Whats 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. Thats
been clear at least since Wings beat out Sunrise in 1928. But heres
another piece of evidence you might not have considered: the best actress
category. Not this years 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 wont outrun
Maurice Greene, but tell me Sissy Spacek cant 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 Denchs performance is from Russell
Crowes 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 ones 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. Thats 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 thats 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 its 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 Dont Cry, Rambling Rose,
Orlando, Clueless? Youll need a new category: best directress.
True, theres 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 years dresses and hairstyles. Studios want female stars
to help them sell tickets. Thats all the Academy Awards really mean,
and all they ever will. Unless they decide to eliminate best actress.