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What’s The Point Of Best Actress?
By Daniel Radosh

It is not exactly incendiary to contend that the Academy Awards are more about spectacle and hype than the legitimate recognition of talent. That’s been clear at least since Wings beat out Sunrise in 1928. But here’s another piece of evidence you might not have considered: the best actress category. Not this year’s front-runners or past winners but the category itself. There is simply no valid reason to divide an acting competition into male and female divisions.

Acting is not like sports, where physical differences between men and women make direct comparison meaningless. Marion Jones won’t outrun Maurice Greene, but tell me Sissy Spacek can’t go toe to toe with Will Smith. Lead and supporting role is a reasonable distinction. Dramatic performance and best comedic performance — separate categories in the Golden Globes — also makes sense. What Reese Witherspoon does in Legally Blonde is qualitatively different from what Judi Dench does in Iris; certainly more than Dench’s performance is from Russell Crowe’s in A Beautiful Mind. So why, under the Oscar rules, would Witherspoon have to go up against Dench, while Dench is protected from competing against Crowe (and vice versa)?

One argument, perhaps, is that in male-dominated Hollywood, a category of one’s own affords the only chance a woman has to be recognized at all. As any actress will tell you (especially if you happen to be James Lipton) great parts for women are as rare as the tartare at Balboa. Men get juicier roles in more important films. That’s why every year there are worthy male performances that get shut out of the nominations in the face of extensive competition, while the female races are usually padded out with one or two second-raters. (In the supporting category, these actresses often win, but that’s another issue.) In a unisex category even talented women might be forsaken entirely.

But this situation is hardly unique to acting. Acting is actually one of the more equitable professions recognized at the Oscars. No one would have thought it bizarre if Julia Roberts had beaten Russell Crowe in a hypothetical showdown last year. But can you imagine Steven Soderbergh losing best director to Nancy Meyers, whose What Women Want was the most popular film of 2000 helmed by a woman? Meyers was not nominated, of course, and it’s statistically unlikely that she would have been even if the movie had been good. In the 74 year history of the Academy Awards women have been nominated for best director exactly twice, and never won. Want to recognize the people behind Boys Don’t Cry, Rambling Rose, Orlando, Clueless? You’ll need a new category: best directress.

True, there’s a much smaller pool of female directors than actresses to begin with, but even in fields where there are plenty of women, they tend to fare poorly against men. Of the last 110 writers nominated, only six have been women, and only one of those made it all the way to the podium. If you defend the best actress category for equality reasons, why stop there?

Maybe you could make a case that actresses are more in the public eye. Celebrating them inspires girls in a way that singling out female art directors would not. But if the acting contests is going to be split apart to ensure that everyone gets their fare share of the spotlight, what we really need is not best actress but best blactor. You think women have it hard in Hollywood? Only one black actor, Sidney Poitier, has ever won a top award, and only 13 have been nominated, compared with more than 300 whites. It sounds absurd to even consider a black actors category, but is best actress any less demeaning? Other than tradition, why does the Academy indulge in sex segregation?

Spectacle and hype. No offense to the male actors in their monochrome tuxes, but on Oscar night, actresses bring the glamour. Audiences want to see this year’s dresses and hairstyles. Studios want female stars to help them sell tickets. That’s all the Academy Awards really mean, and all they ever will. Unless they decide to eliminate best actress.


(A version of this piece appeared in The New York Times, from which it was later stolen by the London Guardian)