As we near the end of “The Year of Women Standing Up to Abusive Men,” our feminine side applauds the actresses who are also standing tall, not to abusive men necessarily, but to an abusive Academy Awards history that has always favored male-centric movies over those with women as their primary characters.
No surprise there. Men have always run the industry and, for the most part, men have always decided which movies to see. Yes, husbands may have gone along to “Little Women” to please the little woman, but entire genres flourished because of central male protagonists.
That was true of the pre-code era, the post-code era, the war and post-war years and it has been true since the advent of feminism and the sexual revolution of the Sixties.
The record is dismal. In only three of the first 89 years of Oscar were there more best picture nominees about a central female figure than nominees focused on men, while four or more male-centric movies were nominated in 17 different years. Twenty-seven times, the best picture ballot had no central-woman nominees; only twice did it have no central-male nominees.
This year is different!
There are four movies with women at their core that are virtual locks for Best Picture nominations: “The Shape of Water,” about a mute cleaning lady (Sally Hawkins) who falls in love with and attempts to rescue an impounded sea creature; “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” about a ferociously angry woman (Frances McDormand) harassing the local sheriff over her daughter’s unsolved rape and murder; “Lady Bird,” about a teenager (Saoirse Ronan) having a rough coming of age in Sacramento; and “The Post,” a stirring dramatization of the abrupt transition of late Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) from socialite to inspiring journalist.
Also singled out as contenders by the pre-Oscar parade of fan, critic and guild awards are a pair of movies based on former winter Olympic champions who ran afoul of the law — “Molly’s Game,” with Jessica Chastain as skier-turned-gambler-turned-FBI target Molly Bloom, and “I, Tonya,” with Margot Robbie as figure skater-turned-assault accomplice Tonya Harding.
Over in the Best Actress category, where in many years the voters were challenged to find five worthy performances to nominate, they have enough now for for two or three ballots. There are at least a dozen leading performances deserving consideration, with three sure things in McDormand, Hawkins and Ronan, and three that in any other year would be.
Last year’s Oscar winner Emma Stone outperforms herself playing tennis great Billie Jean King in “Battle of the Sexes,” the one movie that plays directly into the year’s “Women Standing Up” theme. Forced by the paltry prize money for women on the male-dominated national tennis circuit, King organized a women’s tennis association and then, in the most hyped and watched tennis match in history, embarrassed showman chauvinist Bobby Riggs in straight sets in the Houston Astrodome.
If Stone gets on the ballot, there will likely be just one place left for either Streep or Judi Dench, an Oscar favorite who is spot-on perfection in “Victoria and Abdul.” The Screen Actors Guild overlooked Streep in its nominations, but it is hard to imagine the Academy ignoring her in the role of a lioness finding her courage in a year when the American president has singled out the media as the “enemy of the people.”
It’s a shame that an actress may have become a victim of the abuse scandal herself. Oscar winner and multiple nominee Kate Winslet gives what many consider a career-best performance in Woody Allen’s “Wonder Wheel,” but it’s in Woody Allen’s “Wonder Wheel.” It was not a good time for scandal-tainted Allen to warn us of the dangers of a post-Weinstein “witch hunt.”
I would add a couple of long shots to the Best Actress race, just to get their names and Oscar into the same sentence. Belgian actress Vicky Krieps, playing an abused wife pushing back, nearly steals “Phantom Thread” from Daniel Day-Lewis, and few actresses stood taller than Israeli actress Gal Gadot in a D.C. Comic glass-ceiling breaker “Wonder Woman.”
Is this year of esteemed women’s roles an aberration? There were only two such movies last year and the year before, and three years ago, the count was zero. Since none of this year’s contenders was made after Harvey Weinstein broke the dam and drowned men from Hollywood to Washington, there would seem to be no correlation.
But some seeds may have been sown in 2016 by the revelations and firing of Roger Ailes at the groper network Fox News, and the taped confession of sexual assault by Donald Trump. It would be a further crime if Hollywood misses this opportunity to make a genuine attempt to balance its gender ledger going forward.
Be sure to make your Oscar nomination predictions so that Hollywood studio executives can see how their films are faring in our Academy Awards odds. Don’t be afraid to jump in now since you can keep changing your predictions until just before nominees are announced on January 23.