Gender's Role: In a Complex Category by Itself

Best Actor nominee Richard Jenkins.
Best Actor nominee Richard Jenkins. (By Jojo Whilden -- Overture Films)
By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 22, 2009

And the nominees for Best Female Cinematographer and Best Female Sound Editor are . . .

Oh, wait. The Oscars don't have those women-only categories. That would be awfully retro, wouldn't it? The work stands for itself. Silly us.

But, uh -- and pardon the ignorance here -- then why do we compartmentalize the performers, into Best Actor and Actress, or Supporting Actor and Actress? Why not Jolie vs. Jenkins?

If good acting is good acting, should chromosomes play a role at all?

Yes, it might seem screwy to compare Angelina Jolie's emotional "Changeling" performance to Richard Jenkins's in "The Visitor." But is it any more sensical to judge Jenkins's minimalist turn as a college professor against Brad Pitt's wide-eyed romp through "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"? Or really, to compare anything about the low-budget "Visitor" with the star-powered, animatronic "Benjamin"? Film is a vast and disparate medium; true apples-to-apples comparisons are almost impossible in any category.

Still, awards committees make do. They decide that "No Country for Old Men" -- dark, stark, violent -- is better than "Juno," a comedy about a pregnant teen. They nominate Cate Blanchett for playing a man, but judge her against women. (This was really a mind-trap.)

So, has the academy ever considered knocking 15 minutes off its bloated program by lumping the acting awards into a gender neutral "Best Performer"?

"Not without chuckling," says Bruce Davis, executive director of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He says it would torque telecast viewers, who want more, not fewer, opportunities for celeb ogling. "It's the appeal of movie stars," Davis says. "Most of the suggestions that we get for new categories are for more acting awards." He cites Best Juvenile Actor as a frequently nominated addition. On the other hand, "almost no one begs us to double the sound category."

Scan through the sound editing nominees for this year, though, and it begins to seem that someone should. Though the category is technically gender neutral, each of the five nominated films lists all-male teams. All five of the Best Director nominees are men; so are all of the nominees listed for film editing, music scoring, adapted screenplay, cinematography and -- wait for it -- makeup.

In fact, the only categories in which women have more nominees than men are . . . Best Actress . . . and Best Supporting Actress.

"It's already so impossible for women to win anything," says Debra Zimmerman, executive director of the nonprofit Women Make Movies. If the academy "got rid of Actress, they would win nothing at all."

A 2008 study at the University of Southern California revealed it wasn't just the awards that betray gender disparity, but the films themselves. The study evaluated nearly 7,000 speaking roles in recent Oscar-nominated movies, finding that only 27 percent of those roles belonged to women. In films with female directors, however, the percentage jumped to 44 percent.

The "women need better roles" complaint is way tired, but it hints at the best argument for gendered acting awards. Directors -- along with screenwriters, composers, etc. -- are in charge of their own vision. They decide who says what and to whom, and the motivation behind why it's said. Actors, on the other hand, are vessels who carry out the vision. They deliver lines; they don't write them, and though their portrayals might transcend what's on the page, they can't transform it entirely. As long as the type and quality of roles offered to actors and actresses continues to be different, can the performers really be judged on what's beyond their control?

"Very rarely are there roles where directors are just looking for an actor, regardless of the gender," says Dodai Stewart, an editor for pop culture blog "If a man and a woman aren't being considered for the same role, then why would they be considered for the same award?"

Stewart's argument is startlingly sensible.

Mickey Rourke as Sister Aloysius in "Doubt" would have been, well, a very different movie.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company