As of this morning, Wild is just one among many late-season hopefuls that earned fewer Oscar nominations than anticipated—and that fell short of landing a Best Picture nod. It’s not a big surprise: None of Gold Derby’s 21 listed experts placed Wild in their top 10 contenders for a nomination. But before Wild trails off into memory and your Netflix queue, I’d like to rage a bit against the dying of its light. Wild was one of the best American movies of the year. It was quietly revolutionary in its focus on one woman’s doggedly personal tale. It should have been a huge hit instead of a minor one, and it should have been a bigger part of the Best Picture conversation. That it wasn’t reflects some unhappy truths about the way the academy, and Hollywood at large, view women’s stories.
By way of argument, let’s look at Wild director Jean-Marc Vallée’s last movie, Dallas Buyers Club. Like Wild, it was a small movie, based on real events, inspirational yet gritty. And it was driven by a big star taking a risk on a singular story—a movie that was all about its hero, with other characters, large and small, supporting his personal journey. Both received strong reviews (Wild’s Tomatometer is 91 percent; Dallas Buyers Club’s, 93). But Dallas landed not just a Best Actor nomination for its star, Matthew McConaughey, but Best Picture as well, plus four other nominations.
What’s the difference? Well, Wild has sold more tickets. Wild is more artfully made—a more confident piece of filmmaking, one that finds an ingenious cinematic method to tell its intricate, emotional story. But the chief difference, of course, is that Wild is about a woman’s journey, not a man’s.
Now, I’m not claiming that the battle against AIDS in the 1980s is an equivalent milieu to one woman’s quarter-life crisis in the 1990s. Certainly the historic import of Ron Woodroof’s story—or at least of the great struggle against an epidemic in which he played a role—had something to do with the response to the film. But I think there’s more to it.
Because this year’s Oscar nominees point to a certain idea about the overall worth of men’s stories versus those of women’s. As is true many years, most of the actors nominated for Best Actor appear in movies the academy deemed worth a Best Picture nod. And there among the Best Actress nominees is Reese Witherspoon, one of this year’s crop of great actresses giving performances good enough to be nominated for Best Actress, but not telling stories important enough, as far as the academy is concerned, to be nominated for Best Picture. (This despite the fact that Witherspoon’s costar, Laura Dern, also earned a nomination, for Best Supporting Actress.) Only one Best Actress nominee is in a Best Picture nominee; needless to say, it’s Felicity Jones, who’s playing the wife of a famous scientist.
In some ways, the dismissal of Wild, and the frequent non-nomination of movies about women, calls to mind the ongoing debate in the literary world about the way critics and awards-givers dismiss “domestic fiction.” Wild is determinedly one woman’s story, and it doesn’t make a claim that Cheryl Strayed is an exceptional woman. She’s not a queen or a muse. She’s not a wife or a girlfriend. She’s flawed and sad in many of the same ways that all of us have been flawed and sad, especially in our early 20s. Her struggles are not world-historical but instead have to do with her mother, who dies unfairly early in life; with her ex-husband, whom she betrays again and again; with her body, which she numbs with heroin and casual sex, and then brutalizes hiking a thousand miles on the Pacific Crest Trail. Her struggle, in the end, is with herself.
That is to say, Cheryl’s story is a prototypical “woman’s story,” and thus one not worthy of a Best Picture nomination, apparently. In the past 20 years, only 21 movies that primarily tell the stories of women have been nominated for Best Picture, out of 125 movies nominated overall. This disparity reflects the reality of moviemaking in Hollywood, sure, but it also influences that reality. When the stories of women—those out in the world, living real human lives, existing not as auxiliary characters but as the heroes of their own stories—are deemed unsuitable of the industry’s biggest prize, it becomes harder to convince studios and producers to make those movies.
That’s one reason why Wild feels like such a big deal. An ambitious star options a memoir that takes one woman’s idiosyncratic, personal experience seriously; a serious mini-major, Fox Searchlight, signs on to finance it; the result is universally acclaimed without watering down its heroine’s journey or introducing a love interest. (Indeed, the film simplifies the memoir’s multi-day dalliance on the road into a one-night stand with a total hottie.) The movie told a different kind of story than most movies, and it did so with a pedigree that suggested awards glory and maybe a breakthrough in the range of women that audiences get to see on screen. As the Times’ A.O Scott wrote in his review, what makes Wild’s protagonist “a rare and exciting presence in contemporary American film” is not that she’s “tidy or sensible or even especially nice. It’s that she’s free.”