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

“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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