They Are Nominees, Hear Them Roar


This is quite a thing. Only a few years ago, the apparent truism that women had to be winsome or sympathetic to sell films was still holding strong.

But Oscar voters and critics went ape for the roster of fearsome female characters that were, at long last, included in this year’s nominated films. (Badass, a term that in the Bagger’s mind is overused to the point of cliché, certainly applies.)

Not that there’s anything wrong with the parts that recent Oscar-winning actresses have played, be they harried mothers (“Boyhood”), devoted wives (“The Danish Girl”), washed-up socialites (“Blue Jasmine”) or starry-eyed Hollywood hopefuls (“La La Land”). But this year it was clear that the academy was pretty amped to hear women roar.

In these times of #MeToo, Time’s Up and women’s marches, this shouldn’t be a surprise, said Jennifer Siebel Newsom, a filmmaker and founder and chief executive of the Representation Project, a nonprofit that fights gender stereotypes.

“With this awards season, we are seeing proof that sexism only sells when it’s the only thing being offered,” Ms. Newsom wrote in an email.

She sees the presidency of Donald J. Trump as playing no small part in the nominees’ appeal.

“When a man who is so openly misogynistic beats the first female candidate of a major party to become president, it’s an aha moment,” Ms. Newsom added.

Photo

Lesley Manville as the icy Cyril in “Phantom Thread.”

Credit
Laurie Sparham/Focus Features

(A New York Times colleague, Frank Bruni, has written about the Trump connection in Oscar-contending films and the racial and economic anxieties they laid bare.)

Caveat time.

With the exception of Steven Spielberg’s “The Post,” most of these films were long in the works, hatched while the prospects of a Trump presidency and the #MeToo movement seemed unforeseeable, impossibly distant or just plain impossible. “The Post,” which stars Meryl Streep as the publisher Katharine Graham (another mighty female character that earned Ms. Streep her 21st Oscar nod), was quickly made after the election. Certainly all of the films’ awards campaigns are trumpeting why they are so relevant now.

It could be coincidence that the other films just happened to come out in time for #MeToo. Martin McDonagh, the writer and director of “Three Billboards,” has said that he wrote a strong female lead because he had done so in his plays but had yet to in his films. Guillermo del Toro, who directed “The Shape of Water,” has a history of writing strong female characters, and has said he had wanted to make a human-amphibian love story for years. Greta Gerwig told Slate that she didn’t feel her script for “Lady Bird” was ready until 2015.

But chances are these movies, and the academy’s receptivity to them, are in part products of a shift that began when criticism of Hollywood’s white, male homogeneity became impossible to ignore. (Recall that in 2015, the American Civil Liberties Union called on government agencies to investigate Hollywood’s hiring practices.) The success and might of female-led production companies, like Reese Witherspoon’s firm and Shonda Rhimes’s Shondaland, along with the box office bounty brought by women-led films, also played roles.

“The dominance of strong female characters over a certain age, the #MeToo movement, the Time’s Up campaign all result from decades of work and years of women resisting and speaking out about the limiting narrative media spread about our worth,” Ms. Newsom said.

Needless to say, Hollywood is a long way from being a happy, joyous and equitable place for women. For one thing, there’s a bit of a sexual harassment problem, as perhaps you’ve heard. (But hey, it’s everywhere!) For another, women continue to be grossly underrepresented onscreen and off.

Researchers at the University of Southern California found that in the 100 top-grossing films of 2016, less than a third of the speaking characters (31.4 percent) were women. In those 100 films, only 34 had women as the lead or one of the leads. And of those, a mere eight were 45 or older. That was an improvement from the year before, when there were five.

Which makes this year’s batch of Oscar-nominated ladies all the more remarkable.

The average age of the supporting actress nominees is 55, and the youngest nominee in that category is Mary J. Blige, who just turned 47. (Octavia Spencer turns 48 in May.) The runaway favorite for best actress, Ms. McDormand, is 60.

Sure Ms. McDormand’s fellow nominee, Ms. Ronan, is 23, but she plays a pretty tough customer in “Lady Bird,” and also has never been considered an ingénue. (See “Hannah,” or her bone-chilling performance in “The Crucible.”) Ms. Robbie, who is 27, officially graduated from ingénue status with her fierce, fearless performance in “I, Tonya.”

The remaining nominated actresses are all in their 60s, with the exceptions of Sally Hawkins, who is 41, and Ms. Janney, 58. (“Oscars so menopausal?” suggested a person close to the Bagger, falling silent after she shot him daggers with her eyes.)

At the very least, this shows the expanding horizons for women in Hollywood, something Nicole Kidman, 50, highlighted after winning a Screen Actors Guild Award on Sunday night. “Twenty years ago we were pretty washed up by this stage in our lives,” she said. “That’s not the case now. We’ve proven that we’re potent, powerful and viable.”

Maybe, for all the Bagger’s resistance to the word, a new hashtag is apt. #OscarsSoBadass. Bring it.

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