In Hollywood, Where Are the Best Actress Oscar Nominees?

There are enough great actor performances this year to fill up several Academy Awards ceremonies. But where are the women? Ramin Setoodeh on why the gender gap in Hollywood has never been so wide.

As Hollywood enters the final two months of the year, with awards season on the horizon, there’s something missing from the crop of Oscar hopefuls scheduled to campaign at private dinner parties and screenings in New York and Los Angeles. Where are the women?

This isn’t a new criticism. Strong male roles have always dominated the male-centered movie industry. But this year, the gap between actors and actresses is perhaps as wide as it has ever been. Even the No. 1 blockbuster of the 2012 so far, The Avengers, treated its lone woman superhero, the Black Widow, as an afterthought. The actress who plays her, Scarlett Johansson, hasn’t headlined her own movie since 2007’s The Nanny Diaries.

On the other hand, there are already enough strong male performances to book several Academy Awards ceremonies. Among the top of that list are Daniel Day-Lewis as the 16th president in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, Joaquin Phoenix as a scenery-chewing war veteran in The Master, Denzel Washington’s addict pilot in Flight, and Bill Murray as another president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, in Hyde Park on Hudson. Anthony Hopkins is terrifically spooky in Hitchcock. Earlier this year, Richard Gere received plenty of kudos for his shady CEO in Arbitrage. Ben Affleck is the CIA agent who makes Argo fly. In The Sessions, John Hawkes delivers his best performance yet as a virgin with polio. The same goes for Jake Gyllenhaal, in the cop drama End of Watch, and Bradley Cooper, as a bipolar but lovable nut in David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook. And those are just the best great performances.
Not all these movies are out in theaters yet, but they’ve been screened early to the press, and the buzz is loud and clear. Among the female performances, only one name stands out: Jennifer Lawrence. In Silver Linings Playbook, playing the oddball girl next door, she gives the kind of wonderful performance that’s already made her the frontrunner to this year’s Oscar race. At only 22, Lawrence has become that rare Hollywood actress with box-office clout. Her Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games earned $408 million last spring, the No. 3 most successful movie of the year. The only problem is, come February’s Academy Awards, she might be the lone contender in the Best Actress category.
Publicists and other industry insiders acknowledge how strange it is to have so few actresses featured in landmark roles this year. Meryl Streep, who seems to have a reserved front-row seat at the Oscars, is unlikely to wring another nomination for Hope Springs. Sony isn’t even sending out Academy screeners of the comedy about a married couple’s sex woes. Anna Karenina, starring Keira Knightley, received mixed reviews when it made its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival in the fall. Nicole Kidman stretched as a Southern damsel in The Paperboy, but the movie was widely panned. That means this year’s Academy race could be made up of a few unknowns. A good bet: newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis, star of Beasts of the Southern Wild, the critically adored summer indie about an oncoming Louisiana hurricane. If she’s nominated, at age 9, she’ll be the youngest actress ever in the category.
A look at the winter movie slate makes the scarcity of great roles for women clear. It’s a boy’s club. A lot of awards-bait films this year—Lincoln, Life of Pi, The Master, Argo, and Flight—don’t even bother with leading ladies (Sally Fields, though? -OP note). In any year, a biopic starring an important historical woman, such as The Iron Lady or The Queen, is an exception. And when films like 2009’s Amelia do get made, audiences usually don’t see them. For many A-list actresses, the best chance of getting noticed is clinging to that one good female role in male ensembles. Warner Bros. is campaigning Anne Hathaway as a lead actress for her Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises. Sony is doing the same for Jessica Chastain, who went from The Help to costar of Zero Dark Thirty, the upcoming Osama bin Laden drama directed by Kathryn Bigelow.
“It’s not done with malice. It just sort of happens.”
For every Sex and the City, Mamma Mia!, or Twilight breakthrough, Hollywood takes at least three steps back. No actress commands the kind of industry clout Julia Roberts once had when she was knocking out hits like My Best Friend’s Wedding, Notting Hill, and Erin Brockovich. A lot of veteran actresses—make your own list here—have simply given up on theatrical movies and migrated to TV. Julianne Moore, who hasn’t been nominated for an Oscar in nine years(!), won an Emmy this year for playing Sarah Palin in Game Change. Other recent Oscar winners, including Halle Berry and Reese Witherspoon, have entered a purgatory of lackluster roles in films like Cloud Atlas or This Means War. Has anybody seen Renée Zellweger lately?

I feel like every year there are good female performances that go unnoticed because the film was not distributed by Weinstein & Co. tbh. Have you guys seen anything, think of any worthy performances? I feel like Anne Hathaway may have a shot for Les Mis but definitely not for Dark Knight Rises.