Navigator. Scientist. Drug dealer. President. Movie star. King. These are the jobs of the characters that have won actors Oscar gold the last several years. And in most instances, their job is an integral facet if not focus of the plot. But, if you look to the films that earned actresses Oscars in the past decade, the definition of job gets tricky or totally irrelevant. Brie Larson’s heroine from Room was an abducted rape victim/young mother. Julianne Moore played a college professor, but Still Alice focused on her decline into Alzheimer’s. Cate Blanchett’s Blue Jasmine was a trembling trophy wife who’d lost her meal ticket. Sure, Meryl Streep was a Prime Minister in The Iron Lady, Natalie Portman a ballet dancer in Black Swan, Helen Mirren a monarch in The Queen. But by and large the Oscar-winning turns for women less often focus on women’s work. (What did Jennifer Lawrence’s Silver Linings Playbook character do outside of dance and bicker? Did Sandra Bullock’s Blind Side heroine have a job outside of white savior?) This narrative distinction between the roles women and men get becomes crystal clear comparing headlines to THR’s actor and actress roundtables:
Rape victims and crack addicts instead of superheroes. Welcome to Oscars 2017, where actresses play world-saving linguists, iconic First Ladies, ball-busting CEOs, and space-race-changing scientists, but headlines focus on sexual assault and drug abuse.
For the Actress Roundtable, THR pulled together possible contenders for the Best Actress Oscar, including Natalie Portman (Jackie), Amy Adams (Arrival and Nocturnal Animals), Taraji P. Henson (Hidden Figures), Emma Stone (La La Land), Isabelle Huppert (Elle), Annette Bening (20th Century Women), and Naomie Harris (Moonlight). And the piece begins by telling us how bad one of these women is at math.
It’s meant to be an ironic anecdote because Henson, who struggled with pre-calc, plays esteemed NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson in Hidden Figures. But it’s also a not-so-fun reminder that THR—one of the most prominent news sources in the industry— struggles when it comes to optics and awareness.
Still, hey Oscars roundtable’s not so white this time. And a quip from Henson served as a solid illustration about how race impacts opportunity. Discussing stage fright, Adams admitted the most rattled she’d ever been was when she had to sing a song from Enchanted at the 2008 Oscars. To which the Black leading lady replied, “At least you didn’t have to sing about pimps and whores”, referencing a song from Hustle & Flow. Adams got to play a princess, Henson a prostitute. It’s hard out there for an actress of color.
Speaking of doing astounding work against insane odds, Moonlight’s Harris did all of her scenes—which involve an arc of twenty-years and a descent into crack addiction—in just three days. “It’s so weird, actually,” Harris pondered, “Because I never felt like it was three days. I never felt rushed. It’s only now that everybody is saying, ‘Oh my gosh, it was done in three days. That’s insane.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, it is insane!’”
Also, she’s British. So please recognize her American accent skills, which were so on point Bening and Henson were shocked to realize Harris wasn’t a California girl.
To achieve addiction authenticity, Harris turned to Youtube where videos of actual crack dens are apparently a thing that exists. But was she reluctant to play a crack addict, as it’s a negative stereotype too often ascribed to black women? “I was,” she admitted. “Because I grew up with very strong, intelligent, powerful women, and I don’t feel as though they are reflected enough. So I made it my mission that I was going to make my choices based on portraying positive images of women in general and black women in particular. And I didn’t feel a crack addict fit into that. But then [director] Barry Jenkins asked me to play his mum, basically, and I thought, ‘Here’s someone who is emotionally invested in ensuring that this character is given her full complexity and her full humanity.’”
Interviewer Stephen Galloway leaned away from the typically easy questions of such a roundtable, asking flat out if “the industry is doing enough for black actors?” Henson answered, “Have we seen enough representation of African-American stories? No. But has Hollywood been horrible to me? No. I’ve worked. Did I get paid what I deserve? That is the question we should be talking about. But I can’t take that on because I have worked and I’ve seen my career do this. So I never wallow in the muck and say, ‘Oh, it’s hard.’ That’s a given. I can’t take this skin off. We know what the deal is. You understand? So I’m not going to make it an issue. I’m going to work my ass off and hopefully the work that I’m doing will change things, will make it better for the next one coming behind me. You let me in, give me an inch, I’ll take a mile. I’ve come a long way. I mean, look at me now. I’m on a hit show, I just produced my own variety show for Christmas…” not to mention Hidden Figures, a biopic that could break up the standard Best Picture boy’s club.
But Viv solidly covered this quote, and some other gems regarding who should really be confronted about inequality in representation and pay in the media. So let’s move on to how Huppert had a coach to help her through the performance of Elle’s rape scenes. Do you think “rape coach” questions come up for actors on the Oscar circuit?
Asked about their ambitions outside of acting, Portman, who plays the recently widowed Jacqueline Kennedy in Jackie, seemed to speak out about Trump’s rise by saying, “It feels very urgent right now to make change in local communities. Right now it feels really important to push female leadership. We need to teach girls to be bosses now. Now. Like yesterday.”
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