Expert Comment: The 2015 Oscars: Winners and LosersTuesday 24 February 2015
Principal Lecturer in Media and Communication Jacqui Miller reflects on this year's Oscars, and argues that beneath the gloss, the film industry seems resistant to change.
When Chariots of Fire won four of its seven nominations at the 1982/54th Academy Awards, upon collecting his award for Best Original Screenplay, Colin Welland famously warned Hollywood: ‘The British are coming’. This reference to the invasion by the British army during the American Revolution has been sporadically matched by British cinema talent, but, just like the British in the 1770s, they have often had to go home vanquished in defeat.
The 2015/87th Academy Awards saw comparatively poor pickings for the Brits, although there are some honourable exceptions. The careers of Mat Kirkby and James Lucas will be transformed by their winning Short Live Action film, for The Phone Call. Although I am not normally a fan of acting by ‘impersonation’ (I am still lamenting Philip Seymour Hoffman gaining the Oscar for his skilful imitation of Truman Capote in 2006 at the expense of Heath Leger’s sublime portrayal of Brokeback Mountain’s Ennis Del Mar), Eddie Redmayne was surely the only serious contender for Best Actor. Having meticulously researched his role, he not only gave a flawless depiction, but more importantly conveyed the essence of Stephen Hawking; despite being exceptional, both in his genius, and in his debilitation by an unusual condition, he retains the foibles of a typical man.
If Britain failed to gain many awards, and notwithstanding the debate about film industry transnationalism that Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu’s gaining Best Director for Birdman will reignite; like last year’s Gravity we have to ask does a director born overseas connote a Hollywood or a Latin film, this year’s Oscars was a thoroughly American-dominated affair, with subject matter ranging from Martin Luther King in Selma to jazz in Whiplash to the satire of several forms of American culture in Birdman. Looking again at the nominations and winners, another group are side-lined. As I recently argued in my publication on female directors in the classical Hollywood studio system, women practitioners were more active in filmmaking during the silent era than at any time since.
Although there are many fine films in the Best Film nominations, they are all, without exception, either overtly masculinist in their subject matter and casting. Not one of the films gives a role for a woman who is not a man’s satellite, and the presence of women in the nominations for practitioner categories, even those stereotypically associated with women in society, such as Makeup and Hairstyling, is minimal unless working with a male partner.
By definition, a woman has to win Best Actress, but Julianne Moore’s success in Still Alice underscores my point. I can think immediately of three other films about female dementia sufferers, The Iron Lady (2011) Away From Her (2006) and Iris (2001); films about men with dementia exist, but are less well-known. Of course Eddie Redmayne was playing a severely disabled man, but one who retained full clarity of an exceptional mind and sexual potency. Audiences are expected to empathise with ‘weakness’ in a woman, but revere male prowess. Hollywood also retains its tyranny towards gendered appearances. Even when walking through the wilderness in Wild, Reece Witherspoon retains her looks, and I could be cynical and presume Moore plays an early onset Alzheimer’s victim to enable the casting of an actress who remains red carpet perfect. Conversely, the majority of male nominations in Best Actor or Best Supporting Actor, from Bill Murray to Steve Carell to J.K. Simmons are unconventional looking ‘character’ actors, judged for their talent rather than talent necessarily aligned to the physical perfection actresses have to achieve.
As always, the Oscars celebrate great filmmaking and are an excuse for the razzle dazzle that Hollywood does so well, but beneath the gloss, we have to recognise the industry seems resistant to change.
Dr Jacqui Miller