Oscars: Where’s the Competition in the Actress Categories?

Oscars Best Actress Race: Where's the

“Wild,” the Fox Searchlight drama about a woman’s 1,100-mile hike along the Pacific Crest Trail, is a redemption story in more ways than one. In adapting Cheryl Strayed’s 2012 memoir about a personal breakdown, Reese Witherspoon rescued herself from the brink of Hollywood’s own Appalachia.

After winning the Oscar for “Walk the Line” in 2006, Witherspoon stumbled through a series of box office and critical mishaps–“Rendition,” “How Do You Know,” “This Means War,” etc. Then came the “Gone Girl” fiasco: Witherspoon attached herself to produce Gillian Flynn’s best-selling novel, but director David Fincher told her that he wanted someone else to play the anti-heroine Amy Dunne (he eventually cast Rosamund Pike). As a result, Witherspoon dropped her manager of 19 years, and went on to make “Wild” (she’d optioned the book rights herself). At 38, she’s had to work three times as hard as her male counterparts to sustain her movie-star glow.

Witherspoon will be an Oscar nominee for “Wild,” but she might not have very much competition. It’s almost redundant to say that it’s a weak year for actresses in the run-up to the Academy Awards, because that appears to be true every year, and it’s especially true of 2014. If landing a best actor nod is as cutthroat as Harvard admissions—poor Robert Redford and Tom Hanks had nearly perfectly SAT scores and still didn’t get in—the actress side is always starved for quality applicants.

Other than Witherspoon, the only other lock for best actress is Julianne Moore for her portrait of an early-onset Alzheimer’s patient in the Sony Pictures Classics drama “Still Alice.” The other nominees could be: Felicity Jones, who plays Stephen Hawking’s wife Jane in “The Theory of Everything,” Rosamund Pike for “Gone Girl,” Hilary Swank for “The Homesman,” or Amy Adams for “Big Eyes.” The fact that Adams and Swank are still being talked about as contenders—even though reactions to both their films have been mixed—is an indication of how tough it will for voters to even come up with five dynamic female performances.

Given the lack of heavyweights in the category, the team behind IFC’s “Boyhood” considered campaigning Patricia Arquette in the lead actress race. Instead, she’s been put in supporting, which is a relief because aren’t too many women to fill out that category either. While the best supporting actor race can still take a few turns between now and Oscars nominations morning, there aren’t many options in supporting actress: Meryl Streep (“Into the Woods”), Jessica Chastain (“A Most Violent Year”), Laura Dern (“Wild”) and Keira Knightley (“The Imitation Game”). The only question mark is if Emma Stone (“Birdman”) will be able to displace one of the others.

This is a result of the way Hollywood now does business. Women are an endangered species across all genres of the film industry, in both big movies and small. On the blockbuster side, studios continue to obsess over mega-budget franchises, where women are treated as an after-thought (see Glenn Close in “Guardians of the Galaxy,” or Keri Russell in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”). No matter how many hits there are on the scale of “The Hunger Games,” “Maleficent” or “The Fault in Our Stars,” male executives still cling to the outdated belief that male audiences won’t pay to see a girl headline a movie, because they can’t relate to female protagonists. And in the indie world, women heroes (like the one played by Jenny Slate in the little-seen “Obvious Child”) are among the first casualties of a shrinking market. When the Spirit Awards nominations were announced this week, all the best feature nominees—“Birdman,” “Boyhood,” “Love is Strange,” “Selma” and “Whiplash”—only featured women in secondary parts, as noted by Women and Hollywood’s Melissa Silverstein on Twitter.

At a lunch for “The Imitation Game” earlier this month, someone asked Keira Knightley what it was like being the lone woman in a testosterone-heavy cast. “There’s normally one actress in a movie,” Knightley shot back. “So it was another day at the office.”

This shift has dramatic repercussion on the careers of all actresses. It used to be that leading ladies retired out of the film industry after they entered their mid-40s. Now it’s happening earlier and earlier. Rachel McAdams, who was once next in line for Julia Roberts’ job, just made the leap to TV with the next season of “True Detective.” Katie Holmes recently told the LA Times that she’d too consider a primetime series, joining the like of Claire Danes and Viola Davis, both of whom should be movie stars. Even Julia Roberts isn’t really making movies as Julia Roberts anymore. Her only role this year was as an AIDs doctor in the HBO adaptation of “A Normal Heart.”

As you talk to women in the industry about the actress problem, they say it will only improve with a new generation of female directors and writers (like Jennifer Lee, the force behind Disney’s “Frozen”). The silver lining to all this gloomy news is that next February could be the first time ever that two women are nominated for best director–Angelina Jolie (“Unbroken“) and Ava DuVernay (“Selma“). If that happens, they will become the fifth and sixth female best director nominees in history, but they will have only gotten there with stories about strong men.

