Supposedly the easiest acting path to winning an Academy Award is playing a hero, even flawed, or else a physically or mentally ill person.
Not if you’re a woman.
In fact, men are more than twice as likely to take home an Oscar for portraying those qualities.
That’s one conclusion I’ve drawn from examining the 180 roles (including two ties) that earned best actor and actress Academy Awards since 1929. Not a scientific study to be certain, but a subjective assessment by an experienced critic. Even with a generous margin of error, the numbers are striking.
In my estimation, 80 of 90 best actor Oscar winners won for roles considered heroic, antiheroic with an addiction to beat or a change of heart to make, or a disability or mental illness to cope with. George C. Scott in Patton and Ben Kingsley in Gandhi play heroes. Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart and Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas play antiheroes with the same flaw of alcoholism. Rod Steiger’s flaw is bigotry in In the Heat of the Night. Blindness in Ray and Scent of a Woman can be as dramatically effective as cerebral palsy in My Left Foot.
Meanwhile, I only counted 35 of 90 best actress winners whose roles fit those descriptions. Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, Sissy Spacek in Coal Miner’s Daughter and Anne Bancroft in The Miracle Worker are true-life heroes; winners from biopics are fairly even between the genders. Same goes for physical or mental illnesses. At that point, defining heroism in women’s roles begins to differ.
Fictional women characters often take different, darker routes to Oscars; the hero as victim or sexual object. The academy’s rewarding of these roles since its inception may have encouraged such portrayals.
Consider that 11 best actress Oscar winners portrayed prostitutes or characters defined by sexual behavior often including nudity. (Another 8 winners of the best supporting actress Oscar fit that description.) Meanwhile, except for Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club), best actor winners have barely shown skin.
Another 11 best actress Oscar winners portrayed victims of sexual, physical or emotional abuse from men. Six characters were raped, from Jane Wyman’s Johnny Belinda (1949) to Brie Larson in Room (2016). Two had husbands trying to kill them. All but three winning roles survive with lifelong scars.
No fewer than 13 best actor Oscar winning roles portrayed women’s abusers (Raging Bull) and their murderers (Reversal of Fortune, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde). On the other hand, only two best actor portrayals can be described as men victimized by women, led by one to a grim end: Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Emil Jannings (The Way of All Flesh) at the very first Academy Awards in 1929.
At least 13 best actress Oscar portrayals were of women suffering men, from the philanderers of Come Back, Little Sheba and Room at the Top to mean drunks in Hud and The Country Girl. If they’re lucky, the relationship is irritating but non-violent and leads to romance; that’s As Good as It Gets.
Just as many best actress roles can be considered sweetheart performances, more charm than dramatic challenge, like Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday and Emma Stone in last year’s La La Land. Bing Crosby in Going My Way and Richard Dreyfuss in The Goodbye Girl may be the closest to sweetheart turns on the actors’ list.
On the encouraging side, there are five best actor winners who played men thinking they’re in control until a woman proves differently: Clark Gable, It Happened One Night; Humphrey Bogart, The African Queen; Yul Brynner, The King and I; Rex Harrison, My Fair Lady; and Anthony Hopkins, The Silence of the Lambs.
Notice that the most recent film among those five is now 27 years old. That’s the kind of equal opportunity thinking Hollywood from top to bottom needs again.
Graphics by Langston Taylor.