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Why Best Actor and Actress, but not Best Female Director?

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This question came up in the PFCC discussion list, but I'm curious what you all think.

Why do the Oscars and other awards always distinguish between Best Actor and Best Actress, but don't distinguish between the sexes in other categories?

Should this be changed?

Or is there a good argument for the way this tradition goes?

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M. Leary   

I appreciate the distinction. I appreciate seeing actors probing our understandings of what it means to be male or female. Whether it is in pushing the boundaries or embellishing traditionally held concepts this is an important task for the contemporary film-maker. I don't think gender distinctions in these categories is reductive at all, rather it expresses the fact that we still do conceive and criticize narrative along these lines of gender.

And furthermore, this distinction allows us to properly address films that deal with relationships. The power of In the Bedroom isn't Spacek's and Wilkinson's performance, it is that they together are such a believable couple in this situation that we don't even question the integrity of the film. They both deserve accolade for thier role in maintaining the distinctions of thier gender so well in this specific context.

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As the main -- and given my contrarian ways, perhaps sole -- railer against the segregationist status quo, I suppose I should respond:

I appreciate the distinction. I appreciate seeing actors probing our understandings of what it means to be male or female.

As do I. But actors are also probing our understands of what it means to be black. To be white. To be rich. To be violent. To be shy. To be a father. To be a grandmother. To be orphaned. To be mentally handicapped. To be intelligent. To be liberal. To be a cartoon fish. This focus on a sexual distinction among actors -- rather than having a separate category for senior citizens, or a separate category for Asians -- while steeped in tradition, seems one of the least logical avenues for differentiating men and women, precisely because it's an avenue where the playing field is relatively equal.

I don't think gender distinctions in these categories is reductive at all, rather it expresses the fact that we still do conceive and criticize narrative along these lines of gender.

Sometimes gender, sometimes race, sometimes age, sometimes et al.

The power of
In the Bedroom
isn't Spacek's and Wilkinson's performance, it is that they together are such a believable couple in this situation that we don't even question the integrity of the film. They both deserve accolade for their role in maintaining the distinctions of their gender so well in this specific context.

I was going to make the exact same point I just made in my previous two paragraphs, but I will spare you.

I am for keeping men's and women's basketball split, however.

Dale

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M. Leary   

But actors are also probing our understands of what it means to be black. To be white. To be rich. To be violent. To be shy. To be a father. To be a grandmother. To be orphaned. To be mentally handicapped. To be intelligent. To be liberal. To be a cartoon fish.

Dale

I see the male/female distinction as fundamentally different than any of these differences. Comparing these distinctions and gender distinctions is comparing apples and oranges.

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I see the male/female distinction as fundamentally different than any of these differences. Comparing these distinctions and gender distinctions is comparing apples and oranges.

Then let's go the other route: If there is such a distinction between men and women in acting, why don't we award makers distingish sexually when it comes to directors? Certainly men and women must bring differences into directing.

Dale

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Persona   

It's because you typically can't see the director and because no one in mainstream audiences even knows who the directors are.

-s.

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M. Dale Prins wrote:

: Then let's go the other route: If there is such a distinction between men

: and women in acting, why don't we award makers distingish sexually

: when it comes to directors? Certainly men and women must bring

: differences into directing.

Oh really. And what is it about, say, K-19: The Widowmaker that leads you to say, "Aha! This is a woman's film in a way that The Hunt for Red October was not!"?

Male and female PERFORMERS embody specific characters who embody specific traits of being masculine or feminine. That, I think, is one very compelling reason why there should be separate categories for the two genders.

Coming at it from the other end, one compelling argument for NOT having separate directing awards is that it begins to look like tokenism. The fact that only two women have ever been nominated for the Best Director Academy Award is no doubt an injustice, but I don't see how the situation would be improved by creating a special Best Female Director award; to create such an award would be to disparage female directors, because everyone would accuse the award of 'tokenism', etc. Male and female actors, OTOH, are already treated as equals, and thus no one would ever accuse the Best Actress category of being a 'token' award given to women who cannot compete with the men on their level, etc., etc., etc.

In other words, ironically, perhaps, the segregation of acting awards is a recognition of the EQUALITY of the sexes in that field, whereas, at this juncture in history anyway, a segregation of directing awards would carry the exact opposite connotation.

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: Oh really. And what is it about, say, K-19: The Widowmaker

: that leads you to say, "Aha! This is a woman's film in a way that The

: Hunt for Red October was not!"?

