Tomorrow night is the annual five hour Hollywood film orgy known as the Oscars. With ex-spouses James Cameron and Katherine Bigelow the front runners for both Best Picture and Best Director, there's been lots of talk about the role of women in Hollywood.
Most shocking of all was a recent article on Salon arguing that Katherine Bigelow is a sheep in wolf's clothing. Her film The Hurt Locker is a war movie made by a woman--therefore she is a woman playing at being a man:
Looks to me like she's masquerading as the baddest boy on the block to win the respect of an industry still so hobbled by gender-specific tunnel vision that it has trouble admiring anything but film making soaked in a reduced notion of masculinity..
Her article and argument are taken apart on Jezebel:
It's true that war films have always been an excellent way to get the Academy's attention, though they've also been a good bet at commercial failure. But why should telling the stories of wartime only be a man's provenance? Isn't the U.S.'s engagement in Iraq women's business too?
And let's be clear here: Nancy Meyers and Nora Ephron aren't dismissed as unserious merely because they're women making movies about things that supposedly matter to women. It's also because they're seen, fairly or unfairly, as frothily commercial objects, made primarily for passing pleasure. (If we're splitting hairs, I personally didn't find Avatar "serious" and think it should also be seen as a primarily commercial enterprise, but then again the Academy didn't ask me. ...nowhere is there any indication that she's anything but incredibly passionate about both the substance and the creation of The Hurt Locker, or that she's suppressing some sort of innate femininity.
Meanwhile, DC blogger Amanda Hess discusses the argument that the acting awards should be de-segregated. Her conclusion is interesting:
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.
This idea of un-sexing the acting Oscars has been floated before, but it seems terribly wrong-headed to me. First of all it rests on the false assumption that the male actors are perceived to be better than the female ones. I don't know anyone who would say this. I don't even know how one could begin to argue this. I looked up the male and female acting categories in Wikipedia. Both Claudett Colbert and Clark Gable won in 1934 for It Happened One Night, and deserved it! Who can say that Joanne Woodward was better in Three Faces of Eve than Alce Guinness in Bridge over the River Kwai in 1957. But ten years later in 1967 both Katherine Hepburn in The Lion in Winter and Barbara Streisand in Funny Girl were much more memorable than Cliff Robertson (who?) in Charly (what?). And in the last fifteen years: the best performance of 1998 was certainly Roberto Benigni in Life is Beautiful over Gweneth Paltrow in Shakespeare in Love. In 2006? Definitely Helen Mirrien in The Queen, though Forrest Whittaker was amazing in The Last King of Scotland.
All this is to say: best performer might be a fun conjecture, and even a good addition to the awards, but it misses out on the more fundamental aspect of an actors person, their sex.
Even if we allow for a difference between sex and gender (which I don't), let's note that three women have been nominated for cross-gender roles (Cate Blanchett, Felicity Huffman, and Hilary Swank)--but no men have. Frankly, Cate Blanchett as Bob Dylan was brilliant. I don't know any male performers that could have taken on that role with such daring and played it so convincingly. (I haven't seen, and have no desire to see, the other films.)
For an actor, sex and gender are a crucial element both to the way they take on a role and to the character they play. Obviously sex is an element in every artists work, because it is integral to our being. But it matters much less that a woman directs a film about a seemingly male subject (war) than that she does it well. Loosing oneself entirely in a role, as Blanchett did, so that the viewers forget entirely who is playing the role, and see only the character portrayed--that is a mark of truly great acting.
I haven't yet seen The Hurt Locker, so I can't speak to the content of the film, but the argument that women should be awarded for "women's films" (aka romantic comedies) is preposterous. (That being said, if a women created a "romantic comedy" of It Happened One Night calibre, I'd be first in line to cheer her on in the Oscar race!) And I can't speak to the acting nods this year, since I've only seen two of the films thus far (An Education and Julie & Julia). Streep would deserve a best all time Oscar for her portrayal of Julia Child, had it been put in a better film (thanks, Ms. Ephron).
Perhaps it's fitting that we end with Julia Child. Her life is, indeed, a testament to the relevance and irrelevance of sex in entertaining: that she was a woman gave her the opportunity to pursue cooking and then the initial audience of housewives. But she was also the first female celebrity chef and therefore broke ground. Furthermore behind the scenes stood her supportive collaborative husband, Paul. She was a phenomenal woman, a great chef, and a find human being--and I don't see why we can't praise her for all three.
(Programing note: we'll be doing an Oscar night Fashion Roundup on Monday...so tune in!)