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Awards Season’s Female Troubles

Femme-driven pics are out there for discerning voters to find

Women in Film 2014 Oscars
Chris Gash for Variety

When she accepted her Oscar in February for “Blue Jasmine,” Cate Blanchett delivered a painfully necessary message to those in the industry “who are still foolishly clinging to the idea that female films, with women at the center, are niche experiences. They are not. Audiences want to see them and, in fact, they earn money. The world is round, people!”

Alas, the world looks flatter than ever if the movies in the running for best picture are any indication. We actually seem to have regressed this season: Blanchett’s competition for lead actress notably included Amy Adams, Sandra Bullock and Judi Dench, whose respective movies, “American Hustle,” “Gravity” and “Philomena,” were all nominated for best picture. The year before, we had “Amour,” “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” “Silver Linings Playbook” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” all of which boasted strongly developed female leads and scored nominations for actress as well as picture.

What’s striking about this year’s Oscar race, by contrast, is just how many movies in the conversation — “American Sniper,” “Birdman,” “Boyhood,” “Foxcatcher,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” “The Imitation Game,” “Interstellar,” “Nightcrawler,” “Unbroken” and “Whiplash” — are primarily driven, if not outright dominated, by male protagonists.

There are a few arguable exceptions. Ava DuVernay’s Martin Luther King Jr. drama “Selma,” one of two probable picture nominees directed by a woman (the other being Angelina Jolie’s “Unbroken”), focuses on King, but pointedly highlights the often overlooked contributions of the women of the civil-rights movement.

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“The Theory of Everything” may be a simplified gloss on the life of Stephen Hawking, but in lending equal dramatic weight to his wife, Jane, it also attempts to correct, or at least complicate, the supportive-wife biopic cliche. Similarly divided between its married protagonists is “Gone Girl” (David Fincher’s second “Girl” movie in a row, incidentally), whose gender politics have stirred no end of debate: Is Rosamund Pike playing a righteous anti-heroine or a freakish misogynist construct? Whichever one it is, I’m genuinely grateful that Amazing Amy exists.

Their masculine titles notwithstanding, “Birdman” and “Boyhood” are not without their richly developed female characters — played by Emma Stone in the former, Patricia Arquette in the latter. The same goes for “Nightcrawler,” where Rene Russo provides a much-needed counterweight to Jake Gyllenhaal, or “Interstellar,” in which Anne Hathaway and Jessica Chastain balance keen intelligence and scientific acumen with fierce, unruly emotions. But surveying the race in its totality, we seem to find ourselves, once more, in a man’s world, where women tend to hover reluctantly around their men like moons stuck in orbit.

What makes the situation even more perplexing is that it was by no means a year lacking in first-rate, female-driven movies. Julianne Moore is a worthy best actress frontrunner for the quietly devastating “Still Alice.” “Wild” gave Reese Witherspoon her most substantial dramatic showcase in years. Marion Cotillard had a magnificent run, radiating fragile authenticity in “Two Days, One Night” and the purity of a silent screen heroine in “The Immigrant.”

Gugu Mbatha-Raw deserved to be more of a breakout star for “Belle” and especially “Beyond the Lights.” Essie Davis is a revelation in “The Babadook,” which goes deeper into the heart of embattled motherhood than any psychological horror movie since “We Need to Talk About Kevin.” (Unfortunately, “Babadook” is ineligible for Oscar consideration due to rules disqualifying films with pre-theatrical VOD windows.)

Scarlett Johansson, though playing a presumably gender-neutral alien, owns every minute of “Under the Skin.” “Ida” features not one but two singular female leads, Agata Trzebuchowska and Agata Kulesza, and “We Are the Best!” has three: Mira Barkhammar, Mira Grosin and Liv LeMoyne. And if you can look past Christoph Waltz’s showboating in “Big Eyes,” the movie really does belong to Amy Adams in a radiant turn as a wife, mother and artist overcoming the oppressions of her era.

The cause of advancing diversity in art is, of course, more than a matter of filling quotas and counting chromosomes, and it’s possible to find the system wanting without discounting the value of what it’s given us. Refreshing as it would be for Bennett Miller, Alejandro G. Inarritu and Christopher Nolan to delve into a woman’s psyche now and then, their work this year merits praise and recognition. “Foxcatcher” is a veritable tempest of testosterone, and no less remarkable for it. Richard Linklater’s “Girlhood” may well have been as extraordinary as “Boyhood,” but I’m not sure that it would have felt quite so personal or rung quite so true. A movie called “Birdwoman,” alas, could exist only in a world where comicbook heroines have the same cultural and commercial currency as their male counterparts.

It’s always easier to identify a worrisome trend than to figure out its cause, much less to suggest a workable solution. We can point to the limitations of genre in the case of “American Sniper,” “The Imitation Game” and “Unbroken,” given that most biographical war movies are about the exploits, adventures and sufferings of men. Still, whatever these films’ particular shortcomings or virtues, I suspect that awards voters are too often inclined to accept them on their own grand, self-important terms, which not so subtly conflate significance with masculinity: Watch Chris Kyle and Louis Zamperini march off to war! See Alan Turing change the face of history!

Contrast this with the relatively solitary, interior (and mostly non-biographical) journeys undertaken by some of this year’s female protagonists: a woman quietly losing her mind in “Still Alice,” or searching for her life’s meaning in “Wild,” or simply trying to hold on to her job in “Two Days, One Night.” (The critic Carrie Rickey nailed it, sadly, in an interview several years ago: “What men do is universal; what women do is particular.”) Given Hollywood’s bent toward weighty themes and real-life subjects, one might cynically suggest that the industry should foster more historical dramas about female geniuses, eccentrics and political leaders for a change. But if the result is simply more movies as banal and reductive as “The Iron Lady,” why bother?

Some of this is simple auteurism at work: If there’s a reason why this year’s best picture race feels a bit lopsided, it’s probably because Clint Eastwood, Wes Anderson, Inarritu, Linklater, Miller and Nolan were always more likely to generate frontrunner attention than emerging, marginalized and/or foreign-born filmmakers like Jennifer Kent, Gina Prince-Bythewood, James Gray, Jonathan Glazer, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Pawel Pawlikowski and Lukas Moodysson. And this, year after year, is the chief frustration of awards season: an excess of lockstep thinking, and an unwillingness to look away from establishment favorites.

It would take a less complacent, more adventurous voting body to recognize that the subtitled likes of “Ida” and “Two Days, One Night” deserve more of a place in the conversation than glossy prestige pictures like “The Imitation Game” or “Unbroken.” It would take an even more discerning sensibility to look past the misleading Lifetime-movie veneer that has relegated a drama as piercing as “Still Alice” to some sort of specialty-division ghetto. That Moore will almost certainly win best actress is, I suppose, some consolation, but when she takes the stage come February, I hope she tells us something we sadly still need to hear.