Whatever quarrels we might have with the winners and losers, most of us would agree that the 2018 Oscars as a whole serve as a hopeful sign of the growing diversity in the entertainment industry. Jordan Peele won Best Original Screenplay for Get Out, the first time an African-American has ever been honored in that category. Best Director went to immigrant Guillermo del Toro for The Shape of Water. Coco, a celebration of Mexican culture and the strength of the family, took Best Animated Feature (albeit without much serious competition). And while some have complained that The Shape of Water is a “safe” choice for Best Picture, in comparison with the more challenging Get Out, it still represents one of the few times that a movie with a female protagonist has taken the top prize. All in all, not a terrible night for movies that aren’t about, or created by, white guys.
Maybe Hollywood is at last broadening its views of what kinds of stories have value.
It’s been a lesson that has badly needed learning. In the wake of the Oscars, a chart floated around my Twitter feed, showing the results of a study of what percentage of dialogue went to men and to women in the Best Picture winners over the last four decades. In winner after winner, men were shown to do a vast majority of the speaking. The movies that came closest to striking a balance were American Beauty (not a feminist film by any stretch of the imagination) and The Silence of the Lambs. Clicking on the comments, I saw, to my lack of surprise, that many people didn’t see the point of the study. They took it as a suggestion that the winners didn’t deserve their awards or would have been better movies if the female characters had talked more. “Should The King’s Speech have been The Queen’s Speech?” That was the general gist. I happen to love The King’s Speech and was thrilled when it won Best Picture. I wouldn’t have changed a word of dialogue in that movie or in most of the other winners. But that is not the point.
The real point might best be seen in the Oscar race for the best film of 1995. Going into the ceremony there were two clear front-runners: Mel Gibson’s Braveheart and Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility. The latter had already picked up a Golden Globe for Best Picture — Drama, and most of the critics were behind it. But Braveheart was a story about a manly male hero and his manly heroic deeds, a splashy, sprawling epic. (I admit I once found it stirring, though my Mel Gibson cooties has made it impossible for me to watch it now, or for me to tolerate him in anything other than Chicken Run and Gallipoli.) Sense and Sensibility, an adaptation of Jane Austen’s first published novel, told a more intimate and woman-centered story. The Academy gave the top honor to Braveheart. But honestly, is it a better film than Sense and Sensibility, which boasts note-perfect performances across the board, a solid storyline, and a screenplay both witty and heartfelt (which did win Emma Thompson an Oscar)? Braveheart has a more epic scale and a better score. That’s all.
Braveheart‘s win illuminates the true point the study is making: that historically we have tended to honor and value stories about men far above stories about women, even when the latter are every bit as good or even superior. Men’s stories are seen as more important, and of course more universal. And more movies are made about men, which naturally increases their chances of being honored.
That’s why The Shape of Water‘s win does my heart good, safe choice though it might be. Dare I hope it may be a sign of good things to come — woman-centered movies given the creative energy, attention, and care so often lavished on the man-centered historical dramas, movies so good the Academy can’t afford to ignore them? (I do remember that the Emily Dickinson biopic A Quiet Passion, lauded by critics, might never have been made for all the notice the Academy paid to it.)
It starts, perhaps, with quantity. According to IMDb, thirty-three more movies are slated for release this March, and thirteen of those have female leads (including I Kill Giants, which I hope against hope does better with critics than A Wrinkle in Time has). IMDb lists twelve releases for the month of May, which ushers in the summer movie season. Seven of them have female leads. So far, so hopeful — until we reach June. Seventeen films are listed, but only one of them, Ocean’s 8, is clearly centered on female protagonists; marketing for The Incredibles 2 continues to sell it as a retelling of Mr. Mom with superpowers, and in Mr. Mom, who thinks about Teri Garr?
So what now, Hollywood? Keep the forward momentum going, or continue with business as usual?
I have a very specific wish list. If I see these, I will be convinced at last we are living in a time of progress.
- Another major, high-quality American animated release with a female protagonist, and at least one per year afterward. Moana was over a year ago. It’s time.
- Biopics focusing on Zora Neale Hurston, Lorraine Hansberry, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, Gertrude Stein, and Zitkala-Sa. Creative geniuses aren’t always white dudes, and it would be nice if the movies in general made that clearer.
- A movie adaptation of Linda Medley’s splendid graphic novel Castle Waiting.
- A new movie written and directed by Jordan Peele, with a woman of color in the lead. Bonus if she’s played by my newest girl-crush, Letitia Wright.
If Hollywood really cares about me as a target audience, we’ll see all of this within the next decade.
Rather interesting to call The Shape of Water a “safe” choice for Best Picture when the movie is, as pointed out by the good folks at Screen Junkies, a “fish banging movie.” But I am happy that GDT won Best Director for this. I can always pretend he won it for Pan’s Labyrinth, but The Shape of Water is nothing to sneeze at, either.