Character Stereotypes at the Academy Awards

investigates what sort of roles are being nominated for Oscars in 2011

In Oscar Fever, an extensive analysis of the Academy Awards spanning 1927 to 2000, film critic Emmanuel Levy concludes that Academy voters’ favourite films are biopics – films about historical figures. At least 30% of all Best Picture winners in the 20th century were stories “based on real-life events or actual individuals,” and since so many award season films have their publicity driven by movie stars, the acting categories are also occupied by characters taken from the real world.

This’ll come as no surprise to anyone vaguely familiar with the Oscar-winning performances of recent years, which include Sean Penn as Harvey Milk, Helen Mirren as Elizabeth II, Forest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland, Reese Witherspoon in Walk the Line, and many others. History is once again the basis of the films destined to win the most awards tonight: The Social Network, The King’s Speech, The Fighter and 127 Hours.

It’s also no secret that Hollywood loves nothing more than seeing huge personal struggles being overcome – whether they’re family struggles, society struggles, speech struggles, boxing struggles or right-arms-stuck-under-rocks struggles. The most prevalent character types, writes Levy, are victims, authority figures and eccentrics. Their trials and tribulations usually involve either having to be an outcast or having to maintain order/take on great responsibility.

The Best Actor nominees this year all play characters who fit quite nicely into these categories, from Jeff Bridges one-eyed, drunken patriarch in True Grit to Javier Bardem’s suffering father in Biutiful, via the unforeseeable success stories of 127 Hours and The Social Network. As George VI, bookies’ favourite Colin Firth has to both defy his domineering family and do what they expect of him: with a hint of irony and uncertainty, he’s an establishment figure and an outsider.

When it comes to the position of biopics in the Best Picture race, it’s films based on male figures that get priority, in one of many examples of a bias against actresses, not to mention female directors. Braveheart and A Beautiful Mind can win the biggest award of the ceremony, but The Hours and The Queen don’t stand a chance.

The characters played by Oscar-nominated actresses tend to follow as much of a repetitive pattern as male roles and last year was no exception, with The Blind Side, The Last Station, An Education and Julie & Julia all being stories based on real events. Of coure, being a glamorous, gorgeous star like Sandra Bullock or Natalie Portman is also a prerequisite for many major acting roles.

But actresses are bending the rules to a surprising degree in 2011. Where most male performers nominated for awards are playing historical figures, the characters played by leading ladies are mostly invented for the purposes of the film, the exceptions being the supporting figures in The Fighter and The King’s Speech. Michelle Williams’ part in Blue Valentine (pictured) simply can’t be categorised in the usual way, and the narratives she, Nicole Kidman and Helena Bonham Carter are placed in resemble plays just as much as they do films, arguably prioritising an actor’s work over the novelty of their playing a King or Queen.

Ranging from betrayed mothers to brave youngsters, some traditional character types amongst the actresses follow familiar paths of suffering and struggle, but their stories refuse to let them be tragic heroines. Except that is, for Natalie Portman, the favourite for the Best Actress award. This instance, however, might be the most powerful rebuff to female character stereotypes out of any film featuring in the ceremony. Black Swan is a claustrophobic portrait of what it means to be a star, in this case the lead ballet dancer of a prestigious New York company: striving for perfection, torturing oneself to be beautiful and, it’s implied, having to sleep one’s way to the top. Our ability to recognise Natalie Portman’s personality in the lead role is made to be as important as the few character details we receive about Nina Sayers, and Darren Aronofsky’s film addresses what it might mean to be a star. Or, maybe it’s just about a ballet dancer who goes crazy.

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