Will ‘Suffragette’ continue tradition of Oscars for social justice crusaders?

carey mulligan suffragette helena bonham carter meryl streep oscar

The motion picture academy loves crusaders, from labor rights champion “Norma Rae” to gay rights pioneer “Milk.” Given voters’ usual penchant for standing up for justice – or at least standing up for movies about justice – “Suffragette” could be right up their alley. Could it be one of this year’s big players at the Oscars?

Oscar mystery: Carey Mulligan & Jennifer Lawrence helped by timely feminist themes?

Suffragette” tells the story of the fight for women’s voting rights in the UK in  the early 20th century. Compare that to recent Best Picture nominees like “Dallas Buyers Club” (2013), about Ron Woodroof‘s advocacy for AIDS patients against drug companies; “Lincoln” (2012), about the 16th president’s fight to abolish slavery; and “The Help” (2011), about the struggle against racism in civil rights-era Mississippi.

Those kinds of films are especially formidable in the acting races; all five of the above featured at least one Oscar-winning performance. And a slew of other cinematic social justice warriors have been nominated: David Strathairn for playing journalist Edward R. Murrow in “Good Night, and Good Luck” (2005); Charlize Theron and Frances McDormand for fighting workplace sexual harassment in “North Country” (2005); and Liam Neeson for saving more than a thousand Jews during the Holocaust as the title character in “Schindler’s List” (1993) just to name a few.

“Suffragette” has just such an awards-friendly cast, led by Carey Mulligan as the fictional Maud Watts, who becomes involved in some of the real-life campaigns for women’s rights. This British ingenue is the kind of actress Oscar voters often love to honor. She’s proven herself with her Best Actress-nominated turn in “An Education” (2009) and continuing to appear in respected prestige projects like “Drive,” “Shame,” “Inside Llewyn Davis” and “Far From the Madding Crowd.” On top of that, she’s just coming off her first Tony nomination, for “Skylight.”

Now 30, she has the pedigree of a potential Oscar champ and “Suffragette” gives her the opportunity to deliver the kind of showy performance that often wins awards. As Maud, she shows defiance against the male characters who wish to stop her, including Brendan Gleeson as a police officer and Ben Whishaw as her husband. She also has heart-rending moments involving her son, whom she risks losing as the result of her activism.

New York Times critic A.O. Scott praises Mulligan for playing Maud with “inspiring pluck.” The Hollywood Reporter‘s Stephen Farber says the actress “follows her fine performance in ‘Far From the Madding Crowd’ with an even stronger turn.” And while Variety‘s Justin Chang expressed ambivalence about the film as a whole, he enthused, “Carey Mulligan’s flinty and moving lead performance is the standout element.”

Noteworthy among the supporting cast is Helena Bonham Carter as a militant suffragette whose methods may be too extreme for some of her fellow freedom fighters. In addition to being a two-time Oscar-nominee, Bonham Carter also has the distinction of being the great-granddaughter of H.H. Asquith, the UK prime minister from 1908-1916 who opposed women’s suffrage, which gives Bonham Carter’s involvement in the film an even more personal dimension.

Indie darling Brie Larson breaks into Oscar race with ‘Room

best actress oscar odds brie larson cate blanchett jennifer lawrence carey mulligan saoirse ronan“Suffragette” arrives at a time when there is renewed public attention about feminism. Consider Cate Blanchett, who used her Oscar acceptance speech for “Blue Jasmine” in 2013 to demand more movie roles for women. And last year Patricia Arquette used her “Boyhood” victory to advocate for gender wage equality.

The gender wage gap in Hollywood was dramatically exposed when the Sony cyber-hack revealed unequal pay for the actresses in “American Hustle,” including Jennifer Lawrence, one of the biggest stars in the world. She recently despaired about the disparity in an online essay. and, in response, her frequent co-star Bradley Cooper announced that he would reveal his salaries to his female co-stars to help them negotiate fairer contracts. (Mulligan was happy to hear that.)

With Hollywood under fire for sexism in its business practices and at the Oscars – all eight Best Picture nominees last year were about men, and only one (“The Theory of Everything“) had a woman in a starring role – the academy may feel pressure to recognize more female-driven movies this year. While there are other major contenders this year centered around women — “Joy,” “Carol,” “Inside Out,” “Brooklyn,” “Room” and “The Danish Girl” (starring a male actor, but telling the story of a transgender woman) — “Suffragette” also boasts both a female director (Sarah Gavron) and a female writer (Emmy-champ Abi Morgan).

However, the academy does sometimes have a blind spot when it comes to crusaders. Consider “Selma,” the film about a pivotal chapter in the life of Martin Luther King, which was nominated for Best Picture last year but was snubbed for writing, directing and acting. That might have been due in part to its more critical portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson, who is considered a hero of the civil rights movement to many of the older white liberals who match the academy’s demographic.

The academy is also male-dominated, so if they’re feeling defensive about the bad publicity regarding inequality, they might reject a push for greater gender parity in their nominations. But they might also take the opportunity to award female-driven films as push-back against such criticism, much the way they did by honoring “12 Years a Slave” as Best Picture amidst scrutiny of the academy’s racial biases.

There is also the question of whether “Suffragette” will inspire the passion it needs to score major Oscar nominations. On Rotten Tomatoes, which judges on a pass-fail scale (fresh or rotten), the film has an impressive 78%, but on MetaCritic, which measures on a sliding scale, its score is a bit lower (65). That suggests there may be more like than love for the film, and passion is the key to getting number-one votes from academy voters, which is how Best Picture nominees are decided.

Nevertheless, “Suffragette” has a timely subject and an Oscar-friendly cast, which also includes a cameo by Meryl Streep as real-life suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst, and of course it never hurts to have Queen Meryl on your side in an Oscar campaign.

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“Suffragette” Photo Credit: The Moviestore Collection Ltd/REX

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