The triumph of Nomadland in Sunday night’s Oscar ceremony, where the film won Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress is a landmark in Oscar history for any number of reasons. The first Best Picture winner directed by an Asian American, the first directed by a woman of color, and only the second directed by a woman, period. A movie addressing economic precarity winning the big award for the second year in a row. The lowest-grossing movie to win Best Picture since the 1950s. The first Best Picture winner to portray its hero pooping in a bucket.
But I’d argue that the most momentous aspect of Nomadland’s win—or at least the most momentous aspect that no one is talking about—has to do with its subject. No, not nomads. Women. Movies about women basically never win Best Picture. By my count, Nomadland is one of only six movies focused on the lives and stories of women ever to win the award. That’s in 93 years.
Six years ago, I wrote about Wild, a great movie that earned a Best Actress nomination for Reese Witherspoon but didn’t make the cut for a nomination for Best Picture. When men get nominated for Best Actor, their movies are Best Picture contenders, I wrote. When women get nominated for Best Actress, too often their movies are not. The movies that always get nominated for Best Picture reflect a certain idea of the worth of men’s stories versus that of women’s stories. The snubbing of Wild showed that once again, “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.”
In the years since, that hasn’t changed much. In the five Oscar ceremonies between that year and this one, only six of the 43 Best Picture nominees told women’s stories. (Thank God for Saoirse Ronan, who starred in three of them.) This year’s nominees didn’t do much better, although it’s notable that there’s room not only for Nomadland’s gently realist version of one American woman’s story but also for Promising Young Woman’s candy-colored, brash, divisive version of another’s. What’s different, this year, is simply that one of the women’s stories won.
Nomadland’s chief competition for Best Picture this year was The Trial of the Chicago 7, a movie almost entirely about the travails, the hijinks, the historical importance, and the inspirational speeches of men. Fittingly, considering its historical milieu, Chicago 7 only features three female characters with any prominence at all; unsurprisingly, considering its writer-director, Aaron Sorkin, those three women exist to get lectured by one man, betray another man, and crack a risqué joke about sleeping with other men. It’s entirely entertaining, but I am not in any way upset to see it defeated by the much better Nomadland.
Nomadland is a quiet enough movie that it’s hard to think of it as truly revolutionary. Attempts to place a political mantle upon it haven’t gone that well, for example. But those attempts haven’t worked because, I think, of its dogged focus on one entirely authentic, entirely unique American woman. Fern is difficult, kind, plucky, and depressed. She makes good decisions and very bad ones. We feel for her, we dream for her, we despair for her. Fern may represent a lifestyle and an economic class, but it’s hard to attach any particular political argument to her because she is also resolutely her own person. That she lives at the center of a movie that’s been deemed by Hollywood the best picture of the year is what’s so remarkable.
Nomadland, unlike almost every other Best Picture winner, is about the woman in the middle of it, and nobody else. Fern is no longer a wife, and she was never a mother. Fern has no male mentor or wise chauffeur or cannibal nemesis whose relationship with her defines the movie. She’s not a muse or a lost love or a doomed lover. She’s certainly not a flibbertigibbet who’s brought into line by a cranky zaddy.
Most notably, Fern and her movie aren’t tangled up in a romance, whether with a gang member, a nightclub owner, a poor artist, a bon vivant, or a fish. Fern briefly considers settling down with a perfectly nice guy, but she eventually rejects him for her solo life on the road. (Playing what in another movie would be called the “girlfriend part,” David Strathairn is very good—although the industry supplies enough meaty supporting roles for male actors that, unlike Alicia Vikander, Keira Knightley, and Felicity Jones, he wasn’t even in the Oscar conversation.)
Nomadland joins, by my count, Mrs. Miniver, All About Eve, Terms of Endearment, Out of Africa, and Chicago as the only movies way more interested in women than in men to win Best Picture. (If I missed one, please let me know!) That’s fascinating, uneven company, and Nomadland doesn’t pale in comparison to its predecessors. It might even be the most artful of all of them.
Unlike all those previous films, of course, Nomadland was written and directed by a woman, ushered into existence by a team of producers that features three women, and based on a book written by a woman, Jessica Bruder. That’s revolutionary, too. The entrenched sexism in Hollywood suggests this victory won’t be enough to change, once and for all, Hollywood’s notion of what makes for a worthwhile, awards-worthy story. But I hope this win will persuade producers to invest in a few more stories like Fern’s.
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