Refreshingly, the lead actress Oscar race feels more competitive than ever this year. Step back and observe the landscape, and you quickly see why that is: The season has filled out with a number of female-driven narratives at a time when a lack of representation of women, both in front of and behind the camera, is consistently called into question.
At the very top, there is “Suffragette,” which puts women’s concerns front and center with a story of the fight for voting equality at the turn of the 20th century. Actress Carey Mulligan is featured both there and in early-year entry “Far From the Madding Crowd,” where she plays Bathsheba Everdene, the forthright heroine of Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel.
Speaking of early players, “Mad Max: Fury Road” was such a thunderbolt over the summer for feminine strength that men’s rights activists called for a boycott on the grounds that it was feminist propaganda. Despite those claims, Charlize Theron’s instantly iconic Imperator Furiosa likely will be a Halloween costume favorite with girls for years to come.
Much of the “Mad Max” blowback regarded a female role taking the place of an established male part. But why not? There should be more of that. Tilda Swinton’s character in last year’s “Snowpiercer,” for example, was re-written for a woman. That was also the case with Sandra Bullock’s role in “Our Brand Is Crisis,” while the filmmakers of “Sicario” were pressured into changing Emily Blunt’s character to a man.
Elsewhere this year, Cate Blanchett portrays a pair of bold female protagonists in two very different films. In “Truth,” she stars as CBS News producer Mary Mapes, who headed up the network’s 2004 George W. Bush National Guard story/scandal that left Dan Rather disgraced. Meanwhile, in “Carol,” she plays a strong-willed lesbian chasing her heart’s desire (played by Rooney Mara), maintaining agency over her life despite the unwelcoming environment of the 1950s.
Another ’50s-set drama, “Brooklyn,” unspooled at Sundance in January. Saoirse Ronan stars as an Irish immigrant starting a new life in America, but notably, the film doesn’t feel a need to put her through the melodramatic wringer. It tells a simple, confident, heartwarming story of a young woman finding her way.
“The Danish Girl” dramatizes Einar Wegener’s 1930s transgender transition to Lili Elbe (portrayed by Eddie Redmayne), but it is just as much the story of Wegener’s wife Gerda, played by Alicia Vikander. Despite the fact that Focus Features will campaign the actress for supporting consideration (probably to stay away from all this competition), much of the film is told from Gerda’s perspective, and Vikander has drawn raves. Another LGBT-themed film, “Freeheld” — with Julianne Moore and Ellen Page — recounts New Jersey police officer Laurel Hester’s struggle to transfer pension rights to her partner in 2005 and 2006.
And happily, women over 50 have showcase roles this season. Charlotte Rampling drives much of the marital drama of “45 Years.” Lily Tomlin received some of the best reviews of her career for “Grandma.” Blythe Danner’s performance in “I’ll See You in My Dreams” was the first to arrive on doorsteps in the form of an awards screener. Maggie Smith is a formidable contender for “The Lady in the Van.” And Juliette Binoche is still in the mix with 2014 Cannes debut “Clouds of Sils Maria.”
Interestingly, with Jennifer Lawrence’s title character in “Joy” (inspired by real-life entrepreneur Joy Mangano), as well as Amy Poehler voicing the animated lead of Pixar’s “Inside Out,” and Brie Larson’s imprisoned mother in “Room,” a trio of female protagonists this year are named Joy. At the risk of sounding corny, the real joy is that there is such an array of female-specific material potentially in the race for a change.
Now, if only Hollywood could add more color. …