Oscar season is beginning to take shape. With Venice, Toronto and Telluride film festivals been and gone, many of the studios used at least one as a platform to showcase their best prospects, and above all else there was one prominent theme among the emerging hopefuls.
The past year saw the much publicised Sony email hack. One of the major consequences of this was exposing the lack of pay equality in Hollywood between men and women. This understandably sparked outrage and retaliation from studios desperate to prove they are not as bad as it seems. However, in January 2015 the Oscar nominations were announced and both Ava DuVernay and Angelina Jolie were snubbed for a Best Director nomination. The former was expected to land something for her work on Selma, and it didn’t help that she was also African-American.
The equality gap has been scrutinized in brutal detail over the last year, so it’s no surprise that the films striking a chord both in the industry and with critics share the theme of female empowerment.
Jennifer Lawrence has been the champion of women at the global box office. Shockingly it was not until the Hunger Games that a film, let along a whole franchise, framed their entire promotional material around one female lead. The resounding commercial success of The Hunger Games since 2012 has removed the last possible vestige of justification for studios not to create more opportunities to some of Hollywood’s leading ladies, and pay them fairly for it.
The ripples of change can be felt at the box office, largely restricted to the teen-oriented action/adventure franchise such as Divergent, but the attitude shift is most apparent on the festival circuit, with a string of highly hyped movies that embrace women, not just as worthy leads but as the most important and influential characters within the narrative.
In the case of Suffragette the message could not be any clearer or bolder, focusing on the struggles of Emily Pankhurst and cohorts fighting for their right to vote. With an all-star cast led by Meryl Streep, this will win a lot of attention, though perhaps it will be too antagonistic to win enough votes from a predominantly white American male Academy membership.
Enter Joy, starring Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence and supported by Oscar nominees Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro. They reteam with David O. Russell for a biopic about a matriarch who embraces the true values of the American frontier to provide for her family and earn her fortune. The narrative is classic Oscar fodder with a woman at its heart – a strong female character played by a strong female role model. Acting nominations all round, though maybe not a second Oscar for Lawrence so much as a first for Cooper, which itself would be quite significant considering his three previous unsuccessful nominations in as many years.
As well as empowering women, films this year are also embracing change and challenging social taboos, with several films celebrating the LGBT community.
Stonwewall is the latest offering from disaster movie maestro Roland Emmerich. It may not be a serious awards contender, but it has grabbed the headlines this year for its lack of transgender actors in the main transgender roles. Nonetheless, Stonewall has raised the profile of an important event in American civil history and will help to boost the credibility and relevance of some real awards contenders.
In Carol Cate Blanchett plays a women struggling with her sexuality in 1950s New York, as a friendship with Rooney Mara blossoms into a full affair. Director Todd Haynes is quite adept at dealing with these issues of social alienation; Far From Heaven won him an Oscar nomination for his striking portrayal of racial tension in 1950s suburbia, while Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There was brave enough to cast Blanchett as a version of Bob Dylan, and it paid off with a wave of critical applause.
Meanwhile, Eddie Redmayne is already being touted as a potential two time winner for the Leading Actor Oscar for his commanding role in The Danish Girl, in which he plays a man with a gender crisis. The film, directed by Tom Hooper, plays out the discovery, transition and ultimate acceptance (or not) of Redmayne’s character. Such a poignant drama, which is also getting rave reviews, cannot be ignored by the Academy.
These films offer voters a wide array of choice to endorse strong women, both in film and on film, in whatever guise appeals most to them.
However, there will of course be multiple contenders that are, shall we say, more traditional in their themes and ideologies. This is not to assume the filmmakers themselves are not pro-equality, but the narratives have been expressed through a gaze which does nothing to empower women or the LGBT community. Such films include Brooklyn – an epic romantic drama about an Irish girl caught between two lives, and two potential suitors.
Then there are films such as The Revenant and Steve Jobs which are entirely preoccupied telling their own stories. Are they bad films because they’re not tapping into our ideological zeitgeists? No. Are they deriding or insulting women? No.
There will be many films and many contenders this year, and as always a plethora of ideas, issues and themes will be thrust into the limelight as each film champions their own debate. That’s the point of a great film. Many of the big contenders this year seem to have a notion of empowering women at the core of their story, and that’s awesome. Now is the time to fight for gender equality in Hollywood and LGBT acceptance around the world.
However, the simple fact that these films are being celebrated as some of the best of the year, are being lauded by critics and discussed across the internet for the very message they are trying to purport, have they not alreay won?