None. My comment was meant as vaguely sarcastic; as I eschew emoticons, it did not come across as such. I was using it to show more-or-less the same point you just made about directors. Sorry.

So, um, Peter, since you sometimes bring this up when we talk about homosexuality, I'll toss it out here: What about those actors and actresses -- and I assume there are some -- who do not have a defined gender as such? (I may not be using the correct verbiage, but I think you'll know what I mean.)

Dale

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What do you do with Linda Hunt in Year of Living Dangerously, where she portrayed a man? Do you give her an actress award? Or was she a better "actor" because she did a better portrayal of a man than other men? :wink:

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: Male and female PERFORMERS embody specific characters who embody

: specific traits of being masculine or feminine. That, I think, is one very

: compelling reason why there should be separate categories for the two

: genders.

But similarly, black performers embody specific characters who embody specific traits of being black. Elderly performers embody specific characters who embody specific traits of being old. There's subversions of these characterizations occasionally -- The Crying Game with gender, the upcoming The Human Stain apparently with race -- but I don't see how the shorthand of knowing a character is a woman is more significant than, in American culture, the shorthand of knowing that a character is black.

But obviously I'm in the minority on this issue, and unless there's a groundswell of support for my position, I'm not going to push changing the PFCC awards toward gender-unbiased utopia.

Dale

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M. Leary   

I would just ditto everything PTC said above, that pretty much is behind my thinking on the issue.

But I still don't think racial distinction exist in the same category as gender distinctions. My reasons for this are primarily theological of course, but the gender distinction seems to be the ULTIMATE distinction. As much as for personality distinctions as for distinctions of form. I am thinking here of physical mannerisms, of the way in which gender distinctions occur at the level of body language, etc...

Now I don't see any need for a distinction at the level of director, because it is the director's job to be aware of these subtle differences and bring them to light in the male and female actors he or she is working with. Or something like that.

If you want to privatize the performance categories, then why stop at race? Why not Best Actor Who Was Abused As A Child, or Best Actress Who Is Recovering From Alcoholism. Those types of experiences define a person just as much as race or age or etc...

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In other words, ironically, perhaps, the segregation of acting awards is a recognition of the EQUALITY of the sexes in that field, whereas, at this juncture in history anyway, a segregation of directing awards would carry the exact opposite connotation.

I'm not sure that two awards is in fact a recognition of equality. It is a recognition that the Academy Awards (which others pattern themselves after, even if they tweak things a bit) were and are industry awards; they exist to promote films. Having split categories aids in that promotion. Would it be less equal to only have one award for best perfomance in a leading role and best performance in a supporting role? Or how about having a run off between the two winners to see who gets a trophy?

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Besides tokenism may not be a bad thing. If AMPAS gave out a best woman director award, some money would be thrown at talented women to direct.

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Guest   
Guest

Although I have given up on my latest Quixotic quest, that doesn't mean I can't be cantankerous about it:

: But I still don't think racial distinction exist in the same category as

: gender distinctions.

I'd agree that gender distinction is greater in American society, but race distinction ain't far off. There's a reason why affirmative action is such a sticky topic for most.

: My reasons for this are primarily theological of course, but the gender

: distinction seems to be the ULTIMATE distinction.

Actually, within New Testament theology, I'd argue that Christian v. non-Christian would be the ultimate distinction. (Yes, I will concede that Paul talks about gender differences, but that's auxiliary to the main theses of that third of the Bible.)

: As much as for personality distinctions as for distinctions of form. I am

: thinking here of physical mannerisms, of the way in which gender

: distinctions occur at the level of body language, etc...

I am sure I could find many females whose mannerisms and body language is closer to my own than most males'. (Please do not hypothesize what that says about me.)

: If you want to privatize the performance categories, then why stop at

: race?

Dude, I'm the one here against privatization, remember?

Dale

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M. Leary   

: Actually, within New Testament theology, I'd argue that Christian v. non-Christian would be the ultimate distinction. (Yes, I will concede that Paul talks about gender differences, but that's auxiliary to the main theses of that third of the Bible.)

Well, yeah. Or "those within the covenant community" and "those who aren't" may be better. At least more contemporary (don't we all want to be more contemporary?). I was thinking last night about whether this line of thought is tangential to the discussion or not. For the Christian critic it may not be. I think that the redemption of gender distinctions was more important to Paul than it is to the church today, and the way he set up his churches reflects this. I honestly do watch films and think to myself: "How does this male/female monopolize on thier maleness/femaleness specifically to add depth to thier character and storyline?" Some seem to understand this better than others. Keanu Reeves wooden maleness is shallow compared to Eastwood's maleness in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly or even Spacey's slimey redefinition of maleness in American Beauty.

