The festivals are ending, the buzz is generating and the predictions are in! Every year when the Oscar guesses start piling up, it’s interesting to look at the gender balance (or lack thereof) in the buzz-worthy films. Last year, the films that were ultimately nominated showed a shocking lack of gender balance, especially when compared using the Bechdel test. This is a test used to gauge gender equality in films, by checking if a) There are more than two named female characters, b) If these females ever talk to each other, and most importantly c) If these females ever talk to each other about anything other than a man. Last year, only two of the nine nominees for Best Picture passed the Bechdel test: The Help and The Descendants. Despite passing the test, the latter was still a film starring a man, and the only scenes of two women talking to each other took place between George Clooney’s bickering daughters. All of the nominated directors were men, and of the ten nominated films for screenwriting only one was written by women: the long-shot nominee Bridesmaids. However, of the nominees for Best Actress (Glenn Close, Viola Davis, Rooney Mara, Michelle Williams and her highness Meryl Streep), all were women who had actual starring roles in their films, not roles supporting the male lead.
So, what does this year look like for the women of Hollywood? Sadly, even worse. Almost all of the films generating Oscar buzz are male-centered films with male casts, writers and directors. Even most of the actresses with amazing performances are starring in male-oriented films. I haven’t seen quite all of the films being discussed (and many haven’t been released yet) so I can’t do a Bechdel test, but I can blindly rant about the information I found online! Here’s a list of a good number of Oscar hopeful films, with a brief summary of the gender balance/imbalance:
Lincoln: This film is about a man (Note: the title), is written by a man, is directed by a man, and has a chiefly male cast. Sally Field’s supporting performance as Mary Todd-Lincoln is generating a little buzz but not nearly as much as Daniel Day-Lewis, director Steven Spielberg or writer Tony Kushner. Will/Does it pass the Bechdel test? No.
Argo: If you’ve seen the trailer or poster for Ben Affleck’s new political thriller, you know what I am about to say. This film, starring and directed by Affleck, features a veritable plethora of men in suits. Barely any women in it. Also written by a man. Will/Does it pass the Bechdel test? Not even a little.
Silver Linings Playbook: I have a bit of hope for this one. It’s generating buzz for the writing and directing by David O’Russell, but even though the film stars Bradley Cooper and Robert DeNiro, most of the real acting buzz is for Jennifer Lawrence. She’s the favorite for Best Actress so far, and that’s awesome because she deserves many awards just for existing. But the fact that she might win for this role instead of her gut-wrenching leading performance in Winter’s Bone (2010) makes me lose a little faith in the universe. Will/Does it pass the Bechdel test? Eh, questionable. There seem to be multiple women in this film but in a movie where men are the stars, women rarely discuss anything but these men.
Life of Pi: Written by a man, directed by a man, starring several men and one male tiger. Will/Does it pass the Bechdel test? No sir.
The Master: Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, starring Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Best Actor favorite Joaquin Phoenix. Amy Adams is getting a bit of buzz for her supporting performance, but mostly people are just excited to see Phoenix star as another unstable adult male. Will/Does it pass the Bechdel test? Not at all. Though there are a few female characters, they never interact.
Hitchcock: Yup. Written and directed by men, starring Anthony Hopkins as one of the most influential male filmmakers of all time. However, Helen Mirren, Scarlett Johansson, Toni Collette and Jessica Biel all have supporting roles, and the first two are generating a little bit of buzz. Will/Does it pass the Bechdel test? Possibly, but any women who speak during this film will probably be discussing the man in question.
Amour: Written and directed by Michael Haneke, this french film about an elderly couple is a hopeful for a Best Picture nod as well as one for the leading lady, 85 year old Emmanuelle Riva. Will/Does it pass the Bechdel test? Possiblement.
Zero Dark Thirty: The only Oscar hopeful this year that was directed by a women. Yay!(?) Academy Award-Winning writer/director Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker) was last seen winning the award over her ex-husband James Cameron in one of the most awesome and awkward Oscar moments ever. Now she’s back with this chronicle of the search for Osama Bin Laden, which is a predicted nominee for Best Picture. Jessica Chastain seems to have a leading role, but the acting in this film isn’t wowing any critics. Will/Does it pass the Bechdel test? Probably not.
