The most exciting category at the Oscars is usually Best Actress or Best Supporting Actress, depending on the year. In the past 10 years, each have honored roles in such films as Black Swan, Jackie, Carol, and 12 Years a Slave, films we’re still talking about years later. Even Best Supporting Actor has nominated actors for films like Moonlight, The Florida Project, or Django Unchained. By contrast, the Best Actor category is routinely boring. It always rewards an actor who gives a performance in what the Academy deems a “prestigious” film.
Even more so than the winners, the nominees are often in films that rarely have cultural impact beyond their Oscars ceremony. Is it because we rarely reward the films that we cast women in while the industry is preoccupied with what a Best Picture winner and a Best Actor winner should look like?
I don’t particularly care about Timothée Chalamet losing an Oscar. He’s young and he has a full career ahead of him. The same goes for Daniel Kaluuya, though nominations for black men are few and far between. But Gary Oldman’s Oscar win for The Darkest Hour feels like the Academy continuing to adhere to what it views as “important acting” in so-called prestige films that are designed to win Oscars. It often makes the Best Actor race feel cold and heartless. Are we still talking about Manchester by the Sea? The Revenant? The Theory of Everything? Dallas Buyers Club (except when we’re reevaluating why we allowed Jared Leto to be cast as a trans woman in it)? Lincoln? The Artist? The King’s Speech? Crazy Heart? You have to go back to Sean Penn winning for Milk to find a film that’s remained culturally relevant in our time and a film that routinely shows up cinephiles’ favorite lists.
Perhaps it’s because Best Actor is routinely seen as a category where men are awarded for previous performances, because they lost out on them. Denzel Washington winning for Training Day, for instance. But women are usually awarded for films that are part of the zeitgeist. Frances McDormand in Three Billboards. Allison Janney in I, Tonya. Even Sam Rockwell’s Best Supporting win for was Three Billboards, not a biopic that surely won’t be on anyone’s Netflix queue in a few years.
It calls to mind the conversations that newer Academy members have had with the old guard. According to a Vulture piece, “new members say they ran into interference from an older, more traditional wing of the Academy when it came to evaluating [Get Out]. ‘I had multiple conversations with longtime Academy members who were like, ‘That was not an Oscar film,’’ said one new voter. ‘And I’m like, ‘That’s bullshit. Watch it.’ Honestly, a few of them had not even seen it and they were saying it, so dispelling that kind of thing has been super important.” Another Oscar voter said, ““I think Get Out is a movie that we wouldn’t have necessarily thought of as an Academy movie two years ago. It doesn’t really fall into any of the boxes that we think these movies do. It came out in February, and that’s almost never worked for Academy … it actually is provocative. It questions everything. It’s brilliant.”
But when we have the chance to reward actors for these provocative roles, like Kaluuya, we don’t. We didn’t when Heath Ledger was nominated for Brokeback Mountain. Or Colin Firth in A Single Man. Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network. It’s all tied to the idea that the male leads a film, and he’s what gets you to a Best Picture win. It’s why you rarely see the films women win for at the Oscars nominated for Best Picture. Those are considered women’s films, which of course, are less prestigious than an “Oscar film.”
If we truly start to embrace provocative films that challenge society, we will be able to not only reward men who give performances we’ll be talking about for years to come, but also change what we view as an “Oscar worthy” performance. Is it portraying Winston Churchill in 2018 or is it portraying the state of being a black man in America or a young man grappling with his sexuality? If we do that, maybe we’ll also start seeing more films like Get Out and Call Me By Your Name not only nominated in Best Picture categories, but maybe winning too.