We could go on an on with examples on both sides of the fence. But attention to this gender situation should be honored.

I think though that people that do have a strong sense of gender difference need to think about what we will do with transgendered performances. In the years to come that may become more prominent.

: I am sure I could find many females whose mannerisms and body language is closer to my own than most males'. (Please do not hypothesize what that says about me.)

:ssst:

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M. Dale Prins wrote:

: So, um, Peter, since you sometimes bring this up when we talk about

: homosexuality, I'll toss it out here: What about those actors and

: actresses -- and I assume there are some -- who do not have a defined

: gender as such? (I may not be using the correct verbiage, but I think

: you'll know what I mean.)

Yup, that thought did occur to me. (And if you haven't seen it yet, there's a fascinating article on the three genders, and the recognition of this fact in the New Testament and in various cultures that are not as afflicted by modernity and the desire to "fix" things as ours, here.) Quite frankly, although one hears various rumours, I think there just aren't enough intersex actors to warrant creating a separate category for them every year.

: But similarly, black performers embody specific characters who embody

: specific traits of being black.

Pfeh. The only "specific trait" of being black is having black skin -- and even then, there are different shades of black. Halle Berry may say she's a "black actress", but the only parent I saw cheering her on at the Oscars was white. In fact, race itself is such a porous and superficial concept that segregating actors according to race at all just begs the question of why we don't segregate them even more.

: Elderly performers embody specific characters who embody specific

: traits of being old.

Heck, older, experienced actors have a natural advantage in this field. If anything, we should be creating a separate category for the young'uns, so that the likes of Tatum O'Neal and Anna Paquin don't keep stealing awards from all those grown-up lady actors. wink.gif

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MattPage   

: Best Actor Who Was Abused As A Child, or Best Actress Who Is Recovering From Alcoholism.

lol - but this is really setting up a straw man. AIUI Dale was originally saying we should just have 1 best actor award, not that we should have more sub-divisions

Male and female actors, OTOH, are already treated as equals, and thus no one would ever accuse the Best Actress category of being a 'token' award given to women who cannot compete with the men on their level,
actually thogh perhaps this was partly due to the fact that there have been far fewer decent roles fopr women than men. Up until fairly recently most women's roles were really that of eye-candy. This is starting to change, but still most actresses have to be beautiful before they get roles, and there are IMHO still fewer decent roles for women than for men. (Incidentally I re-watched Star Wars the other day and was impressed at how strong Leia's role is in the first movie - too bad she was cast in the porno role in RotJ).

: Actually, within New Testament theology, I'd argue that Christian v. non-Christian would be the ultimate distinction.

Well you could argue Jew - Gentile, but I thik that would make a pretty lousy award classification. Besides isn't this what the Dove Awards are for?

We could srgue till we're blue in the face about the Oscars, but perhaps we could do something radical with the PFCC awards? I'm with Dale (though as I'm not on the PFCC thats' pretty much irrelevant) sad.gif

Matt

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MattPage wrote:

: AIUI Dale was originally saying we should just have 1 best actor award,

: not that we should have more sub-divisions

Well, yes, but the hint was that if we sub-divide AT ALL then we should never stop sub-dividing.

: : Male and female actors, OTOH, are already treated as equals, and thus

: : no one would ever accuse the Best Actress category of being a 'token'

: : award given to women who cannot compete with the men on their level,

:

: actually thogh perhaps this was partly due to the fact that there have

: been far fewer decent roles fopr women than men. Up until fairly

: recently most women's roles were really that of eye-candy.

I would argue that this may have been true of Hollywood in the 1980s and perhaps in the decade before and after, but not back in the 1920s or 1930s when the Oscars were first created. True, women were supposed to be somewhat attractive, but then, so were men -- and there were plenty of popular and powerful actresses at the time (Katherine Hepburn, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, etc., etc.). If women seem to have been given short shrift at the movies in the last few decades, I suspect it may be because (1) the sexual revolution paved the way for nudity in films, but it was almost always FEMALE nudity, thus leaving men in a state of clothed power, and (2) the arrival of summer blockbusters and movies that played like video games turned popular film-making into a competition for the entertainment dollars of adolescent boys (the recent wave of so-called 'strong women' movies like Charlie's Angels and Lara Croft hasn't really stemmed this, since what boys really like is to see attractive women give up their girly pursuits and get into fights like the boys do).

