Good Luck Winning an Oscar if You’re Not a White Man

Women's Oscar Achievements
Photo: Photo Illustration: MIKE NELSON/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock, Getty Images

It’s been two months since Natalie Portman’s pithy zing regarding the “all-male” Golden Globe nominees for best director. She made that dig the way a shark takes a nibble:casually, but with unmistakable effect, calling attention to the fact that, acting aside, women are either absent or underrepresented in the top tiers of most Hollywood fields.

At this Sunday’s Oscar ceremony, several women are making history with their nominations, most notably Mudbound director of photography Rachel Morrison. Morrison, who also lensed the hugely successful Black Panther, finally broke into a category that has long excluded her gender––cinematography––becoming the first woman nominated for the honor in the Academy’s 90-year-history.

“It’s about damn time,” Morrison recently said of her reaction to the nomination news, noting a few of the asinine reasons she’s been given for women’s absence in the field, the most common being the weight of the cameras.

But hold the applause. Historic achievements are a slippery thing: A ceiling is shattered, but the noise reminds us that the ceiling is there in the first place. Yes, it’s incredibly exciting to see both Lady Bird’s Greta Gerwig and Get Out’s Jordan Peele nominated for best director. She is only the fifth woman to earn the distinction, and he the fifth African American. If Gerwig wins, there’s no ignoring the fact that she’ll be only the second woman to do so, after Kathryn Bigelow, and the first to take home a statue for a movie that she also wrote. Ditto Peele, who’d be the first black person ever to win in that category. And if this seems woefully overdue, consider also that no women of color have ever even been in the running. (By the way, both movies were among the best, most original films of last year—wouldn’t it be nice if the narrative could begin there?)

VIDEO: Rachel Morrison Is the First Woman to Be Nominated for an Oscar in Cinematography

And while prestige categories like best picture and director receive a lot of scrutiny, considerably less attention is paid to below-the-line categories, where the lack of representation is even more glaring. According to a recent report from the Women’s Media Center, men represent 77% of the nominees for behind-the-scenes jobs this year. Aside from the gendered acting categories, which sidestep the issue of parity and routinely snub people of color, only 43 women received Oscar nominations in non-acting categories, compared with 148 men. Sadly, that figure represents victory for women, up slightly from 2017.

Other notable achievements this year include the nomination of writer-director Dee Rees, the first black woman recognized for adapted screenplay for Mudbound, which she co-wrote with Virgil Williams. Mary H. Ellis, one third of the sound mixing team behind Baby Driver, became the sixth woman to have been nominated for that award. Three women were recognized for original screenplay, up from zero in 2017: Gerwig, The Big Sick cowriter Emily V. Gordon, and The Shape of Water co-writer Vanessa Taylor. And we witnessed a boom in the animated feature category, which has largely overlooked women since its addition to the ceremony in 2001. Two of the five animated movies––Loving Vincent and The Breadwinner––are directed by women (Nora Twomey and Dorota Kobiela, respectively), and two more feature female producers.

Elsewhere, women continued to see growing representation in categories like production design and makeup and hairstyling. And relatively speaking, film editing has always been the most favorable to women, largely owing to the fact that the job was initially considered less important. Thelma Schoonmaker (Raging Bull, The Wolf of Wall Street) remains tied with several men for the record number of Oscar wins (three) in that category, and this year Tatiana S. Riegel is nominated for I, Tonya. Like Ellis, Riegel is enjoying these accolades deep into a career that already spans three decades.

But the field hasn’t been nearly as equitable for women of color––only last year did Joi McMillon become the first black woman film editor to receive an Oscar nomination, for Moonlight. In 2017, McMillon told the L.A. Times, “A lot of times it’s about who you know. That’s the hard part when people are coming out here to break into below-the-line [jobs].” McMillon also cited high union dues as being a barrier to entry. And, of course, for all women, the pervasive issue of sexual harassment, which the Time’s Up movement is seeking to expose and eradicate, has created unquantifiable obstacles.

For such a loudly liberal industry as Hollywood, both opportunity and recognition remain rare for anybody who isn’t a white man. This is the 90th Academy Awards ceremony, and women are still entirely absent from three categories: sound editing, visual effects, and score (fewer than seven women have ever been nominated for the latter two distinctions).

The good news is that the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences has pledged to double the number of women and diverse members by 2020, and progress is also being reflected in the types of stories that receive acknowledgement. For instance, four out of the nine films nominated for best picture this year are female-driven, and a fifth is a horror-comedy that confronts racism. Nonetheless, as exciting as it will be to tune in on Sunday and see if and how history is made, the Oscar race remains a prime example of the significant distance that is yet to be closed.

Related Articles