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Is Oscar Age-ist Re: Best Actress?

Age ain't nothing but a number, except in Oscar's Best Actress race, where it's the timeless grace of Annette Bening vs. the in-her-prime youth of Natalie Portman.

Oscar Statuettes


In the flurry of Oscar’s precursor season—when groups as powerful as the Golden Globes and as small as the Southeastern Film Critics announce their “best” of the year nominations and prizes—certain performers and films quickly break out from the pack as frontrunners. As with any race, it’s harder to stop the presumed champ once they’ve broken away from the pack and gained a comfortable lead. The Social Network is probably the film to beat, and Colin Firth will undoubtedly be winning an Oscar both as a career acknowledgement and as a consolation prize for The King’s Speech, which is starting to recede. Christian Bale is the likely winner of the Supporting Actor Oscar for The Fighter.
So with so many races seemingly settled before the nominations are even announced, where is the drama in Oscar season? It may be in the Best Actress category… yet again.


Best Actress


Last year, we saw two veterans—Sandra Bullock (The Blind Side) and Meryl Streep (Julie & Julia)—battle it out, with Bullock triumphing on Oscar night. Both won Golden Globe Awards before the big show, in the drama and comedy categories, respectively. This year, we also have two veterans battling it out, who will probably be taking home those same prizes. Natalie Portman could well win the Drama Globe for her intense work as Nina Sayers, the Black Swan, and Annette Bening, playing Nic the doctor breadwinner of the The Kids Are All Right family, is the likely champ of the Comedy category. They’ll be circling each other until Oscar night.
Is Oscar Age-ist When It Comes To Best Actress?
Natalie Portman in The Professional


It’s probably odd to hear young Portman referred to as a “veteran,” but there’s truth in it. She hit the movies as a very young teenager in The Professional and was an instant critical darling and later a major star. Bening, 23 years older than Portman, only got to the movies six years earlier. Like Meryl Streep, the iconic American actress, Bening came to the movies late, after a potent start on stage. She had just turned thirty when her first movie The Great Outdoors premiered in 1988. Natalie has been a more constant presence in the movies since then (with Bening taking time off to raise the Warren Beatty brood), but Bening has been a more regular Oscar presence, with 3 past nominations (The Grifters, American Beauty, Being Julia) to Portman’s one (Closer).


Is Oscar Age-ist When It Comes To Best Actress?
Annette Bening in The Grifters


If Oscar voters are in the mind to think of consistent quality of work, Bening is the clear champ. If you’re voting on just these two performances, many would side with Portman (in the showier and more central role), but not all. Still, few Oscar races are ever decided on consistency or stand alone work. There’s always a mix of influences on ballots.
Many factors play into each acting competition at the Oscars, but in the Best Actress competition, age is a curiously crucial force. No other acting category is less diverse, statistically speaking. Over 50% of the 83 Best Actress wins to date have come from women between the ages of 25 and 34. The most common winning age is actually 29.
Guess who is 29 right now?
Is Oscar Age-ist When It Comes To Best Actress?
Natalie Portman in Closer


Should Portman win in February, a few months before her 30th birthday, she'd be the 8th woman to have won at that exact age—following in the footsteps of Ginger Rogers, Ingrid Bergman, Judy Holliday, Elizabeth Taylor, Julie Andrews, Jodie Foster and Reese Witherspoon. In other words, roughly 10% of history’s Best Actresses were beauties on the cusp of 30.
More bad news for Bening is this little factoid: only one woman in her 50s has ever won Best Actress. That'd be Shirley Booth in Come Back, Little Sheba. Statistically speaking, it's easier for the divas to win a leading Oscar in their golden years than in their fifties. Seven times in Oscar’s eighty-three years, women over sixty have taken home the top: Katharine Hepburn did it thrice, and Marie Dressler, Geraldine Page, Jessica Tandy and, most recently, Helen Mirren were also so honored.
Is Oscar Age-ist When It Comes To Best Actress?
Shirley Booth


This could be a simple reflection of the kind of movies that are made. Obviously, star actresses can find plentiful work in their youth. But there’s a curious gap in careers between the early middle age years and those On Golden Pond swansongs. You don’t often see movies about women in their late 40s or in their 50s, but you can probably think of a few classics centering around golden girls, can’t you? Never mind that these days they all star Mirren, Judi Dench, or Streep.
If Oscar viewed actresses the same way they viewed actors, the statistics would shake out differently. Only one man in his twenties has ever won the Best Actor statue (Adrien Brody in The Pianist), and there is no one year that clearly dominates like there is with the magic “29” for women; male actors, statistically speaking, are most likely to win the lead Oscar somewhere between their late thirties and late forties. The Academy obviously holds women to different standards. Women are not generally made to wait for a career prize when they’re older. Actresses are often given the top prize early in their career, at what some would call the peak of their beauty. A handful of women have even won the lead acting Oscar for their debut performances. This has literally never happened for a male actor. If women have bad awards luck in their late twenties and early thirties and miss out on the industry’s top honor, it becomes increasingly difficult to win. This explains why so many of Hollywood’s most gifted actresses from the past three decades, such as Sigourney Weaver, Kathleen Turner, Michelle Pfeiffer, Glenn Close, Judy Davis, Laura Linney, and The Kids Are All Right co-stars Julianne Moore and Bening are all still Oscarless.


Though it’s perhaps distasteful to spell it out, it may come down to basic sexism and the skewed gender makeup of the Academy. Though the acting branch is roughly a 50/50 affair (actors and actresses are often, but not always, invited to join once they’ve been nominated), the numerous other branches of the Academy tend to have more men than women. Consider the director’s branch. Only four women have ever been nominated as Best Director (Kathryn Bigelow was the first to win, just last year for The Hurt Locker), and though it’s possible to be invited to join the branch without an Oscar nomination to your name, you can imagine how heavily male the demographic is. Every one of the Academy’s members—whether they’re production designers or sound mixers—can vote on who wins Best Actress. You can see where the problem arises: it’s not just little girls who are enthralled with beautiful young princesses. And isn’t Hollywood institutionally ageist, anyway, thus compounding the problem?


Each year, a new queen of Hollywood is crowned at the Oscars. Though she serves only a one-year term, the Academy generally votes for the younger woman as if youthful vigor is required to wear that heavy crown. Bening has always had regal bearing, but Portman is actually playing a queen in her movie—a Swan Queen, and a queen without a kingdom, but still… If they choose to vote on career achievement, as they often do with men, Bening will finally be crowned. But they may not. Even if they’re eager to crown a veteran this year, Portman, so famously early to bloom, will still fit the bill quite nicely.


Nathaniel Rogers blogs on The Film Experience. He is also a bit of an Oscar savant.


More in our 2010 Oscars series:
12 Hungry Films; Only Room for 10
The Spirits vs. The Oscars
Too Many Screeners, Not Enough Turkey
Awards Season Begins

2010 Oscar Doc Shortlist: 15 Films


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