Scrolling through the list of the 2009 Academy Awards nominees, one particular category seems conspicuously absent.
Directors, cinematographers, sound mixers, costume designers: all of the above are eligible for an individual award which recognises their contribution to their field as being the finest of the past 12 months. Yet, when it comes to acting, no such definitive recognition is offered. Instead, the award is divided in two; distinguished, more than a little questionably, by gender.
There is no doubt that such distinctions are, in some cases, required. In tennis, football and the Olympics, for example, men and women compete separately. This is primarily because there are physical differences between the male and female body that prohibit competition on an equal plane, at least at an elite athletic level. No credible feminist discourse could invalidate this basic fact; and yet, it is no less absurd to extend such disparities to the realm of acting. Nevertheless, the enduring use of the archaic term ‘actress’ suggests just that.
When one considers some of the great performances by ‘actresses’ such as Gena Rowlands, Jeanne Moreau and Liv Ullman, it becomes more than a little preposterous to place similar talents such as James Dean, Max Von Sydow or Marlon Brando in a different class. They were all (just like the ten nominees announced on Tuesday) exponents of the same craft, with comparable abilities, engaged in the one profession: acting. To segregate the sexes when it comes to recognition of their acting achievements is not just a contradiction of this basic point; worse, it implies a gender handicap that should not exist.
Apart from the corresponding ‘Supporting Actor’ awards, there are no other categories that discriminate according to gender. Nevertheless, talented directors such as Kelly Reichardt, Claire Denis or Sally Potter might note somewhat ruefully that a broader application of the policy might be the only way that they could ever win an Oscar (Kathryn Bigelow’s 2009 nomination, only the fourth achieved by a woman in 82 years, notwithstanding). Of course, it would be patently ridiculous if a ‘Best Female Director’ award were ever instituted, and the current lack of recognition of female film-makers is as much an indictment of the male-dominated nature of the industry as it would be if a unified ‘Best Actor’ award were to become disproportionately weighted towards male performers. Maintaining separate awards for each gender does nothing to challenge the patriarchy that is the film industry; if anything, it only serves to gloss over the problem.
Perhaps there will be those who see the status quo as, simply, a diplomatic method of honouring two great performers at the same time. Others may scoff at the social relevance of the specific categorisations offered by what is, after all, a fairly self-important and irrelevant ceremony. On the contrary, it is through these little things that a wider, systemic sexism is allowed to be perpetuated, and they are the battlegrounds on which cultural change must be fought for. The amalgamation of the Academy Awards ‘Best Actor’ categories would be a small step, but it would be a step in the right direction.
(Note: Bigelow went on to claim the 2009 Academy Award for best director. She remains the only woman to have done so.)