Oscar Wild: it’s a man’s world and we’re just acting in it

Ahead of this week’s Oscars ceremony, Sarah Harford looks at the contenders for Best Actress, and asks why this is one of the few categories where women are being recognised.

This was a great year for women in film. Looking at the competition for Best Actress at the 2017 Academy Awards, we encounter a selection of complex, nuanced characters. None of these women are reduced to mere love interests or caretakers – they are all implicit in creating their own destiny.

Image by Sarah Harford

Yet these are only some of the female performances of note this year. Jessica Chastain could have easily received a nomination for Miss Sloane, meanwhile Amy Adams missed out on recognition for her strong performances in both Arrival and Nocturnal Animals.

Likewise, the Best Supporting Actress category is equally stacked with heavy hitters, including the favourites Viola Davis and Michelle Williams. However, it should be noted that Hidden Figures has a strong, largely female ensemble cast but received only one actress nomination for Octavia Spencer.

This shows the extent of the competitive race for Oscar glory this year, but who will take home the coveted Best Actress statuette on Sunday? In recent years the Golden Globes, Screen Actors’ Guild (SAG), and BAFTA awards have always been a good indicator for the potential Best Actress winner.

This award season, Emma Stone has taken home the Golden Globe for musical or comedy  plus the SAG and BAFTA award, putting her as the frontrunner. However, Isabelle Huppert beat both Ruth Negga and Natalie Portman in the Golden Globes drama category, which shows that she should not be discounted just yet.

But this is the Oscars and anything can happen.


The contenders

La La Land seems to be the film to beat across all categories, nominated for a record-tying 14 awards. If La La Land is the champion, however, then Emma Stone is its star player. Her sincere, heartfelt portrayal of aspiring actress Mia carries this modern musical. It is easily Stone’s finest performance to date, and she outshines her sombre male counterpart, Ryan Gosling.

Hollywood loves a film about Hollywood, and part of La La Land’s charm is that it is reminiscent of classics such as Singin’ in the Rain. Stone’s singing and dancing are certainly no match for Debbie Reynolds, but that’s what makes the film genuine and endearing. However, is that enough to secure her victory in a category full of strong dramatic roles?

Historical biopics always do well at the Academy Awards ‒ in recent years there’s been Meryl Streep for The Iron Lady, Helen Mirren for The Queen, and Reese Witherspoon for Walk The Line. Now, Natalie Portman is nominated for her portrayal of a former First Lady Kennedy in Jackie.

If the Oscars are known to love a transformative performance, then this polished portrayal of grief should get some attention. It is a powerful turn from Portman on several layers, depicting a woman who is putting on a desperate performance ‒ as a wife dealing with a personal tragedy and as a First Lady under the scrutiny of the media.

This role is far more complex and haunting than Portman’s performance in Black Swan which earned her the Best Actress award in 2011. Although she masters Kennedy’s distinctive accent and mannerisms, this is more than just an impersonation. It is a thoughtful and controlled portrayal, and there is no scene where Portman is not the focus, meaning that this is truly her film.

The dark horse of this race has to be French actress Isabelle Huppert, who has earned her first Oscar nomination for Elle. The psychological thriller from Paul Verhoeven (director of Basic Instinct) may be dividing audiences, but Huppert has won acclaim for her strong performance as rape victim Michèle.

Although Huppert is less well-known in Hollywood, and Elle was perhaps rarely seen outside of art-house cinemas, her surprise win at the Golden Globes has created buzz about a potential Oscar victory. It would not be the first time that a French language film had earned the Best Actress trophy ‒ Marion Cotillard won for La Vie en Rose in 2007.

Irish eyes, however, will be firmly fixed on Limerick lass Ruth Negga, whose performance in Loving is a subtle triumph. It is a simple, intimate portrayal of a woman who wishes to lead a simple and intimate life. Negga’s eyes speak volumes, of despair and of hope.

Loving has not received a lot of attention at this year’s Oscars, perhaps due to its understated nature, but its lead actress is definitely deserving of recognition. In a film that shies away from overly dramatic, “you can’t handle the truth” courtroom moments, Negga’s performance quietly but powerfully drives the narrative.

Finally, Meryl Streep has earned her record-breaking 20th Oscar nomination this year, for her role as the eponymous eccentric New York socialite in Florence Foster Jenkins. Streep is fantastic in this charming film, and it wouldn’t be awards season without her presence, but she seems least likely to win in this highly competitive category.

Bookies currently have Streep as a long shot, with Emma Stone as firm favourite. Personally, I would choose Natalie Portman as the stand-out performance, but all five women are potential winners, and surprises are not uncommon at the Oscars.

oscar actresses
Previous Best Actress winners, image by Sarah Harford


“If you can see it, you can be it”

While there’s been much discussion of diversity in Hollywood, and the underrepresentation of minorities at the Academy Awards last year, women are often forgotten about. This year, only 20 percent of all non-acting nominees are female across 19 categories ‒ a two percent drop from last year.

“We have a saying, ‘if you can see it, you can be it,’” wrote Julie Burton, president of the Women’s Media Center, in a statement released after the Oscar nominations were announced.

“Clearly, women cannot get through the door and if they cannot get through the door, they cannot be recognized and rewarded for their excellence and impact.”

No female directors were nominated this year, except for Ava DuVernay in the documentary category for 13th, and no women have ever been nominated for Best Cinematography. In fact, the only category where women dominate, outside of the acting awards where gender is specified, is Best Costume Design.


“Clearly, women cannot get through the door and if they cannot get through the door, they cannot be recognized ‒ and rewarded ‒ for their excellence and impact.”


However, this year also sees great achievements. Mica Levi is first woman to be nominated for Best Original Score in 16 years ‒ her tortured, agonising, score for Jackie is fantastically discomforting, and sets the tone for the film. Elsewhere, Joi McMillon has become the first black woman to ever be nominated for Best Film Editing for her work on Moonlight.

The Best Actress category shows us that significant roles are being created for the high calibre of women working in the film industry. But roles need to be available to women behind the camera too.

In a year of fine female performances it is certain that, whoever wins on 26 February, the Oscar statuette will be taken home by a deserving actress. Nevertheless, it is clear that more still needs to be done for women in the industry as a whole.




Featured image by lincolnblues via Flickr

Leave a Reply