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  1. TheatreGeek says:

    Im SO tired of these articles. This isnt even the first one this season. They happen every season. Perhaps if Oscar voters would actually LOOK outside the usual suspects, we would have more competition. Because saying there aren’t any worthy contenders is just false as hell. The problem is they dont have big budgets for campaigns, which as we know is what really gets you a nomination. not great work alone.
    Marion Cotillard turned in TWO amazing performances in “The Immigrant” and “Two Days, One night”. Ramin himself mention Jenny Slate. ScarJo in “Under the Skin” gave her best work to date. GuGu Mbatha-Raw had a breakout year with “Belle” and “beyond the Lights”. I haven’t even gotten to Mia Wasikowska in “Tracks”, Lindsay Duncan in “Le Weekend”, or Emily Blunt (who I think is kicking Amy Adams to damn curb) in “Into the Woods”.
    Please for the love of God stop this argument. Yes, women do have a tougher time in general with big studio pictures. But even the article sites how this is slowly changing with the likes of Maleficent, Hunger Games, and Guardians of the Galaxy (I think Ramin missed Zoe Saldana’s leading role). there are plenty great leading female performances out there. Oscar voters just need to WATCH THEM.

  2. Cath says:

    The last sentence is both extremely undermining towards the mentioned directors and undeniably SEXIST. Also, do you realize how competitive the best actress category has been in the past few years? Look at the nominees of 2011 and if you say that was NOT a competitive year, then you are out of your mind.

    • J. Anofsky says:

      No one mentioned Emmanuelle Seigner in Polanski’s Venus in Fur. That played in LA in the summer of 2014. She was terrific.

  3. Enough says:

    This article is extremely sexist and poorly researched. I can think of at least 10 best actress possibilities. To say Viola Davis and Claire Danes doing TV is a bad thing is idiotic. They are doing TV for the same reason Colin Farrell, Matthew McConaughey and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson are on TV, because it can open up new doors (like production deals) as well as expand their audiences.

    Mixed reviews for a movie likely won’t hurt Swank or Adams’ chances as they are well liked by the Academy voters. Also some actresses in the supporting categories should have been campaigned as leads (Arquette). We are also going into a season where at least 2 female directors may be vying for awards glory. Yes we have a long way to go for women, but using this same tired trope every year demeans all the great actresses who do outstanding work. For me it’s the male field that is weak this weak as many of the performances I’ve seen are overrated.

  4. lamh36 says:

    Maybe if Hollywood had a little more diversity in their actresses, they’d find more gems.

  5. Lisa says:

    Reese Witherspoon paid for this butt-kissing article! Saying that she doesn’t have much competition is a joke! this year we had far better performances who deserve to take her spot and how can you afirm that she will be an Oscar nominee for this movie? Come on! Reese and her PR team have obviously paid for this shi.t.

  6. Pedro says:

    I don’t know how people are ignoring Marion Cotillard’s outstanding year! She is Oscar worthy twice: 1 – Two Days, One Night and 2 – The Immigrant.

    For me, her performance in Two Days, One Night is something monumental and poetic. She should be a lock.

    This is the real 2014’s top five:

    1 – Julianne Moore – Still Alice
    2 – Marion Cotillard – Two Days, One Night
    3 – Rosamund Pike – Gone Girl
    4 – Felicity Jones – Theory of Everything
    5 – Hilary Swank – The Homesman

    Amy Adams, Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston aren’t deserving of Oscar nominations this year.

  7. Bill B. says:

    I think this is a little harsh. Moore, Witherspoon, Pike, Jones, Swank & Cotillard’s performances are all worthy of nominations. I don’t think Adams will be nominated. No, it’s not as competitive as the actor category, but that is a category that is having a phenomenal year. The sad thing here is that quite a few male Oscar worthy performances are going to be left out, much like the stunning omissions of Hanks & Redford last year. But is true that for decades men have mostly ruled film. It was particularly bad in the mid 70’s. Louis Fletcher would have won on Oscar for best supporting actress in 1975 as it was a supporting role, but was elevated to the best actress category due to a lack of finding 5 worthy leading female performances that year. At least things are better than that!

  8. Corriea says:

    11/29/14 4:18a Variety Ramin Setoodeh History of Women in Film
    This has been a downward trend for decades, in the Early/Mid 1960’s Doris Day, Elizabeth Taylor, Sandra Dee, Julie Andrews were the top Box Office Actors but by the late 1960’s, their film careers were fading fast. It has never recovered. Barbra Streisand was the 1970’s Box Office Actor but she made very few films. Today Cable TV allows actresses to work in quality productions in TV Films/Series, which they have never been allowed to do in Films.

