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Will uptick in women’s stories mean more Oscar nominations for women?

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Margot Robbie could become the first woman to earn a producer nomination and actress nomination for the same film — I, Tonya.

In the year of the #MeToo movement, the heightened awareness of sexual harassment, renewed determination to seek equal treatment for women in the film industry, and the demand for more decisive action in front of and behind the camera, the Oscars too are poised to make history with several nominations in categories that do not ordinarily include women.   

Oscar nominations will be announced next week. Here are several key nominations to look for, thanks in part to an industry that seems ready to hear the voices of women — but also to several female producers who took matters into their own hands to bring stories about women to the big screen.

Whatever the forces shaping this year’s Oscar race, there is no denying that many of the strongest films of the year were anchored by central performances by women. Prominent among them are:

  • The Shape of Water, starring Sally Hawkins, who plays a mute cleaning woman who must summon her courage to free a captive creature.
  • Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, in which Frances McDormand decides to take matters into her own hands when the town’s law enforcement doesn’t find her daughter’s killer fast enough. Her “three billboards” are meant to send a message to the police, to the community, and to the media.  
  • Lady Bird, starring Saoirse Ronan, about a frustrated teenager in Sacramento coming of age.
  • The Post, starring Meryl Streep as the Washington Post’s Katharine Graham as she makes the transition from publisher’s wife to the publisher who decided to publish the Pentagon Papers, despite orders from President Nixon not to.
  • I, Tonya, starring Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding, who crawls out of the depths of poverty to chase her dream.
  • Molly’s Game, starring Jessica Chastain, who plays an Olympic athlete who must turn to the world of professional poker when her injuries prevent her from competing.

This is unheard of in an Oscar race that has been dominated by films about heroes who are almost always men.

Even the films that did not make it this far in the race feature strong portrayals of female heroes, like Emma Stone as Billie Jean King in Battle of the Sexes, or Cynthia Nixon as Emily Dickinson, or Salma Hayek as an environmental activist in Beatriz at Dinner, Judi Dench as Queen Victoria, and Annette Bening as Gloria Grahame in Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool. For once, there were more contenders than the category could nominate.

Although the roles for white women seemed to flourish like never before, women of color have been virtually shut out of the lead actress race. Dee Rees, an African American writer and director, earned high praise from critics for Netflix’s Mudbound, but the Oscar fate of the film is uncertain, since no one knows if Academy voters are ready to embrace Netflix as a legit distributor.  

Dee Rees made it her mission to hire women in key positions for her production, including cinematographer Rachel Morrison, composer Tamar-kali, and editor Mako Kamitsuna. There may not be any actresses of color nominated this year, but Mudbound features a much-vaunted performance by Mary J. Blige, who might earn a nomination. Additionally, Octavia Spencer could see a nomination for The Shape of Water, as could Hong Chau in a supporting role for Downsizing, not to mention Tiffany Haddish from the runaway hit Girls Trip. Haddish recently won the best supporting actress award from the New York Film Critics Circle. No matter what fate lies ahead for Mudbound with Oscar voters, the presence of Dee Rees looming large over the Best Picture and Best Director race could be a sign of better things to come

While none of these nominations are a done deal, there could be cause for celebration for women overall if things turn out the way many are predicting they will. From the producing, directing, and writing categories to cinematography, female nominees might fill up the Oscar nominations in a way we’ve never seen before, which could begin to change some of the depressing numbers we’ve seen of late.

The prevalence of women in the Oscar race probably has less to do with the Academy’s recent drive to increase the representation of women and people of color in its ranks, and more to do with an unusual number of films about women having been made this past year. Movies about women tend to have more women involved in getting them made. Margot Robbie could make history this year by becoming the first woman to earn a producer nomination and actress nomination for the same film. While Oprah Winfrey and Barbra Streisand have both been honored with producing and acting nominations, Robbie could become the first woman to be named in the same year.

Robbie wanted to get I, Tonya made, and she knew becoming a producer was the best way to make that happen. In fact, the presence of so many women featured in potential Best Picture hopefuls could account for the increase in women vying for producer nominations.

The producers behind many of the frontrunners for a Best Picture nomination are women. These include Dunkirk, co-produced by director Christopher Nolan’s longtime partner Emma Thomas, and Lady Bird, co-produced by Evelyn O'Neill. Get Out is co-produced by Beatriz Sequeira. Steven Spielberg’s The Post is produced by powerhouse Amy Pascal, and one of the screenwriters, Liz Hannah, is doing double duty. Kristie Macosko and Rachel O’Connor are listed as producers as well. Pascal also produced Aaron Sorkin’s Molly’s Game. The Big Sick has Amanda Glaze as one of its producers, and The Florida Project has Shih-Ching Tsou and Francesca Silvestri. It’s entirely possible that all of the Best Picture nominees will have at least one woman listed as a producer.

2017 was a record year for women directors in consideration for an Oscar, though only two films directed by women managed to break through to the Producers Guild nominations: Evelyn O'Neill for Lady Bird and Patty Jenkins for Wonder Woman. The Producers Guild had a tie for the 10th spot for the first time in its history, which may be what enabled Wonder Woman to be one of the 11 nominees for Best Picture.

In the Best Director category, Greta Gerwig, who directed Lady Bird, looks to become only the fifth woman ever nominated in the category. While Gerwig missed out on a Golden Globe nomination, she has been nominated by the Directors Guild.

Other films directed by women have not landed the usual requisite precursors (nominations from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association or the major guilds) to earn them a spot in the Best Picture lineup, but many have nonetheless stood out for being bold, provocative work. Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled, Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit, Valerie Faris’ (co-directing with Jonathan Dayton) Battle of the Sexes, and Dee Rees’ Mudbound are all films that made enough impact this year with critics and box office to garner notice. Angelina Jolie’s First They Killed My Father, Margaret Betts’ Novitiate, and Lone Scherfig’s Their Finest are also notable.

Still, it is very likely that Greta Gerwig, who wrote and directed Lady Bird, will be the only female directing nominee this year. In the writing category, she joins an abundance of female writers who could be nominated. While Gerwig would be the only solo nominee in the writing category who's a woman, female co-writers could be nominated, like The Big Sick’s Emily V. Gordon, The Shape of Water’s Vanessa Taylor, Mudbound’s Dee Rees, and The Post’s Liz Hannah.

There are two women who directed animated films that might see nominations this year: Nora Twomey for The Breadwinner and Dorota Kobiela for Loving Vincent. The feature documentary category could see nominations for Agnès Varda for Faces Places, Jennifer Brea for Unrest, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady for One of Us, and Bonni Cohen, co-director of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Sequel.

There is a good chance the 100 percent male cinematography category may, for the first time in Academy history, see its first female nominee. Rachel Morrison, who shot Mudbound, has already made history with a nomination from the American Society of Cinematographers, and an Oscar nomination usually follows. Of course, there is always the chance Morrison will be shut out of the category, leaving its all-male history intact.

While Charlotte Bruus Christensen isn’t expected to get a nomination for her cinematography on Molly’s Game, she is another prominent woman on the rise in that mostly male field. Editing is also a category where some of the most famous people in the field have been women, but they aren’t represented all that often in awards nominations. This year, there are two women who might potentially make it in: Tatiana S. Riegel for I, Tonya and Sarah Broshar, who co-edited The Post with Michael Kahn.

It’s a positive sign that Margot Robbie has shown that women can produce their own star vehicles, and those vehicles can sometimes go all the way.

The Oscar nominations will be announced January 23.



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