Since 1998, a significant number of Academy Award nominee and winning performances by women have gone to those in biographical productions. Previously, the occasional movie about real-life women such as Norma Rae, Coal Miner’s Daughter or Silkwood garnered critical praise and ticket sales,yet for more than a decade, the biopic has been virtually the lone show in town for women in front of the camera or in line at the box office. Only twice in more than a dozen years has there been an Oscar season free of the biopic represented in the Best Actress or Best Supporting Actress categories: 2008 and the present 2010. Otherwise, winners and nominees have included features such as
1998: Judi Dench won Best Supporting Actress for playing Queen Elizabeth II in Shakespeare in Love
1999: Hilary Swank won Best Actress as Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry (Chloe Sevigny was nominated for a supporting role in the film)
2000: Julia Roberts won Best Actress for Erin Brockovich while Marcia Gay Harden took home the Supporting award for her turn as Lee Krasner in Pollock
2001: Jennifer Connolly won Best Supporting Actress for playing Alicia Nash in A Beautiful Mind.
Judi Dench was nominated for Best Actress for playing Iris Murdoch in Iris; Kate Winslet was nominated in the Supporting category for playing the younger Iris.
2002: Nicole Kidman claimed Best Actress as Virginia Woolf in The Hours.
Salma Hayek was nominated in the same category for playing Frida Kahlo.
2003: Charlize Theron won Best Actress playing the role of Aileen Wuornos in Monster.
2004: Cate Blanchett awarded Best Supporting Actress as Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator.
Laura Linney nominated in the same category for playing the wife Clara in Kinsey.
2005: Reese Witherspoon won Best Actress as June Carter Cash in Walk the Line.
Catherine Keener nominated in the Supporting category for playing Harper Lee in Capote.
2006: Helen Mirren won Best Actress for her role as Elizabeth II in The Queen.
2007: Marion Cotillard won Best Actress as Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose.
Cate Blanchett nominated for a Supporting role playing Queen Elizabeth I
2009: Sandra Bullock won Best Actress as Leigh Anne Touhy in The Blind Side
Helen Mirren (as Sofya Tolstoy) and Meryl Streep (as Julia Child) were nominated in the same category.
That’s quite the glut of prizes offered to women for playing biographical characters. What should audiences make of the critical darlings of the last dozen years? Do the tastemakers reserve their regard for famous ladies? What was once a field of Hookers-Victims-Doormats, as Shirley MacLaine noted in a gimlet-eyed view of the roles for women in the movie industry, now seems overrun by a new trio made up of Queens-Bitches-Sidekicks locked into a biopic. Each one of the award-winning & nominated characters I’ve listed fits into one of the three boilerplate roles for women. It may be a step up from the original three MacLaine identified, but holy crap, it’s not enough of an artistic treatment for the scope of women’s lived experience. While the biopic trend spread to roles for men, those actors had multiple years where it was not the case, and plus, there’s never been an imaginative block for writers which prevented the realisation of compelling fictional characters for men to play.
This Sunday, for the 83rd Annual Academy Awards, we can celebrate a refreshing change in roles available for women, especially in the race for the leading role. This is the first year in recent memory to boast an absence of Hooker-Victim-Doormat standbys, or the biopic formula of Queens-Bitches-Sidekicks of recent fashion. This year we have two interpretations of a rare female archetype on film: The Fighter. A fighter exhibits traits that are usually attributed to men, such as determination, courage, fearlessness, ambition and a single-minded pursuit of goals. The female fighter has roots in Hollywood which extend at least far back as Joan Crawford’s award-winning turn as the titular Mildred Pierce in 1945. She played one of the first women onscreen to have large-scale ambitions beyond the standard trope of getting a man or revenge. Mildred worked her ass off as a self-made business woman. She overlooked meals, sleep and social censure in the struggle to establish herself outside poverty. Despite a bitch of a daughter and an inconstant man, Mildred survived by her own wit, energy and application. She’s the original fighter.
This type of female character appeared again in 1950, when Judy Holliday won Best Actress in her role as Billie Dawn
in Born Yesterday. Billie grew from gun moll to educated citizen; another chrysalis within muliebrity, like Mildred, a woman who moves outside of a relationship dependent upon men. Folks cite the birth of the Second Wave with Friedan’s Feminine Mystique, when the possibility for a feminist genesis seems just as likely through Judy Holliday’s performance onscreen thirteen years earlier. We also witness shades of the fighter during the 1950 Oscars in All About Eve, with Bette Davis and Anne Baxter nominated in the same leading actress category. There have been several other notable versions of the lady fighter onscreen. At least half of the roles Elizabeth Taylor took from the mid-50s through the next decade could be classified as such. Barbara Streisand’s Katie was one in 1973’s The Way We Were. She gives up her goy dreamboat for social activism. Shirley MacLaine won for playing a formidable fighter in Terms of Endearment in 1983 in a standout performance. Who doubted she would have popped one of those nurses for a delay with her daughter’s morphine? Sigourney Weaver was nominated in ’86 in her second turn as Ellen Ripley, a badass fighter if ever there was one. Whoopi Goldberg earned the nomination for Best Actress for The Color Purple as Celie, a woman who advanced from doormat to fighter when she gained the courage to curse an abusive husband and open a shop by the wit of her needle.
This year adds to the company of female fighters on celluloid in nominations for the lead actress category. Natalie Portman as Nina Sayers in Black Swan and Jennifer Lawrence’s Ree Dolly in Winter’s Bone exhibit the crux of the fighter archetype. My vote was torn between the two actors for the first time in memory, because usually there’s no hesitation for who’s earned the golden statue. Each woman is a fighter, a fully drawn character, a force of ambition with the will to achieve. Nina Sayers battles self-doubt, anxiety, physical deprivation and competition in order to realise her dream centre stage in the dual roles of Swan Lake. Ree Dolly contends with poverty, cross-generational divides, physical deprivation, demands as sole care-giver for her family and a drug-ravaged culture of silence in order to survive. Each character stands up to punishment by right of her own vision and ambition to carry on. Even better, these fighters break the stereotypes attached to either the vainglorious diva ballerina or depictions of impoverished women as dim or slutty.
I say hurrah for each character and performance. Here’s hoping audiences are treated to more imaginative ladies who channel truth to the marrow.
And screw the Marky Mark version.