Last year’s Best Picture category at the Academy Awards could have been summed up almost entirely like this: The extraordinary endeavors of extraordinary men. This wasn’t new, or even surprising. As Slate’s Dan Kois pointed out last year, it doesn’t seem to matter how great an actress’ performance is; unless she’s, say, playing the wife of a famous scientist, it had seemed unlikely that the movie would receive a Best Picture nod. “In the past 20 years,” he noted, “only 21 movies that primarily tell the stories of women have been nominated for Best Picture, out of 125 movies nominated overall.” The academy’s choice last year to leave out movies such as Wild made that fact painfully evident. The only Best Actress nominee starring in a Best Picture contender was Felicity Jones, for her turn in The Theory of Everything as the wife of Stephen Hawking.
But this year the academy finally bucked that trend: Though many are understandably upset that it didn’t nominate masterpieces like Carol and 45 Years (topics for a separate post), three of the eight Best Picture nominees center on women: Brooklyn, Room, and Mad Max: Fury Road. Does this mean that the academy is ready to finally take women’s stories seriously?
Maybe. In 2015, there was a bumper crop of great roles from women—from Lily Tomlin in Grandma to Bel Powley in The Diary of a Teenage Girl to Kristen Wiig in Welcome to Me, the awards season was packed with strong contenders for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress nominees. Even so, there was no guarantee that these movies would be honored in the night’s biggest category. But on Thursday the academy took its first step toward a more enlightened perspective, instead of once again dismissing these movies as too “domestic.”
In Room, Brie Larson plays a woman held captive for years, just as she and her son gain their freedom. While the narrative unfolds through the eyes of her son, their stories are so emotionally and dramatically intertwined that it’s impossible not to view this as her story as much his. In Brooklyn, Saoirse Ronan plays an Irish immigrant who must choose between two men and two futures—one back in Ireland, and one in the United States. Like Room, it’s a story about an ordinary woman, but that makes its story no less captivating. And while Fury Road’s Furiosa is no ordinary woman—and while Charlize Theron never got singled out for the awards season attention that those other actresses did—she is unquestionably protagonist and breakout star of Mad Max: Fury Road. In it, Theron proved women can also play the larger-than-life action hero—and bring in some sweet box office money in the process—just as well as any man.
Whether or not this marks a shift in how the academy will honor these kinds of stories going forward remains to be seen—and will depend on whether Hollywood sees these prestige female-centered films as a step in the right direction or just the latest trend. For now, it’s refreshing to see that the extraordinary actresses who chose to play these characters—and the writers, directors, and studios that made these movies happen—won’t have to worry as much about whether their stories will be deemed important enough to compete for Best Picture.