Zach D’Amico is co-founder of and writer at Rough Cut Cinema.
But for ambitious actresses looking to push themselves, and especially for women of color, these so-called prestige pictures that leave Academy members salivating offer few meaningful opportunities. Since the best picture category adopted its current ballot-counting process, 32 of the 45 best actor nominees have come from movies nominated for the top prize. For women, that number shrinks to 20, less than half. Just this year, the nine best picture nominees included paltry two lead roles for women. Women have made the best of these opportunities — both female leads in those movies earned best actress nominations — but there are few of them.
Instead, many of today’s best actresses are seeking their most creative, challenging roles in the horror genre. Much has been written on the recent contortion and explosion of horror films, but perhaps the most exciting development has been the evolution of roles for women beyond the prototypical “scream queen.” And while men have certainly starred in their share of horror films, the genre is unique in having offered just as many — if not more — interesting roles to women in recent years.
In 2019, Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o gave a terrifyingly nuanced dual performance as the middle-class Adelaide and her underworld counterpart, Red, in Jordan Peele’s “Us.” Trained at the Yale School of Drama, Nyong’o studied historical figures and drilled her voice to be able to produce Red’s chilling, croaking speech. Her performance is key to the film’s success — particularly a stomach-churning final sequence.
In “Midsommar,” rising star and recent Oscar nominee Florence Pugh carries the weight of trauma in her face. Often acting as an audience cypher for Ari Aster’s wild journey through a Swedish pagan cult, Pugh builds tension through restraint, finally granting catharsis in one of the most surreal scenes of the year.
And in “Hereditary,” Oscar nominee Toni Collette turned the traditional role of a grieving mother on its head — figuratively and literally. Collette brought to the role a clear knowledge of traditional horror tropes, subverting them to keep audiences uncomfortable and to more fully explore her character’s journey from despondence to sorrow to anguish.
The absence of recognition begins with the lack of respect for horror as a genre. Though “Midsommar,” “Us” and “Hereditary” all earned plaudits from audiences and critics alike, and awards from other organizations, they combined for zero Oscar nominations. And ignoring female-led horror puts an already anachronistic Academy further out of step with audiences: “Us” was the top-grossing original film in 2019, while “Hereditary” and “Midsommar” pulled in more than $80 million and $40 million, respectively. Given that the Academy has come under attack from comic book and action-blockbuster fans for being out of touch, recognizing quality genre fare could give the group a powerful response, while also allowing it to set a clear marker of artistic quality.
The few times that female-led horror movies have received the Academy’s approval, it has been for hybrid films from accomplished directors that lean toward psychological thrillers. The only lead actresses to receive an Oscar nomination in the past three decades for what could be considered horror performances are Natalie Portman in “Black Swan,” Jodie Foster in “The Silence of the Lambs” and Kathy Bates in “Misery.” All three won. But not since Ellen Burstyn in 1973’s “The Exorcist” has a woman been nominated for best actress in a true horror film.
This does not mean the performances that have been nominated don’t represent superb acting from talented actresses; they do. But the Academy should honor risk-taking performances outside the so-called “Oscar roles.” Awards attention often brings more work, and for women facing a lack of satisfying opportunities, the Oscars are about more than a shiny trophy.
It’s not too late to change course. 2020 will feature numerous exciting actresses turning to horror, including Elisabeth Moss in “The Invisible Man,” Keri Russell in “Antlers,” Teyonah Parris in “Candyman,” Emily Blunt in “A Quiet Place: Part II” and Janelle Monáe in “Antebellum.” Maybe this year, women can finally scare the Academy into ending the nightmare.
Otherwise, a new generation of talent will be relegated to chasing the same “prestige” roles as their predecessors if they want to win an Oscar. After all, Nyong’o, Pugh and Collette have each received an Oscar nomination. Their roles? A slave. A beloved literary figure. A mother.
Stacy L. Smith: Want to know what happens when you put women in charge of movies? Look to ‘Hustlers.’