Les Miserables: This one is sort-of-kind-of-almost balanced. Written and directed by men, this movie musical features a leading cast of big names in both genders (Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried and Helena Bonham Carter). However, Hathaway seems to be the frontrunner for Best Supporting Actress so far, with Carter and Jackman as possible spoilers in their categories. Will/Does it pass the Bechdel test? Yes.
Django Unchained: Writer/Director Quentin Tarantino is back with what will undoubtedly be another badass historically inaccurate masterpiece. The last, Inglourious Basterds, featured two incredible leading ladies wielding guns and wits. This one, about a slave turned bounty hunter named Django (Jamie Foxx), seems to have only one female character of interest, a captured slave played by Kerry Washington. The rest of the cast includes Christoph Waltz, Samuel L. Jackson and Leonardo DiCaprio, but the most Oscar hope is resting on Tarantino himself. Will/Does it pass the Bechdel test? Not unless one of those men is playing a woman.
Beasts of the Southern Wild: This is an exciting one. Co-written by Lucy Alibar and director Benh Zeitlin, this fantastical drama stars nine year old Quvenzhane Wallis as Hushpuppy. Wallis is getting lots of buzz, as is the film itself, and how cool would it be to see this adorable little girl holding an Oscar half her size? Will/Does it pass the Bechdel test? Yes, even though dialogue is scarce in this movie, it passes with flying colors.
Moonrise Kingdom: Wes Anderson’s wonderful summer hit featured a chiefly male cast, but included notable performances by Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand and fourteen year old newcomer Kara Hayward. Sadly, it is a long shot for any nominations, which will likely be for writer/director Anderson. Will/Does it pass the Bechdel test? This film barely passed, thanks to a short scene between Hayward and McDormand in the bathtub.
Anna Karenina: Mixed reviews so far, but many critics are praising Keira Knightley’s leading performance. Tom Stoppard wrote the screenplay and Joe Wright directed, but the only buzz so far has been for Knightley. Rad. Will/Does it pass the Bechdel test? Judging by the novel, yes, but since Anna’s plot centers around two men it’s hard to say.
So there’s some good and some bad in this motley collection of movies. The good: This year we could possibly see both the oldest Oscar nominee ever (Riva for Amour) and the youngest (Wallis for Beasts of the Southern Wild), and both would be in the Best Actress category. We could also see two nominations for French actresses (Riva, and Marion Cotillard in Rust and Bone, which is mostly receiving hype for the ever-radiant Cotillard). Les Mis has some wonderful ladies, Jennifer Lawrence or Keira Knightley might kick some ass with their powerful leading roles, and though it’s a long-shot, Kathryn Bigelow could bring in a second win over all the male directors. However, despite those few glimpses, women seem to be absent from most of the “good movies” this year, even in the independent circuit. Brian DePalma’s Passion was a festival favorite, featuring a female-centered storyline starring Rachel McAdams, but right now it doesn’t look like this one will make it to awards season. Frances Ha, another hit at the festivals featuring strong female roles, was written by director Noah Baumbach and star Greta Gerwig, but is nowhere to be found on the awards predictions lists. And as I have tried to depict in this list, the rest of the hopeful films feature women in very weak supporting roles, and rarely as writers or directors.
What happened? Even several years ago the Oscars featured such female-centered films as The Kids Are All Right, Black Swan, Winter’s Bone, An Education, Precious, The Blind Side, Juno, and The Reader. Of course there are many great movies that don’t focus on women, and plenty of bad ones that do. The use of the Bechdel test is to gain a new perspective rather than to gauge the validity of these films. I think it’s important to have this perspective, and use it to judge the quality of the filmmaking industry rather than the films themselves. Perhaps Hollywood is just having an off year or two, but it’s troubling to me that this year’s Best Picture montage will likely be a series of men in suits from different eras, with women standing silently in the background. The role of women at awards shows should never be reduced to that of red carpet models and envelope openers.