  9. Joe says:

    Seriously suspect article. I find the ‘Best Actress’ category generally far more of and interesting race than the ‘Best Actor’ category, but it differs from year to year. Absolutely ridiculous point about Adams and Swank still being considered despite the mixed reviews of their respective films – just because a film is mediocre it doesn’t mean that a performance can’t be outstanding. Look at Patty Jenkins’s ‘Monster’ – decent film but not amazing, yet Charlize Theron gives arguably one of the best performances in a biopic or otherwise in C21.
    Also, sense some snobbery regarding TV. Why is acting in a TV series any less than in a movie? Of course there’s more money in film, but over the last few years, especially from HBO, TV has taken a big step forward in its quality. Look at the resounding impact of Breaking Bad, True Detective, Game of Thrones, Girls, etc. There’s becoming much more cross-over. You mention McAdams joining the cast of True Detective S2 like she’s resigned herself to TV and left the film industry, but fail to mention S1 featured Matthew McConaughey who went on to win the Oscar and is now one again one of Hollywood’s most in-demand actors. So many of Hollywood’s best dip their toes into TV now and again, especially HBO who regularly get A-listers. Poor article

  10. Look beyond Hollywood. Beside Cotillard’s superb work in Two Days, One Night, Mommy’s Anne Dorval and Ida’s two Agatas are also eligible and damn outstanding.

  11. Patty Anne says:

    Apparently for the Oscars it’s who they know and who has an interest in nominating someone. Sad that so many more deserving performances are overlooked because of moviedom politics.

  12. Stergios says:

    The fact that a simply solid performance like Reese Witherspoon’s performance in Wild is a lock for a nomination while Marion Cotillard is vying again for a nomination for either of her towering performances in Two Days, One Night and The Immigrant (with most chances for the former, but still very few) is something truly disheartening. The Oscars can be blamed forever if they exclude her again from the nominees.

  13. steve barr says:

    Ramin are you on Harvey Weinstein’s payroll ? A weak year for best actress and you don’t even mention Marion Cotilard for The Immigrant !

  14. JE says:

    Gugu Mbatha-Raw also deserves an Oscar nomination for her performances as a mentally ill, suicidal singer in the surprisingly powerful film about sexual exploitation in the music industry “Beyonds the Lights” and as a biracial woman in “Belle.”

  15. JE says:

    What about Carmen Ejogo who stars as Coretta Scott King in the upcoming MLK biopic “Selma?”

  16. Silvana says:

    I would consider Marion Cotillard for her wonderful performance in Two Days, One Night. Really OSCAR-Worthy performance.

  17. Betty Coop says:

    It’s so tiresome to hear the same refrain every year- “Not enough roles for women! Something needs to change!” and then very little does. This has been going on for decades. It’s completely absurd. Women represent 50% of the world’s population, but if film were any indication you’d think they were an endangered species. This is past the point of shameful for Hollywood, it’s embarrassing. Iranian cinema is leading the way in interesting roles for women in front of and behind the camera. Iran. Good lord, get it together America.

    • Strad says:

      Maybe if you actually watched some movies instead of just listening to what others say, you’d see that there are plenty of great female roles in plenty of great movies.

  18. Ken says:

    There were several great performances by women last year (2013) – Adams in AMERICAN HUSTLE, Thompson in SAVING MR. BANKS, Barbara Sukowa in HANNAH ARENDT, Bullock in GRAVITY to name a few. But when a mind-blowing performance of such brilliant singularity such as Cate Blanchett’s in BLUE JASMINE dominates the field, it only SEEMED like the field was impoverished.

    • Hannah says:

      That’s not the point Ken. There are still far less roles for women in films than men. And complex female roles like Blue Jasmine are especially rare.

  19. Davyjc says:

    It’s a real long shot but Rosario Dawson’s performance in the TOP FIVE is amazing. Not since Diane Keaton in ANNIE HALL have a I seen such a wonderfully nuanced performance in comedy. The Academy doesn’t like to award comedies too often but Dawson is a standout and should be considered.

  20. John Greenfield says:

    I agree that the female competition is very weak this yeat, but I cannot believe that Witherspoon will be nominated. Please.

    Her performance in Walk the Line was great but in “Wild” it so so average, It does not deserve an oscar nomination. Julianne Moore and Rosamund Pike they do, I believe that this is Jualinne Moore’s year.

  21. Derk says:

    Please check your facts – Julia Roberts played Dr. Emma Brookner, loosely based on Dr. Linda Laubenstein – a pioneer in the early days of AIDS – not just “an AIDs nurse”.

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