Don and Jay,
I wholeheartedly agree Jay when you say that the Oscars is an American institution, and it should not be seen as an indicator of what truly represents the best of cinema in any given year. The Academy is limited by their cultural geography and is by and large a political group whose selection processes often feel like elections voted upon by pasty, old men. This isn’t to say though that they are devoid of any power – they still continue to be the biggest tastemakers in Hollywood and the films they recognize define the landscape of modern filmmaking. That is why when they go beyond their comfort zones like they did this year by nominating The Tree of Life for Best Picture or Bridesmaids and A Separation for Best Screenplay, it is a big deal.
Let me add to your description of the Oscars: their past honorees also shows that they have a predilection for white, male narratives where women and people of color figure less significantly. A quick glance at the recent “Best Pictures” will show this – The King’s Speech, The Hurt Locker, No Country For Old Men, The Departed, etc. A majority of them are all about white men overcoming odds that are stacked against them, about white men who find a way to achieve greatness, however they define it to be. And if The Artist wins this year, this trend will sadly continue. So even if this was a great year for women in cinema, I don’t think that it is accurately reflected by this year’s Oscars. It is quite telling that out of all the Best Actress nominees, only one of them comes from a film that was also nominated for Best Picture (Viola Davis for The Help), compared to three from the Best Actors.
Speaking of the Best Actor nominees, I’ve noticed an interesting similarity in all of characters they played: each of their wives cheated on or left them. For Brad Pitt in Moneyball, Demian Bichir in A Better Life and Gary Oldman in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, the movie begins with their wives having already left them for one reason or another, for Jean Dujardin in The Artist, his wife leaves him in the middle of the movie, and for George Clooney in The Descendants, he faces the death of his philandering wife after a fatal boating accident.
Is this the new middle-aged male anxiety that most men fear now, that their wives might unexpectedly leave them? In most of these movies, the audience is not given any satisfying explanation that details the emotional complexities and nuances of their relationship that have led to the wife’s decision to have an affair or leave the husband; we’re expected to automatically place our sympathies on the lead male and treat him as the victim. In The Descendants, A Better Life and to a lesser extent, Moneyball, the characters have to overcome the challenges of single fatherhood and have to perform the duties that were supposed to be performed by the maternal figure, like raising a ten year old daughter in the case of Clooney’s Matt King or keeping his kid away from gangs for Bichir’s Carlos Galindo. If only she stayed with the family then their lives wouldn’t be shit (or at least less shitty than it is).
I just find it quite strange that this is a recurring theme for all the nominees, and it’s not really a good depiction of women especially since their characters are not given the space or time to defend their actions. The male-centrism of these movies is probably what earned them their nominations, but should it come at the expense of creating fully realized female characters?
A much more balanced and fair portrayal of a crumbling, dissolving marriage comes from the Irani film A Separation, about a couple getting a divorce and the legal quandary that they find themselves in after the husband, Simin, hires a new maid. It shows each party as both flawed and damaged, and it does not cast judgment on any of their actions. It is hard to arbitrate the morality of their decisions because they are depicted as complex and painfully arrived at – their actions are as much influenced by the social forces and institutionalized values that impose on them than their own free will. This film was moving in its honesty, its refusal to reduce the complicated, and its tragically compromised characters.