Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Best Actress Conundrum

News broke today that Meryl Streep may be playing Margaret Thatcher in a new biopic directed by her Mamma Mia! director Phyllida Lloyd. Personally, this sounds like a disaster to me, not so much because of Streep, a woman who can (almost) always make something interesting out of total dreck, but because of Lloyd's near-complete incompetence as a director (witness the aforementioned film as proof).
I guess there's a bit of a similarity....
However, what piqued my interest was a post by Nathaniel over at The Film Experience Blog about the Best Actress category at the Oscars and portrayals of real people. In the past decade, seven of the ten Best Actress winners have been for real people. Now, interestingly, here's the breakdown of how many of the five nominees each year were based on a real person:
2000: 1 of 5 (Julia Roberts as Erin Brockovich, Erin Brockovich*)
2001: 1 of 5 (Judi Dench as Iris Murdoch, Iris)
2002: 2 of 5 (Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf, The Hours;* Salma Hayek as Frida Kahlo; Frida)
2003: 1 of 5 (Charlize Theron as Aileen Wuornos, Monster*)
2004: 0 of 5
2005: 3 of 5 (Reese Witherspoon as June Carter Cash, Walk the Line;* Judi Dench as Mrs. Laura Henderson, Mrs. Henderson Presents; Charlize Theron as Josie Aimes, North Country**)
2006: 1 of 5 (Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II, The Queen*)
2007: 2 of 5 (Marion Cotillard as Edith Piaf, La Vie en Rose;* Cate Blanchett as Queen Elizabeth I, Elizabeth: The Golden Age)
2008: 1 of 5 (Angelina Jolie as Christine Collins, Changeling)
2009: 3 of 5 (Sandra Bullock as Lee Ann Tuohy, The Blind Side;* Meryl Streep as Julia Child, Julie & Julia; Helen Mirren as Countess Sofya, The Last Station)
*Winner
**A fictionalized version of a real person
So for those of you keeping count, only 15 of the 50 Best Actress nominations of the past decade have been for playing a real person, but half of those nominations were turned into wins. In fact, of the three performances that won for playing a fictional character, one of them occured in a year when there were no real-life portrayals (2004's Hilary Swank).
When you look at it this way, its obvious that the problem isn't that the Academy is ignoring women in original roles. The problem also isn't that women don't get the opportunity to create roles. It seems that the main problem here is that the Academy prefers to reward imitation in this category rather than character creation. Why that is is anyone's guess, but it does seem to be a disappointing trend, since although imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, it does not always equate to great, Oscar-worthy performances. Examples of this include Sandra Bullock's hijacking of America's good taste last year, leaving a much, much more deserving Gabby Sidibe empty-handed, and Charlize Theron's "look at me, I'm a beautiful woman made ugly, and therefore it counts as great art" "performance" in Monster in 2003 (my pick: Samantha Morton). Those are just my opinions, of course. And interestingly this is an issue that is limited to Best Actress, as the other three acting categories are more evenly spread between real and fictional characters.
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As always, your opinions and comments are welcome. Are you also wary about this trend in Best Actress?

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