Thursday, February 19, 2009

Hooray (?!) for Hollywood

With the Academy Awards coming up in just a few days, it might be fascinating to look at the Best Actress categories over the decades, to see what kind of archetypes, stereotypes, professions, or lack thereof, the leading actresses portrayed. Movies are such cultural barometers that I expect we’ll find some interesting trends here. I’m going to look at eight years, in each decade starting from 1938, so that I can end with 2008’s winners. I’ll list the nominees in this category, and briefly describe the woman’s role in the film. The first name in each set is the winner for that year. Thanks to Wikipedia for making this information so easy to research!

Bette Davis - Jezebel, as Julie Marsden (a strong-willed southern belle)
Fay Bainter - White Banners, as Hannah Parmalee (a peddler)
Wendy Hiller - Pygmalion, as Eliza Doolittle (another peddler made over into a fine lady)
Norma Shearer - Marie Antoinette, as Marie Antoinette (the French Queen)
Margaret Sullivan - Three Comrades, as Patricia 'Pat' Hollmann (the tubercular love object of three German soldiers)

Jane Wyman - Johnny Belinda, as Belinda McDonald (a deaf girl who is raped)
Ingrid Bergman - Joan of Arc, as Joan of Arc (the sainted teen warrior)
Olivia de Havilland - The Snake Pit, as Virginia Stuart Cunningham (the wife of a financier, who finds herself committed to an “insane asylum”
Irene Dunne - I Remember Mama, as Martha 'Mama' Hanson (a loving mother)
Barbara Stanwyck - Sorry, Wrong Number, as Leona Stevenson (a spoiled, bedridden millionaire’s daughter)

Susan Hayward - I Want to Live! as Barbara Graham (a prostitute and drug addict convicted of murder)
Deborah Kerr - Separate Tables, as Sibyl Railton-Bell (the meek daughter of a manipulative mother)
Shirley MacLaine - Some Came Running, as Ginnie Moorehead (a poor “bad girl” with a heart of gold)
Rosalind Russell - Auntie Mame, as Mame Dennis (the eccentric aunt of an orphaned nephew)
Elizabeth Taylor - Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, as Margaret 'Maggie the Cat' Pollitt (a striving wife)

Barbra Streisand - Funny Girl, as Fanny Brice and Katharine Hepburn - The Lion in Winter, as Eleanor of Aquitaine (tie) - Barbra as the film star and comedienne Fanny Brice and Katherine as one of the most powerful women in the Middle Ages
Patricia Neal - The Subject Was Roses, as Nettie Cleary (mother of a troubled WWII soldier)
Vanessa Redgrave - Isadora, as Isadora Duncan (the flamboyant dancer)
Joanne Woodward - Rachel, Rachel, as Rachel Cameron (a repressed schoolteacher)

Jane Fonda - Coming Home, as Sally Hyde (a veteran’s hospital nurse who falls for an injured vet)
Ingrid Bergman - Autumn Sonata, as Charlotte Andergast (a world famous pianist paying the price for having neglected her children)
Ellen Burstyn - Same Time, Next Year, as Doris (a housewife who meets the same man once a year for more than two decades for an affair)
Jill Clayburgh - An Unmarried Woman, as Erica (a spurned wife who finds work, liberation, and happiness)
Geraldine Page - Interiors, as Eve (an interior designer left by her husband and neglected by her daughters)

Jodie Foster - The Accused, as Sarah Tobias (a working class girl who is gang raped)
Glenn Close - Dangerous Liaisons, as Marquise Isabelle de Merteuil (a manipulative 18th-century marquise)
Melanie Griffith - Working Girl, as Tess McGill (a secretary who works her way to the top)
Meryl Streep - A Cry in the Dark, as Lindy Chamberlain (a religious mother accused of killing her baby)
Sigourney Weaver - Gorillas in the Mist, as Dian Fossey (a biopic of the American zoologist)

Gwyneth Paltrow - Shakespeare in Love, as Viola De Lesseps (the daughter of a wealthy merchant who disguises herself as a boy so she can star in a play)
Cate Blanchett - Elizabeth, as Elizabeth I (yet another depiction of the powerful Queen of England)
Fernanda Montenegro - Central do Brasil, as Dora (an embittered old woman)
Meryl Streep - One True Thing, as Kate Gulden (a cancer-stricken mother)
Emily Watson - Hilary and Jackie, as Jacqueline du Pré (biopic of a British cellist whose career was cut short by multiple sclerosis)

2008 (winner not yet determined at this date)
Anne Hathaway - Rachel Getting Married, as Kym (a recovering drug addict coming home for her sister’s wedding)
Angelina Jolie - Changeling, as Christine Collins (a single mother in 1928 whose son goes missing)
Melissa Leo - Frozen River, as Ray Eddy (a desperate single mother who gets involved in human trafficking)
Meryl Streep - Doubt, as Sister Aloysius Beauvier (a nun)
Kate Winslet - The Reader, as Hanna Schmitz (a Nazi guard)

What stands out for me is that, with the exception of biopics, where the actress is portraying a historic or inspirational character, their roles are very often mainly defined by their relationships to others—mothers, wives, daughters, lovers, victims. In a couple of cases here, if a mother is more defined by her profession, as in the case with 1978’s Autumn Sonata and Interiors, she pays a heavy price for alienating her family. Outside the family fold are roles of queens, prostitutes, general “bad girls” who either stay bad or go good, nuns. Few interesting professions or even adventures. The roles that go outside conventional narratives are usually based on real women, like zoologist Dian Fossey and dancer Isabella Duncan. In years not covered here, there are biographical films of Erin Brockovich, Camille Claudel, and Isak Dinesen, among others, depicting outside-the-box female lives. It’s as if screenwriters can’t begin to imagine fictional roles for women outside the standard narratives.

Best Actor Roles are filled with flawed men defined more by what they do than their relationships with others. There are businessmen, lots of boxers and soldiers, musicians, criminals, lawyers, spies, cops. Movies with strong (even if flawed, like Erin Brockovich) female protagonists are rare—just as rare today as ever. And two new popular movies (not Oscar caliber by any means), Bride Wars and He’s Just Not That Into You, play on tired female stereotypes.

I’d love to hear some recommendations for good films with strong female protagonists. I’d like to recommend, believe it or not, Little Women (1994), with Wynona Ryder playing Jo March, an autobiographical depiction of the book’s author, Louisa May Alcott; and My Brilliant Career, also a semiautobiographical film about the Australian (female) author Miles Franklin.

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