When it comes to the Oscars, we’d like to think that the best, most deserving actors are the ones delivering quivering speeches with their award in hand. But if that’s true, then how can we explain all of the shocking upsets in Academy Awards history? Many of us still haven’t gotten over the 2006 incident when Crash, a forgettable drama, beat out Brokeback Mountain, a film that approached the topic of LGBTQ love in a revolutionarily open way. People often say that voters simply weren’t ready to accept Brokeback Mountain.
2017’s Academy Awards ceremony will be subject to the same voter whimsies, and the same societal pressures, as previous years. There are no other categories where standards are more magnified than Best Actor and Actress. Here’s how we expect this year’s nominees in each category to fare, based on these theories garnered from past observations.
Best Actor is Actually a Lifetime Achievement Award
There was a joke that used to make the recess rounds when I was a kid. “I have as many Oscars as Leonardo DiCaprio,” we’d say, and erupt into riotous peals of self-satisfied laughter. By then, Leo had been up at bat more times than we could remember. Each year, we’d watch his young, hopeful face cloud over when the announcer said a name that wasn’t DiCaprio's. We’d watch him begin a rueful clap swallow disappointment and clap slowly. Soon, that young face turned into a ruddy (and strangely square) face. Bolstered by years and years of nominations, it was DiCaprio's older, filled-out face finally deemed ready for a win.
Even during filming, the buzz around The Revenant always involved Leo and his Oscar. Out there in the South Dakota wilderness, Leo was hunting for his great white whale. Hell, he climbed into a horse carcass. That’s devotion. When he got onstage, I imagined him wiping off horse guts and extinguishing the glee of kids across the country who no longer had the same number of Oscars as DiCaprio.
I’m not arguing that DiCaprio's performance in The Revenant wasn’t worthy of an Academy Award. But I couldn’t shake the sense that this was a lifetime achievement award, an apology for every time they’d said no in the past, an accumulation of how “deserving” DiCaprio has been over the years. This was the Academy deeming that it was time for a boy ingenue, first nominated at the age of 20, to enter the Big Boys' Club.
And so this brings me to this year’s list of Best Actor nominees. With seven nominations and two wins, Denzel Washington is this year’s most seasoned Hollywood veteran. Andrew Garfield’s a total newbie. That brings us to Casey Affleck, Ryan Gosling, and Viggo Mortensen. With two nominations each, all three actors will be waiting for their time to be inducted into the ranks.
Perhaps, then, the Academy Awards is an endurance test — a matter of proving worth. With enough rounds, it’ll be their “time” to win, as with happened with Leo. As these actors' careers develop over the years, they inevitably become more well-respected and thus more deserving of a golden statuette.
Oscar Likes His Ladies Young
Hollywood may be a liberal paradise, but it isn’t exempt from double standards. To no one’s surprise, the Best Actress category often faces an issue diametrically opposed from the Best Actor prejudices. Many aging actresses gripe about the lack of interesting roles available to middle-aged women and beyond, as if one’s ability to be interesting ceases once wrinkles develop.
Not even radiant goddess Meryl Streep (long may she reign) is exempt from such prejudice.
“I would say our culture is pretty youth-obsessed,” said Streep in an interview with People. “When I was 40, I was offered three witch [roles]. I was not offered any female adventurers or love interests or heroes or demons...I was offered witches because I was ‘old’ at 40.”
A few things result from this all-too-prevalent phenomenon. First, there are insane age gaps between essentially every couple in a Hollywood film. Specifically related to awards shows, however, fewer good roles for women over forty means fewer opportunities for them to be nominated. You could retort by citing a treasure trove of talent, from Helen Mirren to Patricia Arquette. But, seriously, people, let’s take a quick mathematical glance at this year’s Best Actresses, shall we?
At 28, Emma Stone (La La Land) is the youngest nominee by a few years. Ruth Negga (Loving) and Natalie Portman (Jackie) are both 35. The other two nominees, Meryl Streep (Florence Foster Jenkins) and Isabelle Huppert (Elle) are in their 60s.
All under 40, Portman, Negga, and Stone are all square in prime actress territory. Young enough to be physically flawless, and old enough for the Academy to respect their acting chops. Young enough to be offered roles that aren't just witches and kooks.
And, as seems to occur every year, the young actresses are competing against America's treasure Meryl. Here’s the thing. It can’t keep being just Meryl Streep. Meryl Streep can’t be the token woman in her 60s nominated each year.
Taking a peek at the winners of Best Actress in the past, you’ll notice that it once was typical for women past sixty to win every year. As actresses continue to struggle for equal pay and for interesting roles, returning to those statistics seems unlikely.
When taken together, these theories seem to point to a glaring iniquity. As male actors continue to be offered interesting roles worthy of nominations, this type of role diversity diminishes for women as they age, and therefore influences the age of winners significantly.