the United States of America.”
Some are offended by her use of the word “taxpayer,” thought to be too right wing agenda-minded. Others are upset she started the speech by saying, “to every woman who gave birth,” as if she were implying this is for mothers only.
Her comments backstage drew even more criticism: “And it’s time for all the women in America – and all the men that love women and all the gay people and all the people of color that we’ve all fought for – to fight for us now.” By saying this, Arquette’s critics argue, she failed to state the basic fact that LGBT and people of color are women too. Does this mean Arquette is in favor of equal rights for white women only? Of course not. All of this is word parsing, you see, taking what was a moment of genuine emotion and finding fault with it for being too unpolished and not all-encompassing enough.
I can’t speak from any experience as either a woman or as a minority. I can, however, make an argument in favor of Arquette’s speech by looking at the history of the Oscars.
A great many Best Picture winners have also reaped Best Actress bids, and a great many women have claimed their trophies for starring in Best Picture contenders. But, in all, the 87 Best Picture winners also won Best Actress just 11 times:
• 1934: “It Happened One Night” (Claudette Colbert)
• 1936: “The Great Ziegfeld” (Luise Rainer)
• 1939: “Gone with the Wind” (Vivian Leigh)
• 1942: “Mrs. Miniver” (Greer Garson)
• 1975: “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (Louis Fletcher)
• 1977: “Annie Hall” (Diane Keaton)
• 1983: “Terms of Endearment” (Shirley MacLaine)
• 1989: “Driving Miss Daisy” (Jessica Tandy)
• 1991: “The Silence of the Lambs” (Jodie Foster)
• 1998: “Shakespeare in Love” (Gwyneth Paltrow)
• 2004: “Million Dollar Baby” (Hilary Swank)
Compare that with the 27 Best Picture winners that have also won Best Actor:
• 1934: “It Happened One Night” (Clark Gable)
• 1944: “Going My Way” (Bing Crosby)
• 1945: “The Lost Weekend” (Ray Milland)
• 1946: “The Best Years of Our Lives” (Frederic March)
• 1948: “Hamlet” (Laurence Olivier)
• 1949: “All the King’s Men” (Broderick Crawford)
• 1954: “On the Waterfront” (Marlon Brando)
• 1955: “Marty” (Ernest Borgnine)
• 1957: “The Bridge on the River Kwai” (Alec Guinness)
• 1959: “Ben-Hur” (Charlton Heston)
• 1964: “My Fair Lady” (Rex Harrison)
• 1966: “A Man for All Seasons” (Paul Scofield)
• 1967: “In the Heat of the Night” (Rod Steiger)
• 1970: “Patton” (George C. Scott)
• 1971: “The French Connection” (Gene Hackman)
• 1972: “The Godfather” (Marlon Brando)
• 1975: “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (Jack Nicholson)
• 1979: “Kramer vs. Kramer” (Dustin Hoffman)
• 1982: “Gandhi” (Ben Kingsley)
• 1984: “Amadeus” (F. Murray Abraham)
• 1988: “Rain Man” (Dustin Hoffman)
• 1991: “The Silence of the Lambs” (Anthony Hopkins)
• 1994: “Forrest Gump” (Tom Hanks)
• 1999: “American Beauty” (Kevin Spacey)
• 2000: “Gladiator” (Russell Crowe)
• 2010: “The King’s Speech” (Colin Firth)
• 2011: “The Artist” (Jean Dujardin)
The majority of Best Actor winners have been in Best Picture nominees, not that surprising considering most of the films in the lineup revolve around men. This year, only one of the Best Picture nominees – “The Theory of Everything” – nabbed a Best Actress nomination (for Felicity Jones), compared to the four that reaped bids for Best Actor (“American Sniper,” “Birdman,” “The Imitation Game,” and “The Theory of Everything”). That’s worse than last year, when Best Picture contenders “American Hustle,” “Gravity,” and “Philomena” reaped bids for Amy Adams, Sandra Bullock and Judi Dench, respectively.
It’s telling that the Supporting Actress category contained more Best Picture contenders than Best Actress, with Arquette joined by Keira Knightley for “The Imitation Game” and Emma Stone for “Birdman:” the majority of roles for women are – after all – in support of a leading man.
Yet the problem extends past the acting categories. This year, the academy snubbed Gillian Flynn, who won the Critics Choice award and contended at the Writer’s Guild and the Golden Globes for adapting her book “Gone Girl” for the screen.
Likewise for Ava DuVernay, who would’ve made history as the first African-American woman ever nominated for Directing, for the Civil Rights drama “Selma.” She too was recognized by the Globes and BFCA.
DuVernay joins Randa Haines (“Children of a Lesser God,” 1986), Penny Marshall (“Awakenings,” 1990), Barbra Streisand (“The Prince of Tides,” 1991), Lone Scherfig (“An Eductation,” 2009), Lisa Cholodenko (“The Kids Are All Right,” 2010), Debra Granik (“Winter’s Bone,” 2010), and Kathryn Bigelow (“Zero Dark Thirty,” 2012) as women who saw their films get nominated while they were left out of the running.
Those eight films, along with “The Piano” (1993), “Lost in Translation” (2003), and “The Hurt Locker” (2009), are the only films Best Picture nominees helmed by women. Jane Campion and Sofia Coppola were recognized for directing their films, and Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to ever win for “The Hurt Locker.” But, along with Lina Wertmuller for “Seven Beauties” (1976), those are the only women ever to compete in what has long been a category dominated by men.
DuVernay’s snub leads us to another issue within the academy: it’s honoring of minorities, particularly women. Not only is Halle Berry the only African American Best Actress winner (for “Monster’s Ball” (2001)), she’s the only non-white winner of that award of any kind. Hattie McDaniel (“Gone with the Wind”), Miyoshi Umeki (“Sayonara”), Rita Moreno (“West Side Story”), Whoopi Goldberg (“Ghost”), Jennifer Hudson (“Dreamgirls”), Penelope Cruz (“Vicky Cristina Barcelona”), Monique (“Precious”), Octavia Spencer (“The Help”), and Lupita Nyongo (“12 Years a Slave”) all won in Supporting.
The list of LGBT women who have won Oscars is even slimmer. In the acting categories, only Jodie Foster comes to mind, and she wasn’t even out during either of her wins for “The Accused” (1988) or “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991). Melissa Etheridge won for her song “I Need to Wake Up” from “An Inconvenient Truth” (2006), and that title no doubt reflects a sentiment echoing throughout the country as we speak.
Acceptances speeches are funny things. It’s hard to say everything you want to say about a particular issue while managing to thank your friends, family, and lawyer, all in thirty seconds or less. Arquette chose to use her moment in the sun as an opportunity to speak on an issue that was important to her, and important to the rest of the world. Whether or not you agree with her choice of words is one thing, but it’s hard to argue with her message, especially when you look at the way Hollywood – and the academy – has treated women in the past.