Commentary: Why is there Best Actress and Best Actor categories at Oscar’s but only one Best Director?
Perhaps it’s time to scrap such categories when wins should be based on merit, not gender, says Ian Dixon.
SINGAPORE: So it looks like the Golden Globes was no indication of who would bag wins at the Oscars, given Bong Joon-ho stunning viewers with surprise multiple victories at the Academy Awards this week, including taking the two top awards of Best Picture and Best Director.
And unsurprisingly also, the Twittersphere had much to say about which deserving nominee was overlooked.
Indeed, Natalie Portman, who featured all the last names of female directors not nominated for an Oscar on her cape worn to the Academy Awards, is adamant that more women should have been included.
But for all those claims surrounding supporting diversity, when Portman says “all”, why does she only refer to American female directors? The cape included Greta Gerwig, Lorene Scafaria and Lulu Wang who were all as passed over – but these were all Americans.
Senegalese-French director Mati Diop and French filmmaker Céline Sciamma (Portrait of a Lady on Fire) were also probable contenders not nominated. Dead Pigs director/producer Cathy Yan and the legendary Belgian director Agnès Varda, who passed away in 2019 after completing her self-evaluating film Varda by Agnès, should surely have been rated at the Oscars.
It would seem the pomp and circumstance of the 92-year reign of the Academy Awards has been increasingly saddled with more worthy causes than even the film producers can dream up for their movies.
Does Portman have a point, however? Of course, women should be acknowledged, paid equally and awarded. After all, Kathryn Bigelow is still curiously the only female Best Director winner ever to grace the Academy Awards stage.
Yet, in the wake of all this free-ranging debate, some of which questions whether female stars might be veering towards some affirmative action based on gender, it’s worth asking one question that has not been raised: Is the gender division for Best Actor and Best Actress out-dated?
TIME TO RECONSIDER BEST ACTOR AND BEST ACTRESS?
After all, female stars have arguably been given strong recognition for their memorable performances.
Don’t women compete on an equal standing with men? Don’t we think their skills are equal? Why then should we divide the actor roles into separate genders when the best director and cinematographer awards remain gender free?
Or conversely, can we see the Oscars further bifurcating the best sound mixer or cinematographer awards into Best Male and Best Female to create more award categories?
It all seems faintly ludicrous, yet history provides some perspective to this discussion over gender division in the contemporary film industry.
Gender has been the subject of considerable debate at the Oscars. As American philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler stated in 1990, gender is not equal to sex, which in turn is not equal to merit.
Yet, the tradition of theatre, cinema’s forerunner art form, where female roles were played by men¬ for many centuries, saw the growth of some curious performative conventions regarding gender.
These are conventions that pit the hyper-masculinity of Best Supporting Actor winner Brad Pitt against the feminised vulnerability of Leonardo DiCaprio in Oscar nominated film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
This is ironic in an industry where such prejudice begins with the notion that women are emotional (and therefore gravitate to acting) while men are technical (and therefore get close to the camera and can achieve mastery in more areas that one).
Standard gender roles are common to the media. To this day, magazine covers feature male actors in suits and power poses, revered for what they have accomplished, where actresses are generally depicted in statuesque, but passive postures, admired for their beauty.
Indeed, art critic John Berger once made the scathing commentary that “Men act. Women appear” as recognition that performative expectations on men and women do not represent an even playing field. In the case of the Oscars, Berger’s comment bears a sobering double entendre: “Men act.”
So is there a case for such divisions? I would argue otherwise. The outmoded notion that directors and cinematographers are film visionaries while actors and actresses are merely cattle is also being challenged at this contemporary nexus in history.
Yet, this prejudice remains at the centre of the current controversy and divides more than just the sexes. So why do we divide the Best Actor/Actress award into spurious gender divisions? It surely is outmoded in contemporary times?
Then again, what about other minority debates regarding the Oscars?
Film critic Kyle Smith of the National Review points out that the inclusion of Janelle Monáe as a “proud [female] …. black, queer artist” is merely an example of tokenism on the part of the 92nd Academy Awards.
Smith’s argument that while Gerwig’s previously nominated Lady Bird was exceptional, her current film Little Women is not up to scratch yet Smith does not account for history’s undeniable skew toward men and the benefits their gender brings. Do men and women simply have strengths and interests in different areas, generally speaking?
The awkwardness of the gender movement is also accentuated by legislation that purports to “level the playing field”. In Australia, Sweden and more countries, laws have been passed to ensure that film crews include at least 50 per cent women.
READ: Commentary: Male victims of rape deserve support and understanding, not ridicule and disbelief
But if men have more filmmaking skills — as is often assumed — does this not seem a silly law? Then what about the decades, in fact centuries, of men whose job runs ensured the development of their on-set or post-production skills while women had not received the same privileges?
While trying to quash the argument that it is trivial to saddle the Oscars with the mantle of paying attention to gender affairs, Kyle Smith undermines his own argument by failing to see that it is not about the Oscars at all: it is about the voice of diversity needing to be heard. It is about the times in which we live.
So let us feature the gender debate up front by asking: For the sake of diversity, could there be value in de-sensitising affairs, by first scrapping the categories divided by gender? Do we not believe men and women actors can compete fairly with each other?
If Academy selectors like famed author Stephen King justify their decisions by maintaining that their choices are merit-based not gender or race-based, then it seems like a move worth supporting.
The risk may be that obliterating the gender division in the Best Actor category would see women relegated to second position on the ladder.
For instance, if it came down to Renee Zellweger versus Joaquin Phoenix, would male prejudice prevail? Then if we complicate the issue with race, would women of colour be consigned to a place further down the ladder?
NO SILVER BULLET
There is no reason to think such a move to scrap gender categories will instantly change Hollywood.
Back in the year of 2003 at the 74th Academy Awards, before Twitter commentary became an institution in itself, Halle Berry was nominate for, and won, the Academy for Best Actress, the first for a woman of colour.
Even in her obvious wordless shock she managed to pay tribute to all the black women who had never been rated before her. Berry stated in 2003 that: “Every nameless, faceless woman of colour … now has a chance because this door has been opened.”
Posing with best male award winner Denzel Washington by her side, she pronounced a rosy future.
But in 2017, Berry reflected on that win as meaningless — in an interview with Variety, Berry lamented her win “meant nothing” for Hollywood where there have been no significant changes since, with no women of colour winning the award since.
One thing is worth bearing in mind in informing this move. While selectors are concerned that any change to the Oscars categories favours gender over merit, the age-old arguments regarding art not needing to justify itself should hold.
It is art for art’s sake ––the catch cry of the nineteenth century Pre-Raphaelite movement – and in keeping with this, it is high time for the Academy Awards to consider doing away with such divisions of gender in its categories.
Ian Dixon is an associate professor at Nanyang Technological University’s Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, whose research focuses on film theory, celebrity and cultural studies. Ian is also a professional screenwriter and published novelist.