One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

With all the election-season ugliness, the announcement of the nominations for the 84th Oscars provide a welcome relief—at least until they remind us that Hollywood is largely in the business of telling the stories of straight white men.

This year, we have some bad news and some good news when it comes to the acting categories for the Oscars. The good news is that, unlike in years past, the nominating committee didn’t have to scrounge to find ten great performances from actresses—a process that in the past often resulted in the embarrassing problem of having unknown names in the actress categories that leave viewers asking, “Who? In what?” Women are beginning to be recognized for playing more well-rounded characters with their own identity, such as heads of government or hacker-warriors, instead of the role of “Mom” or “Girlfriend.” Melissa McCarthy’s nomination for “Bridesmaids” even suggests that women might be sloughing off the requirement that they be conventionally attractive to even be considered.

Unfortunately, recognition for actors of color has still not caught up to the diverse world we live in. Of the three actors of color nominated for Oscars this year—one male and two female—Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer play maids and Demian Bichir plays a gardener. It’s an improvement on the past, when actors of color played “Driving Miss Daisy”-type roles that helped shore up apologist histories for American racism. These new roles acknowledge and rebuke racism to a degree. But it would be nice for actors of color to receive recognition for parts that weren’t about race at all and were closer instead to the universalist human narratives that white actors get to embody.

The line-up for Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress follow the same general patterns. All five nominees for Best Supporting Actor are white men doing everything from playing a former boxer to impersonating another famous actor (Kenneth Branagh playing Sir Laurence Olivier). Most of the Best Supporting Actress nominations fall into the same groove—with the exception of Butler.

That said, there’s one outlier I want to single out for praise: Melissa McCarthy’s well-deserved Best Supporting Actress nomination for her stunning performance in “Bridesmaids.” McCarthy is exactly the sort of actress, and this is exactly the sort of role, that runs so hard against type casting that you want to stand up and applaud. First of all, it’s a comedic role, and the Oscars are notoriously incapable of properly honoring the hard work that comedy actors do. But more than that, McCarthy is an actual fat actress instead of the more Oscar-friendly, conventionally attractive actress wearing prosthetics, and receiving praise for her bravery in deigning to look ordinary (see Charlize Theron’s win for Monster and Nicole Kidman’s prize for The Hours). Most important, McCarthy plays a character that you never see in Hollywood movies: a woman who manages to have both an awesome job and a well-rounded dating and social life, a butch woman who also happens to be straight, and a non-conventional person whose character arc has nothing to do with her coming to terms with herself. She’s perfectly happy the way she is, and audiences adored her for it.

Let’s take a look at the most exciting categories, the Best Actor and Best Actress nominations, to see how Hollywood continues to fail at reflecting the actual diversity of the human world it wishes to artistically represent.

Best Actor

  • Demian Bichir in A Better Life. Bichir is one of two Best Actor nominees that isn’t American or British. Could it be that the Academy is finally getting past the Anglo-American bent that has defined most of its history? Bichir’s work in the film, in which he plays an East L.A. gardener trying to keep his son off the streets, is getting quite a bit of praise. But it would be nice to see a Mexican actor receive such a prestigious nod for playing a character outside of the narrow range usually offered actors with Hispanic heritage.
  • George Clooney in The Descendants. A white guy flipping out when his white guy life is disrupted.
  • Jean Dujardin in The Artist. Another white guy, but a French white guy, which is legitimately mixing things up by Oscar standards.
  • Gary Oldman in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. This is Oldman’s first Oscar nomination, following the grand tradition of the Oscars only beginning to recognize innovative artists decades after their most iconic work was made.
  • Brad Pitt in Moneyball. The words “Robert Redford” have been thrown around a lot to describe Pitt, so he’s probably going to win it. The Academy just really prefers to stick with what they know, and handsome white movie stars are their comfort food.

Best Actress

  • Glenn Close in Albert Nobbs. Close has received six Oscar nominations in her career, but this is the first nod she’s received in quite awhile. I wouldn’t make too much of the Academy nominating her for playing a woman who lived her life as a man, though. As with able-bodied actors playing disabled characters in Oscar-grabbing roles, the work reads more like a stunt rather than a genuine attempt to understand the lives of the marginalized. While it’s excellent to see the stories of people who live outside the gender binary on screen, there’s still a problem as long as actual transgendered actors struggle to find work while cisgender (people whose gender matches the sex they were assigned at birth) actors snatch up these roles.
  • Viola Davis in The Help. Davis is one of two black actresses nominated for playing maids. The other is Davis’s co-star Octavia Spencer, who received a Best Supporting Actress nod. While they certainly deserve plaudits for their work, the problem remains: Can actors of color find complex, meaningful roles outside of the very narrow characters reserved for them? Denzel Washington has managed to make a career out of being a black actor who gets roles that fall out of this narrow range. It’s time for Hollywood to loosen the strictures and let others have those parts too.
  • Rooney Mara in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Probably the most unique role on this list, though many of us continue to question why a role—the misunderstood genius—that’s almost always reserved for men is “feminized” by making Lisbeth Salander the target of gruesome sexual violence.
  • Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady. Streep is an amazing actress, frequent nominee, and seems like a nice lady. All of which make it even more impossible to forgive her for playing a role humanizing one of the architects of modern conservatism. Maybe she just thought she could do a good job imitating Margaret Thatcher’s weird voice.
  • Michelle Williams in My Week With Marilyn. Williams is the second actress nominated for doing a stellar impersonation of someone with a recognizable public persona. Biopics are a well-known route for actresses looking for meaty roles that won’t otherwise be given to them. Reese Witherspoon, for example, was best known for romantic comedies until her portrayal of June Carter in Walk the Line, which earned her an Oscar. Unlike Hollywood scripts, real life has a wide diversity of women doing interesting things in it. Just turn it into a script, skipping the whole process of relying on the imaginations of screenwriters.

The main thing I’ll be rooting for on Oscar night is that McCarthy wins her much-deserved award. Along with the remarkable box office turnout of Bridesmaids, such a win would tell producers, “More of these kinds of roles, please.” The Oscars recognize the year that has already passed, but they also set a template for the kinds of scripts, roles, and movies that will receive acclaim in the future.

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