Every year there are a slew of acclaimed films released in theaters, generally near the holidays, that represent the “best” the medium has to offer. Sure, there are heaps of exceptions, in both directions, and loads of snarky qualifiers I could add – including, but not limited to, surrounding best with quotation marks – but it’s an assertion that’s more true than it is false, and that’s good enough. Also, I almost put quotes around acclaimed, holidays, and has, so you got off easy.
I like catching up on these films in the spring, at home, because who can find the time to go see them all in the theater when they look so sad and incredibly boring? Moonlight. Lion. Manchester by the Sea. Spotlight. Selma. Dallas Buyers Club. 12 Years a Slave. Seen ‘em all, think they’re all great.
Nevertheless, there is a certain type of artsy film that I never get around to seeing, and it’s hard to pinpoint the common pattern, other than that they have a certain Cate Blanchett-y quality to them. To translate: I’m a misogynist, or maybe just sexist, or best-case scenario, hopelessly biased.
People come up to me – on the street! – and say “Yo, what’d you think of Carol? Did you see Brooklyn yet? What about Jackie? Still Alice? You did not just shrug when I said Still Alice. I’m afraid to ask…. Wild? With Reese Witherspoon? Yes, that Reese Witherspoon-” and so on. I could make this joke forever. I almost made up a movie (The Last Geisha) to see if you’d notice.
In the last 6 years, which is, ironically, how long I’ve been woke, there have been 30 movies nominated in the Best Actress field, and I’ve seen 12 of them. For some scale, over the same period, I’ve seen 21 of the Best Actor films. And while that difference may not sound significant, bear in mind that of the 12 female films I’ve seen, 6 of them still had a male protagonist, and the other 6 were either suspenseful (Gravity, Zero Dark Thirty), or the movie Joy, which I thought kind of sucked.
Part of this is not my fault, of course, because Hollywood is, like most institutions, inherently sexist. Some quick, depressing 2016 statistics: 29% of movie protagonists were female, and of the top 100 grossing films, just 4 were directed by women. People like to, rightfully so, go after critics, and voting bodies like the Academy, because their diversity (94% white, 77% male) is a fucking joke, but sheathing the pitchforks for a second – maybe it’s us? The Academy is not to blame for 71% of movies last year having a male protagonist. Someone’s at fault there – in fact a lot of people are, definitely the Academy now that I think about it – but consumers (52% of whom be women) are, too. Change the demand, you’ll change the supply. Did you know The Last Geisha made $0 at the box office?
In full, embarrassing disclosure: I spent the last few days creating a database of Best Actress winners cross-referenced with Best Picture winners, which I just found out an hour ago, of course already exists, and can be found in a much better publication called Newsweek. What I wanted to know was how many Best Actress winners were in films that also won Best Picture. And assuming that number is alarming and disporportionate, why, the fuck, is something as basic and pure and durable as storytelling, patriarchal?
Naturally, there are some easy answers here. Everything, including basic citizenry, was patriarchal until a century ago, and tradition takes time to untangle. Also, for thousands of years, before Netflix and the printing press, all we had were fireside stories, and the only compelling topics were war and murder, so yeah, from Homer to Shakespeare to Tarantino, if it bleeds, it leads, albeit not in the menstrual sense.
What I, and Newsweek, found is that over the past 50 Oscars, the ‘Best Actress’ was in the ‘Best Picture’ just 7 times. What Newsweek won’t tell you, because they want to be impartial, is that ‘7’ is mad charitable. Let’s throw some cold water:
2004, Hillary Swank, Million Dollar Baby. Clint Eastwood was top-billed, also nominated, and plus it’s a girl boxing. This I got to see!
1998, Gwyneth Paltrow, Shakespeare in Love. She’s the love interest of the male protagonist.
1991, Jodie Foster, Silence of the Lambs. She plays an FBI agent and obviously Anthony Hopkins also won for Best Actor.
1989, Jessica Tandy, Driving Miss Daisy. Morgan Freeman was top-billed, also nominated.
1983, Shirley MacLaine, Terms of Endearment.
1977, Diane Keaton, Annie Hall. She’s the love interest of the male protagonist.
1975, Louise Fletcher, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Apparently someone else was in this movie besides Jack Nicholson.
And that’s it. Of the last 50 Best Picture winners, only Terms of Endearment passes the sniff test as decidedly feminine. Want more proof? It is, by no coincidence, the only one of these 7 movies that I haven’t seen, and that’s because quote “it sounds very lame.”
^not amy adams
What the hell’s the matter with me? Did I spring from the womb like this? Was this learned? I’ve never shot a gun, let alone thrown a punch, but here I am getting wet watching No Country For Old Men and The Departed? Am I 9 years old? Why, when someone asks if I’ve seen August: Osage County or Philomena or The Annette Benning Movie, do I express disgust, as if considering a female point-of-view on things is somehow commensurate to freebasing cooties?
Two more things. Then I got to go see Dunkirk in IMAX.
You have every right to question, and loathe, my possible motives in writing this. I’m a straight white male decrying representation in media, which is unfair, and also super low fruit. And I’m not looking to score points with women here, although who knows at a certain point, you know? Maybe some part of my biology thinks admitting gender bias will help me get laid. Sex is always a factor – the Best Actress movies I did see the past few years? Brie Larson, Room. Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook. Natalie Portman, Black Swan. Hot, hot, and hot. If it wasn’t for Ryan Gosling being so 24/7 sexy, I’d add Emma Stone in La La Land to that list.
No, what confuses me about this whole thing, is that I lack a gendered predisposition when it comes to other media. Bridesmaids and Girls are, in my estimation, the best comedies of the past 10 years, and when it comes to music, I straight-up require a female lead singer at this point in my life.
So given that, what is it about serious, female films that I find so vile? Do I, and this is a serious question that my lizard brain is asking, assume that Meryl Streep movies are probably just a lot of crying? Like I’m okay with emotions, so long as it’s Casey Affleck who’s tastefully keeping them at bay, i.e. fighting the good fight? Or, am I like the Oscars, and I think films like The Help and Blue Jasmine are excellent, but also fatally flawed because they seem ‘cute’ or ‘small,’ or generally just have a lower ceiling than the male equivalent?
Anyway. I apologize. For my implicit bias, both past and future.
Hey, while I have you, why did 42% of women vote for Donald Trump last November? Was it taxes? Race? I bet it’s race.