How The Sex-Segregated Oscars Were Good For Film
Yesterday, City Paper colleague and NPR commentator Bob Mondello floated a solution that would trim the bloated Academy Awards telecast "and strike a blow against sexism"—unsex the Oscars. Mondello:
Nobody separates Best Director from Best Directress (directrix?), or Best Editor from Best Editress, so why Best Actor and Best Actress? Combine them, and let the best "performer" win.
Seriously. Colin Firth vs. George Clooney isn't half as intriguing a matchup as the brawl-of-the-drawls you'd get if The Blind Side's Sandra Bullock were allowed to compete with Crazy Heart's Jeff Bridges. Imagine Meryl Streep's Julia Child going up against Morgan Freeman's Nelson Mandela—now that'd be a contest.
It seems a bit odd that Mondello's solution for eliminating sexism in the Academy would be to cut one of the few Oscar categories that reliably awards women for their achievements in film. The Academy has never separated Best Director from Best Directrix—and in 82 years, a woman has never won in that category. But Mondello anticipated this criticism:
Yeah, yeah, I can just hear the objections to combining categories: Men get all the roles; they're higher paid; their pictures have bigger budgets. Well, let me concede most of that, but also let me note that these are new developments.
The academy's original logic for separating the acting awards by gender was probably that if they hadn't done so in Oscar's early years—the 1920s and '30s—the men would've watched as Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo walked off with all the trophies.
That's a fun fact: The olde tyme Oscars were so scared that men might not sweep every single category that they made a special one just for the women, thereby situating female actors as complements instead of competitors. And despite the sex-based segregation, from Mondello's view, women are still on top of the acting game:
. . . Yes, of course the game has changed since then, but it's changed in a way that could actually work against men at Oscar time. The blockbusters and crime dramas that men have dominated since the studios' heyday rarely win acting awards any more. Performers wanting to place that neutered gold statue on their mantels these days have to play in something more touchy-feely—what used to be called, um, women's pictures.
Except that a real "women's picture"—like, one directed by a woman—has never won Best Picture at the Academy Awards. The films Mondello is talking about are, for the most part, films written by men, directed by men, and produced by men; real "women's pictures" have been consistently boxed out of Oscar, and all the money that comes with it. Only four women have ever been nominated for Best Director, including this year's great female hope, Kathryn Bigelow; several more women have had their films nominated for Best Picture without a corresponding Best Director nod for the woman at the helm. Men have dominated every type of film since forever—especially the type of films adored by the Academy—so the idea that male actors have to confine themselves to a feminine filmmaking tradition in order to score a Best Actor nod is bunk.
Still, it's worth examining Mondello's central argument, which is that if the sex-segregated acting categories were combined, women would reliably kick some ass:
I mean no disrespect to Matt Damon's rugby playing in Invictus, Woody Harrelson's crying in The Messenger, Christopher Plummer's erudite dithering in The Last Station, or the respective killing styles of Stanley Tucci in The Lovely Bones and Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds. But would even one of those guys stand a chance in a gender-neutral supporting performer category, competing with the ferociously manipulative mom Mo'Nique plays in Precious?
I'm guessing no. The academy will almost certainly reward Mo'Nique on Oscar night — and that would be no less true if she were competing with the boys.
The Academy has, for almost a century now, specifically lent support to the work of women in that one category—acting. I suspect it is not entirely a coincidence that, given this historical support, women would continue to bring home the statuette even if they were forced to compete with male actors.
I can't say how deep an effect the existence of "Best Actress" and "Best Supporting Actress" categories has had on the film industry, but I know this: These categories reward filmmakers who write strong female characters. And even today, the existence of good stories about women can hardly be taken for granted in Hollywood. Like Mondello, I bristle at the unnecessarily sexist distinction between great male actors and great female actors. But as onerous as a "Best Female Director" category would be, I know that if that category had existed 80 years ago, Hollywood would have actually been forced to support real "women's pictures" all the way down the line, and today's great female filmmakers would not be staring down an 80-year legacy of being left out of the show.