Why Lily Gladstone’s Loss Feels Far More Deflating Than Usual

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In the realm of the Oscars, the spectre of competition between women often looms large, despite our reluctance to endorse these divisive narratives. In past years, we've watched on as Michelle Yeoh and Cate Blanchett battled it out for Best Actress. Jennifer Lawrence versus Emmanuelle Riva. Angela Bassett versus Jamie Lee Curtis. And now, Emma Stone versus Lily Gladstone.
After an incredibly tight awards season, we saw Lily Gladstone and Emma Stone face off in the Best Actress category at the 2024 Academy Awards, arguably the only category that night that didn't feel like a lock thanks to Oppenheimer's sweep. One of the closest races we've seen in years, Stone started off strong as the favourite. Then, leading up to the Oscars and in the wake of her Golden Globe and SAG win, Gladstone took the lead. But on the day, it was Emma Stone whose name was read out and crowned Best Actress for the 2024 Oscars.
While we all might have our favourites coming into Oscars night, once the name is plucked from the envelope, we're usually happy with seeing any woman excel. But this year, it feels different.
Lily Gladstone, who is of Siksikaitsitapi and Nimíipuu descent, has made waves this awards season — against the odds. Her historic nomination as the first Native American woman ever nominated in the Best Actress category seemed like a step forward for The Academy in addressing its longstanding lack of diversity, nearly a decade after #OscarsSoWhite gained momentum. It made Sacheen Littlefeather's historic mistreatment after the 1973 Oscars start to seem like a distant memory.
But of course, that's far too optimistic for an industry that has systemic racism embedded into its bones. The reality is that a Native American woman was only nominated after being bolstered by one of the most powerful directors in Hollywood, Martin Scorsese. Already, critiques about Lily Gladstone are everywhere — that she was only going to win because she's Native, or to tick a 'diversity box'. While we can ignore the people who make this statement without actually watching the film, it does lead us to an interesting question: what do Native women need to do to have their accomplishments recognised?
Gladstone, who had been in the industry for several years, had actually considered quitting acting and was about to register for a data analytics course only two weeks before she was cast in Killers of the Flower Moon. While it's a touching story, it's proof that when it comes to Native American voices, and underrepresented voices more widely, they're underrepresented by design. Finding jobs in Hollywood as a Native woman is infinitely harder, let alone being nominated for an award.
That's why it was so hard for me to watch Emma Stone take the stage to claim her win. That's not to say that Emma Stone's performance wasn't magical, because it was. Nor am I really interested in subjective debates about whose performance was better (because if we're going down that route, I'd be tempted to throw Sandra Huller into the top two), but it's hard to celebrate her win when it's her second Oscar. Stone's performance as Bella in Yorgos Lanthimos' Poor Things was zany, absurd, out there, and a far cry form her previous performances. Of course it was a job well done. She was the heart of Poor Things, which may have been furthered by something Gladstone did not have: screentime.
The debates about whether Gladstone should have been nominated as a supporting actress or in the main category due to her short airtime are further proof of the barriers non-white folk have to face, even in a story about Native American people. Gladstone delivered an understated, stoic performance that wasn't showy so much as it was the actual soul of the film. In every sense, I'd say the two performances were equal — so why did The Academy opt for the route that didn't make history?
It's reductive to say that Stone won only because she's white. Similarly, to say that Gladstone should have won solely due to her Native identity is unfair. But undeniably, race does play a part in who was crowned today — just not for the explicit reasons you might think.
Originally, Killers of the Flower Moon was meant to be a very different movie. The character of Mollie initially only had three scenes in the film. Three. It wasn't until the entire scope of the story was changed that Mollie — and Gladstone — became a foundational part of the story. In an interview with Refinery29 Australia, Gladstone tells us that when Scorsese changed direction, he had to actively convince people that it was a good idea to focus more on Mollie.
"It was so vital that the lens shifted from the formation of the FBI, because that's what the movie was about originally, and then shifting it to this relationship study," Gladstone tells Refinery29 Australia. "Originally, people didn't want to give Marty [Scorsese] their whole budget when that happened because they didn't feel like that would sell."
That's just one part of the equation when we look at the disproportionate representation of Native Americans in Hollywood. When we look at Gladstone, we see someone who's had to fight to have her character's story told in a script that had her originally slated in a supporting role at best. Of course this is going to influence results, because if you don't want to platform Native voices in a film that's meant to be about them, then how can you expect them to walk away with awards?
Nominating Lily Gladstone is a way for The Academy to wave its hand, and say, Yes! We are changing! But without following through, I can't help but feel like Gladstone was co-opted to present the illusion of progress, without any of the real signifiers that go along with it.
This isn't about pitting women against each other, or saying that one was 'robbed'. It's about calling out the systemic racism problem that the Academy has always had. It's about drawing attention to the fact that when underrepresented people's stories are told, they're usually in supporting roles. It's about the fact that it shouldn't be groundbreaking to have Native people playing Natives. It's about Native people fighting for their stories to be told — and for that budget still only going to established white directors.
Lily Gladstone's loss doesn't feel deflating because I really wanted her to win. It feels deflating because it's a sign that we actually haven't progressed as much as we think we have. In a year where the trophy could have happily gone to either woman, I wonder why there was a decision for the voting body to not make history, when they very well could have. I know I'm just one of many people that's feeling immensely frustrated right now, because if not now, when? If not now, when will we ever actually see Hollywood progressing and making real change?
The real answer is: I'm not sure. I'm not sure if the change the Academy is patting their backs about is actually happening. I don't know why a movie that fails the most basic feminism test in the Bechdel test has now done a clean sweep at the biggest awards show in the world. I'm not sure why The Academy patted themselves on the back for Gladstone's nomination, only to give it to the person that we all knew would actually win.
While many of us are deflated today, I'll still remember seeing videos of small girls talking Blackfeet to their television screens after seeing Lily speak her language at the Golden Globes. Or watching Native school kids make supportive signs for her, stoked to see her at the Oscars. Because while Gladstone hasn't won, she's intrinsically changed how Native Americans are viewed in Hollywood — and you don't need a shiny gold trophy for that.
If you want to continue supporting Lily Gladstone's work, you can watch Killers of the Flower Moon over on Apple TV+. Soon, you'll also be able to watch her 2023 flick Fancy Dance, also on Apple TV+. If you want to take a trip down memory lane, you can also watch her 2016 film, Certain Women on Netflix. Her new film The Memory Police is in production now.
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