Oscar Season is Evolving and Women Are Taking The Lead

By  · Published on November 10th, 2015

Not too long ago this year, it seemed like the awards season was going to drown in a pool of male-led biopics. Yet thankfully, the season has evolved significantly since then: based on the contenders we’ve seen so far, it is fair to say that biopics (or biopic-like portrayals) have been steadily thinning out in the Best Picture race. Yet back in summer just a few months ago, things looked very different on paper. So let’s just look back for a second to remember the season’s trajectory thus far, shall we?

The now long-concluded New York Film Festival’s prime spots were revealed in dribs and drabs throughout summer, announcing Robert Zemeckis’ The Walk and Don Cheadle’s directorial debut Miles Ahead as the bookends of the festival, while crowning Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs as its central anchor; a title that premiered at Telluride first. (Side note: none of these titles could really be labeled as traditional biopics, even though the stories within were of characters with historical importance. Yet at the time, it was a fair red flag that the upcoming season could just be a parade of noteworthy, real-life males portrayed through typically memorable, impersonation-heavy performances.)

The early fears of a dull, biopic-ridden Oscar-season were certainly not just born out of the NYFF line up. Scott Cooper’s Johnny Depp-starrer Whitey Bulger flick Black Mass and Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl -about the transgender pioneer Lili Elbe (formerly Einar Wegener) with last year’s Oscar Winner Eddie Redmayne in the lead- were going to play at Venice (then Telluride/Toronto respectively.) The Hank Williams biopic I Saw The Light (directed by Marc Abraham, starring Tom Hiddleston) and Jay Roach’s Hollywood blacklist era flick Trumbo, with Bryan Cranston playing Dalton Trumbo, would drop in Toronto. Furthermore, Love & Mercy (about The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson) and James Ponsoldt’s The End of The Tour (chronicling Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky’s 1996 interview with David Foster Wallace) were enjoying respectable critical love in summer. Thus early in July, Tim Gray at Variety addressed the biopic dominance in the season by doing a reality check at the half-year mark.

This is all just a very long-winded way of saying things didn’t necessarily look up for women a few short months ago. Judging the book by its cover then, I expected the “Stand by Your Man role” (in the words of Susan Wloszczyna) to be in full effect for women when it came to their 2015/16 awards prospects.

But again, the good news is that things are no longer as they seemed before. For starters, Sony Pictures Classics pushed both of their musical dramas –I Saw The Light and Miles Ahead- to 2016. Black Mass and Trumbo got hit by middling receptions. The Walk divided the critics, but more severely, tanked at the box office. Surprisingly for The Danish Girl (set to open end of November), the buzz is building around Alicia Vikander’s performance, even more than Eddie Redmayne’s (or, the film in general for that matter.) It’s hard to say if Love & Mercy or The End of The Tour will be remembered when various groups start handing out their awards (it might all come down to critics in December.)

Filling this void beautifully are female-driven pictures as well as true ensemble pieces that are currently nabbing front seats in the season one by one. Early in October, In Contention’s Kris Tapley rounded up the rich batch of female-driven films flooding the Oscar race. And more recently, Awards Daily’s Sasha Stone pointed out the record number of Best Actress nominee hopefuls in this year’s race; a welcome change to the pace of usual Oscar business.

With the risk of repeating their round ups, let me just say, we’re indeed looking at an unprecedentedly rich flock of female-led films. John Crowley’s exquisite immigration drama Brooklyn, Todd Haynes’ gorgeous 50s lesbian love story Carol, Lenny Abrahamson’s heart-wrenching Room, George Miller’s forceful Mad Max: Fury Road and even Pete Docter and Ronnie Del Carmen’s Inside Out (vying for both a Best Picture and Best Animated Feature spot in the nominations) have been occupying early prediction charts. Meanwhile, well-crafted ensemble works such as Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight and Ridley Scott’s The Martian –both of which feature intelligent, capable and truly equal-to-men female characters as part of big ensembles- are topping the lists of early favorites to win. Even Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs, which is still very much in prime awards conversations despite its disappointing box office, has a remarkable supporting female character (Kate Winslet as the marketing expert Joanna Hoffman). Currently Spielberg’s excellent Bridge of Spies (don’t get me wrong, I do love the movie) might be the only early favorite in the awards frontlines without an essential/memorable female character (despite some great work from Amy Ryan, who does her best with what she’s given.)

But in my head, here’s the really impressive and notable part: most of these films have a big, real and firm stake in the race. They can’t be –at least, at this point- easily written off as titles that wouldn’t have made the cut if AMPAS went back to having 5 nominees again, instead of anywhere between 5 to 10 (an exercise that pundits go through every year). What do I mean by that? Well, if we were to be honest, a number of the female-driven or directed films wouldn’t have gotten a Best Picture nomination in the last few years (unfortunate, but true) had there been 5 spots only. We would have likely lost The Kids Are All Right, Winter’s Bone, An Education, Philomena…and even Zero Dark Thirty and Selma, for that matter.

But this year, I’d say Brooklyn, Carol, Room, and Fury Road all have almost as great a chance to break that arbitrary/imaginary top 5 as Spotlight, Steve Jobs or Bridge of Spies. For a change, female-driven films seem vital to the race. They are a truly essential part of the conversation. They are not there for tokenism.

Yes, we haven’t seen the 3 big ones yet (Joy, The Revenant, and The Hateful Eight, with the latter two potentially changing the rules of the playing field). And yes –as many before me have pointed out- the race once again lacks color, as the industry yet again failed to churn out a diverse slate with awards prospects. But there is a partial victory here in 2015, for better or worse. And that calls for some acknowledgement.

Freelance writer and film critic based in New York. Bylines at Film Journal, Time Out NY, Movie Mezzanine, Indiewire, and others.