Hollywood’s leading women fight back

At the 2014 Academy Awards, Best Actress winner Cate Blanchett railed at Hollywood’s predilection for male-centric filmmaking, sparking a debate about women in film that sent ripples throughout the industry.

After thanking her distributors for their bravery she turned on “those of us in the industry who are still foolishly clinging to the idea that female films with women at the center are niche experiences. They are not. Audiences want to see them and, in fact, they earn money.”

Hollywood, long perceived as a coterie of old white men, left the event with its wrist slapped, shamed by a guest at its own party.

A year on, has anything changed?

A recent report from the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film has recorded a dearth of female-driven features, with actresses making up only 12% of protagonists in 2014’s top-grossing films.

This was despite such films earning a large share of total box office — spearheaded by Jennifer Lawrence, ‘The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1’ was the top-grossing film in the U.S. last year with $334 million.

But such leading parts are few and far between. In fact, data suggests the number of female starring roles is decreasing, falling 3% since 2013 and down 4% on 2002.

Author of the study, Dr Martha Lauzen, told Variety that “there is a growing disconnect or gap between what we might perceive as being the current status of women in film and their actual status… A few high-profile cases can skew our thinking.”

Lead actresses are even missing out in films directed by women. Last year female protagonists starred in only 39% of such films, whilst those directed by men registered at a meager 4%.

Dr Lauzen pointed the finger of blame at those off-screen. “We need to have greater diversity behind the scenes if this is going to change.”

Digesting this year’s Oscar nominations

Among the 57 films nominated at this year’s Oscars, 15 have out-and-out female leads — that being, a film told from the lead actress’ perspective. Representing 26% of the total nominees, this percentage is far higher than Hollywood’s output last year.

However, among these 15 films there are 11 foreign films, shorts, animations and documentaries, demonstrating how leading actresses are often left on the periphery when it comes to major Hollywood features.

There are no female-driven stories among the eight films vying for Best Picture; so too in both adapted and original screenplay categories.

It must also be noted that behind the lens the Best Director category is an all-male affair for the fifth successive year, despite strong offerings from Ava DuVernay (‘Selma’), Angelina Jolie (‘Unbroken’), Amma Asante (‘Belle’), Jennifer Kent (‘The Babadook’) and Gillian Robespierre (‘Obvious Child’).

For Hollywood’s female protagonists, recognition this year has almost entirely been limited to acting categories with a mandatory female presence.

Six Oscar contenders

1. This year Julianne Moore is seen by many as a shoo-in for Best Actress, with critics and medical experts united in praise for her “shockingly accurate” portrayal in ‘Still Alice’ of a woman coping with early-onset dementia.

But for a technicality, Moore could easily have earned a second nomination for David Cronenberg’s ‘Maps to the Stars’. Ineligible due to its U.S. release date, she played the “magnificently horrible” Havana Segrand, a neurotic actress raging against ageism and her fading stardom — a meta-criticism of Hollywood backed up by the center’s findings.

2. Fellow frontrunner Patricia Arquette has swept the awards season with her “superb” and “selfless performance” as an embattled single mother in ‘Boyhood’, winning Golden Globe, Screen Actors’ Guild and BAFTA awards for Best Supporting Actress.

3. Marion Cotillard already has an Academy Award for ‘La Vie en Rose’, and this year is nominated once more for the Dardenne brothers’ ‘Two Days, One Night’. As Sandra she finds herself out of a job after a nervous breakdown, and over the course of a weekend must convince her co-workers to allow her to return. Her performance according to The New York Times is “as fine a piece of screen acting as you will ever see.”

4. Rosamund Pike (finally) took center stage in a major motion picture and has been immediately rewarded with a nomination for the dual-edged Amy in David Fincher’s ‘Gone Girl’. “A star presence […] from her very first scene,” Pike’s mendacious high-achiever is every bit as calculated and chilling as the literary creation from which she was drawn.

5. Reese Witherspoon only starred in ‘Wild’ after she was pushed out of the role of Amy in ‘Gone Girl’ by Rosmund Pike. In the end Nick Hornby’s adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s memoir — which Witherspoon optioned herself and in which she is in nearly every shot — has offered an even stronger platform for the Academy Award winner to bid for a second statuette. Ten years after her win for ‘Walk the Line’, it is “a major comeback” in every sense.

6. Felicity Jones has justly broken Hollywood as Jane Hawking in ‘The Theory of Everything’. An affecting, nuanced performance as the wife of the great professor, Jane wrestles with personal ambition and the need to care for her ailing husband. Co-star Eddie Redmayne will likely claim the Best Actor award, but as A.O. Scott argues, it is Ms. Jones that carries the movie.

Whoever wins on Sunday, the Academy will once again reward a batch of superlative performances by a group of gifted actresses. Similarly the public is rewarding filmmakers with leading women with high box office gross — between them, features with Best Actress nominations have grossed $523 million worldwide thus far.

It seems that with ample supply and demonstrable demand, the industry has the solution to the problem at its feet.

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