Oscars: Best Picture Race a Battle of the Sexes

This story first appeared in the Dec. 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Quick, name the past five best picture Oscar winners: The Hurt Locker, The King's Speech, The Artist, Argo and 12 Years a Slave. Their differences in tone, setting and genre aside, what do they all have in common? They are all movies in which the central character is a man.

Now, that's not to suggest that Oscar — and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — is an old boys' club. But when it comes to winning the ultimate prize, movies about men do seem to enjoy an advantage (see sidebar). So how's that likely to play out in this year's competition?

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There certainly are quite a few heavyweight contenders that can be expected to appeal much more to the Academy's male voters. Foxcatcher, which is based on the true story of three men brought together by their passion for wrestling, probably is the prime example; Vanessa Redgrave and Sienna Miller are the only women who really show up in it at all, and theirs are small, almost silent parts. American Sniper, Clint Eastwood's no-holds-barred portrait of an expert military marksman in Iraq and the impact that his work has on him after the war, also has been better received by men than women; Miller, like in Foxcatcher, has the most prominent female role in the story, and again, she has little to do. Whiplash focuses on a young man and his sadistic male music teacher; a girlfriend appears briefly but proves just to be a hindrance to his progress. As for Birdman, while it features a few women — an actress, a temperamental daughter, a catty critic — it's ultimately about a man's midlife crisis.

Nightcrawler is about a weird young guy in modern-day Los Angeles who, among other twisted acts, essentially holds a woman sexually hostage in return for his professional services. Mr. Turneris about an artist who more or less uses then disposes of women in 19th century England. And Get On Up, which takes place chronologically between those two films, also focuses on a guy, James Brown, who, while a great singer, was piggish toward women, something that female voters generally are less inclined to overlook than men.

Other male-leaning contenders include The Judge, in which a father and son battle it out emotionally; Fury, about a group of soldiers who share a tank during World War II (most of whom behave abhorrently toward women); Love Is Strange, about an older gay couple (though Marisa Tomei, as one of the men's nieces, has some nice moments); The Gambler (Jessica Lange and Brie Larson make the most of mere seconds of screen time); Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (God love Keri Russell, but she isn't called upon to contribute much); and the biblical action-epics Noah and Exodus: Gods and Kings.

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On the other side of the spectrum are several titles that appeal more to women than men. One of the year's biggest, most unexpected hits has been Gone Girl. The film — adapted by a woman, Gillian Flynn, from her own best-selling novel but directed by a man, David Fincher —is about a woman (Rosamund Pike) who represents a man's worst nightmare. (More than 60 percent of its opening-weekend audience was female, and women have fueled its $335 million worldwide box office.)

Still Alice is another film inspired by a novel by and centered on a woman — but also directed by a man, or rather, two men. It focuses on a mother's relationship with her daughters (and a sometimes absent husband) as she battles early-onset Alzheimer's.

Two films inspired by memoirs of women — also directed by men — are Wild and Tracks, both of which focus on women who take thousand-mile journeys through the wilderness. While Tracks has received more noms from the early-announcing indie groups, Wild, which opened Dec. 3, has been strongly cheered by such high-powered women as Katie Couric andMarlo Thomas, who hosted a New York luncheon on its behalf that was packed with other influential women in the media. The adaptation of popular novel The Fault in Our Starshas a passionate following among young-adult women.

Lots of other films this year have centered on women and featured tour-de-force performances by the actresses who portray them. But, perhaps tellingly, while several could result in acting noms — Amy Adams in Big Eyes, Jennifer Aniston in Cake — they generally are not regarded as best picture contenders.

Of course, not all films fall as neatly on one side of the gender line. Selma and Unbroken are films about heroic men and feature few women characters, but both were directed by women (Ava DuVernay and Angelina Jolie, respectively) who obviously bring a female perspective. DuVernay has said that it was precisely that female perspective that motivated her to show every violent act in her film in slow-motion and then focus on its aftermath more than most male directors would have done. Jolie includes scenes about the inner turmoil that a torturer comes to feel as a result of his acts, something that was suggested in the female-penned biography that inspired her film.

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Other "blurred lines" (to reference a less-than-gender-PC music video) include The Theory of Everything, a film inspired by the memoir of a woman (Stephen Hawking's first wife, Jane) that's at least as much about the man she married; The Imitation Game, which only has one female character of any note but makes her the audience's surrogate; The Homesman, which, for its first half, is entirely about a woman forging her way in a man's world before taking a jarring turn; Boyhood, which is eponymously about a young male but offers just as much insight into the boy's mother; Interstellar, which pairs a man and a woman in the workplace for three-plus hours of screen time without having them become romantically involved; and The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, which, through its shuffle-able parts, offers equal time to both the male and female perspective on the same disintegrating relationship.

Then there's the giant ensembles with multiple storylines, such as Chef, The Grand Budapest Hotel and Into the Woods. Conceivably, they could appeal to men and women in relatively equal numbers, marking something of a welcome detente in the seemingly never-ending Battle of the Sexes.


Past Winners Are Mostly a Manly Bunch

The very first best picture Oscar, way back in 1929, went to Wings, a high-flying tale about men in combat. And while there certainly have been exceptions — such as the 1958 romantic musical Gigi — more masculine-appealing movies usually have claimed the award. That’s partly because of the fact that the membership of the Academy is and always has been disproportionately male. (According to a 2013 Los Angeles Times study, the Academy is 76 percent male and 24 percent female, whereas, according to the 2013 U.S. Census, more than 50.8 percent of Americans are women.) Although the Academy has been working to diversify its membership, change takes time. Since 2000, only 16 of the 92 best picture nominees have had women as their primary protagonists — Erin Brockovich, The Hours, The Queen, Juno, The Reader, The Blind Side, An Education, Precious, Black Swan, The Kids Are All Right, Winter’s Bone, The Help, Zero Dark Thirty, Million Dollar Baby, Gravity and Philomena — and only one of those (Million Dollar Baby) has won. And that was a full decade ago.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg

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