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The end of ‘Best Actress’?

Mixed reaction to idea of ending gender categories at Oscars

One could argue that actresses have already transcended gender in Hollywood. After all, several female thesps, from Angelina Jolie (“Salt”) to Helen Mirren (the upcoming “Arthur” redo), have nabbed roles originally written for men.

So why not do away with gender distinctions altogether in acting races? In other words, have men and women compete against each other for lead and supporting honors.

It would be a radical change, but the idea of removing male/female divisions from the four Oscar categories that still make such delineations — lead actor, lead actress, supporting actor and supporting actress — has been bandied about Tinseltown.

The idea first gained widespread attention right before this year’s Academy Awards, when UCLA research scholar Kim Elsesser penned a New York Times op-ed calling for a gender-less Oscar ceremony.

“In the 21st century, women contend with men for titles ranging from the American president to the American Idol,” Elsesser argued. “Clearly, there is no reason to still segregate acting Oscars by sex.”

Though the separate acting categories have existed since the debut gala in 1929, some thesps would welcome a gender-less fete.

“I’ve always liked being judged based strictly on my merits,” says Olivia Williams, who is generating awards buzz for her supporting performance in “The Ghost Writer.” “I was raised in a generation where men and women are the same and should be judged on equal footing. I quite like that idea. It’s kind of strange that men and women are judged separately in acting.”

But past nominee Patricia Clarkson, who is once again in the mix for her lead performance in “Cairo Time,” is no fan of combining the separate heats.

“I think we’d have nine male nominees and Meryl Streep,” quips Clarkson, noting the dearth of female-driven projects. “It is such a male-dominated industry. I don’t think it would serve women well at all. It’s a great idea, and there’s something powerful about the idea of being gender-neutral. But it’s so rare to have a woman carry a film. Let’s keep it five men, five women.”

Derek Thompson echoed that sentiment in The Atlantic, noting that most plum male roles couldn’t possibly be played by Hollywood’s A-list actresses.

“It is not credible to me that a woman could have won just about any of the Best Actor awards from the last decades, from Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter to Russell Crowe’s gladiator — just as a man could never play Sophie in ‘Sophie’s Choice ‘ or Erin Brockovich in ‘Erin Brockovich.’ ”

Still, it could be said Denzel Washington could never play Oscar-recognized roles like Harvey Milk in “Milk” or the titular English monarch in “The Madness of King George.” Yet no one proposes the Academy create separate acting categories by race.

Further muddying the debate, a number of actresses have already garnered Oscar recognition for playing men. Cate Blanchett was nominated for playing one embodiment of Bob Dylan in “I’m Not There.” Linda Hunt took home supporting actress honors portraying male dwarf Billy Kwan in “The Year of Living Dangerously.” Gwyneth Paltrow won a lead actress trophy playing a woman who pretends to be a male actor (who plays a female role) in “Shakespeare in Love.”

Mirren’s upcoming turn as the butler in “Arthur” could be seen as Academy bait, since John Gielgud earned the supporting actor Oscar for the same role in the 1981 original.

By the very nature of Academy politics, where actors are the largest branch, there will be no reduction in the number of acting Oscars. If gender barriers are ever to fall, new thesp categories such as comedy/musical performance would have to replace the actress slots as part of the change.

Clarkson, for one, would support the idea of adding new comedy/musical categories, though not in place of actress kudos.

“That would be kind of interesting,” she adds. “I would go in that direction if the Academy wants to be experimental. But I’ll keep my estrogen.”

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