: (Incidentally I re-watched Star Wars the other day and was impressed at

: how strong Leia's role is in the first movie - too bad she was cast in the

: porno role in RotJ).

But, see, even there, the 'strong woman' thing is a bit misleading -- one of the criticisms levelled at George Lucas is that he just doesn't know how to write female characters; instead, he just writes the characters as if they were men like him. Both Leia and her mother, Amidala, are business-like government-like administrators ("We have no time for our sorrows, commander, the information in this R2 unit will bla bla bla...").

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MattPage   

I would argue that this may have been true of Hollywood in the 1980s and perhaps in the decade before and after, but not back in the 1920s or 1930s when the Oscars were first created.
Well my knowledge of that period isn't that great, but I can still think of very few films where the woman had the leading / title role. I take your point on the eye-candy being more recent, but I do think that generally good roles have been written for men, and good women's roles have been comparitively rare, even today.

But, see, even there, the 'strong woman' thing is a bit misleading -- one of the criticisms levelled at George Lucas is that he just doesn't know how to write female characters; instead, he just writes the characters as if they were men like him. Both Leia and her mother, Amidala, are business-like government-like administrators ("We have no time for our sorrows, commander, the information in this R2 unit will bla bla bla...").

Oh yeah Amidala's terrible and I see what you mean generally . I think I saw the bit in the original (which was all I was referring to, but I refused to use the "A New Hope" tag) where Han & Luke have just rescued her & are shooting at Storm troopers but getting no-where and she shoots the hole into the (ahem) garbage pit. At this point in time most female roles were just standing around saying things like "Oh James you're so amazing"

Matt

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MattPage wrote:

: Well my knowledge of that period isn't that great, but I can still think of

: very few films where the woman had the leading / title role.

Mildred Pierce? Now Voyager? Rebecca? Gone with the Wind? Stella Dallas? (Okay, I haven't seen that last one; it just popped into my head.) And wasn't The Philadelphia Story basically a vehicle for Katherine Hepburn? These are the first examples that come to my mind, and I'm sure there are plenty of others; certainly, if we go later, into the 1950s, we can point to all those Douglas Sirk films like All That Heaven Allows. I haven't got time to check my sources on this, but I believe women made up a very large portion of the audience for films in the early days, and it stands to reason that a fair number of the films that came out back then were made for them, and starred major actresses who were more than just eye candy.

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MattPage   

I still feel that they are a smallish percentage of the total early movie output. Admittedly I'm sure you could name many more, but whilst I agree that some good roles existed, I believe they were the minority, and IMHO still are.

Matt

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M. Leary   

MattPage wrote:

: Well my knowledge of that period isn't that great, but I can still think of

: very few films where the woman had the leading / title role.

Oh man, watch Roman Holiday, it is the male actors in that movie that ruin the script.

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MattPage   

Mel provides me with plenty opportunities to do so. :?

Besides, my point isn't that women couldn't act, but that they were generally given poor roles

Matt

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Just a quick note here to say that the MTV Movie Awards -- which experimented with a gender-neutral acting award in 2006 and 2007 (when the winners were Brokeback Mountain's Jake Gyllenhaal and Pirates of the Caribbean's Johnny Depp, respectively) -- went gender-neutral again this year (and the winner this time was Beauty and the Beast's Emma Watson).

And whereas the earlier gender-neutral awards generated next to no buzz, everyone made a big, big deal of this year's award -- many reports even going so far as to call it MTV's "first" gender-neutral award, which wasn't true. (For what it's worth, I was completely unaware of the earlier awards until a few lonely voices fact-checked the headlines about this year's award.)

Edited by Peter T Chattaway

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the total early movie output was actually rather small. like maybe 10 movies a year at the earliest times.

if I'm remembering correctly.

I kinda like the idea of gender neutral, but then I also like the idea of rewarding actresses specifically for playing roles that counter or explore the Western cultural narrative of what it means to be female, and that getting a specific award. Because really when we think about it, narrative is a powerful thing, and especially in a patriarchal culture shouldn't we want to single out and award narrative choices that counter that patriarchal system? So in a way I kinda agree with M Leary. We are shaped by the stories we tell, and culture is shaped by the cultural narratives around it, so let's award those choices of story that counter the harmful aspects of culture and show through (to use a sociological term) informal positive sanction of an acting award that those kind of narrative choices are the ones we want to see more of.

(I'm taking a Sociology 101 class this quarter to round out my degree requirements and it is incredibly fascinating, so I will probably keep referring to it at times, hope that doesn't get too annoying lol)

Edited by Justin Hanvey

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