The Oscars and 21st Century Cinema: A Man’s World?

Every year, the Oscars pass me by and, admittedly, I’ve never taken much notice. This seems to be the case for most British people, in fact; ecause the ceremony is aired here from around 1am on a Sunday night, few people have the time or inclination to stay up all night and watch it. Not to mention the necessary Sky subscription that most students can’t afford. This year, however, in the interest of dabbling, I decided to try and watch as many of the nominated films as I could, ranging from the animated film Brave, which is based on a Scottish fairytale, to the sensitively-handled bittersweet The Sessions. 


This was an interesting exercise because- and I should say straight out- I am not a fan of Hollywood’s obsession with gore. So, in spite of that, I’ve seen more blood splashed across a screen in the last month than ever before. Particular ‘highlights’ include a battlefield of severed limbs in Lincoln and the scene in Django Unchained where a man is torn apart by dogs- a sequence that Tarantino was so proud of that he repeated in a few flash-back shots later on. Personally, I’m torn (in a pain-free way, thankfully) about this kind of shock tactic. Yes, it’s effective, and yes, it’s a triumph for all makeup artists and prosthetists involved. But, in all honesty, a part of me wanted to go home after this and curl up in my room with a feigned case of agoraphobia. Django Unchained– most of Tarantino’s films, in fact- put forward this overwhelming sense of a cruel, dog-eat-dog (or man) world, where committing bloody homicides are just as commonplace as posting a letter or feeding the goldfish. This opinion, I suspect, might only too soon be met with rebuttals such as ‘it’s done for artistic effect’ or ‘it confronts the ugly truth of its social/historical context’. But I cannot help but maintain that the last 30 minutes or so of the film- which depicted the highly implausible cliche of the protagonist shooting a hundred men and emerging in one piece, whilst everyone took a sanguine shower – was anything but a prolonged self-indulgence on Tarantino’s part, with all the artfulness of a paintball fight. I can’t help wondering about the implications of this. In a society where we have people walking into primary school and massacring 26 people, like in Connecticut last year, you wonder whether this has anything to do with the desensitising effect of watching what is essentially the same thing on screen.


The real underdog amongst the nominated films was Ben Lewin’s The Sessions. The plot, in a nutshell, revolves around the story of a wry-humoured male polio sufferer, who, pushing 40, wishes to lose his virginity. What this doesn’t have in common with Steve Carrell’s 2005 film is that the subject is approached with a tender, poignant style. Helen Hunt, who lost out on her ‘Best Supporting Actress’ Oscar to Anne Hathaway’s drastic haircut, plays a sex surrogate (look it up). Her character is selfless, kind and patient. Through watching this film, I was both edified and uplifted about the human condition. I vicariously confronted human suffering- a suffering which was much more tangible and relatable than the masses of people getting knocked down like bowling pins. And I walked out feeling that the world wasn’t too bad a place, after all.

Ironically, one of the few nominated films that I failed to watch was the one that won the Oscar for ‘Best Film’: Argo. Kudos to Ben Affleck, acting as the pretty faced frontman and simultaneously maintaining his flawless reputation as a director (his other two films, Gone Baby Gone and The Town, were both Oscar-nominated). But with an almost entirely male cast, an emphasis on homosocial relationships and a fair smattering of violence including images of torture and a hanging corpse, it ticks all the right boxes for our society’s ‘cracking film’ criteria. If this seems an unfair judgement, then just look at the IMDB top 10:

Rank Rating Title Votes
1. 9.2 The Shawshank Redemption (1994) 927,017
2. 9.2 The Godfather (1972) 665,168
3. 9.0 The Godfather: Part II (1974) 428,509
4. 8.9 Pulp Fiction (1994) 721,998
5. 8.9 The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) 282,805
6. 8.9 12 Angry Men (1957) 228,097
7. 8.9 The Dark Knight (2008) 904,761
8. 8.9 Schindler’s List (1993) 476,774
9. 8.8 The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King(2003) 663,134
10. 8.8 Fight Club (1999) 706,512

In 2010, Kathryn Bigelow became the only woman to ever win ‘Best Director’ at the Oscars. Unsurprisingly, she pandered to this criteria.


This is not to say that the string of ‘ten-a-penny’ romantic comedies released in the last 30 years – the type of films that a modern day women might often impose on a new boyfriend during the honeymoon stage- should be winning Oscars. The majority of romantic comedies are just as ‘male focussed’ as a glorified three hour shoot out; whilst they may not pander particularly to a male audience, they do depict women obsessing over men. From the sassy makeover a woman undergoes during a three minute montage to the nights in she spends eating ice cream with her ‘helpful but noticeably not as attractive’ bestest gal pal, it is all directed at the chase. You get the sense that said woman is somewhat hard done by unless you can imagine her running off into the distance with her ruggedly handsome love interest during the closing credits. Serendipity, Sleepless in Seattle, Pretty Woman, Never Been Kissed…I’ve honestly watched them all. And it’s the same story. These films succeed because they perpetuate the myth of ‘happy ever after’ that fuels everything from one night stands to whirlwind marriages.

Moreover, let me refer to the Bechdel Test, which has three criteria:

1) A movie has to have at least two women in it who have names.

2) who talk to each other.

3) about something besides a man.

This doesn’t sound like too much of a tall order. So it may seem surprising that, when this was applied to the ‘Best Picture’ nominated films in 2011, only 2/9 qualified. And let’s think about the 2013 nominations. Lincoln? Zero Dark Thirty? Even films where women get something of a look in, like Les Miserables and Silver Linings Playbookfail to fulfil this criteria.

It wasn’t always like this. The first time I watched Educating Rita, every preconception of mine told me that Rita would most probably end up with the temperamental alcoholic professor. ‘This is a man’s world’, as James Brown told us, but ultimately Michael Caine was ‘nothing without a woman or a girl’. He needed her. Which is why it seemed so infinitely surprising to me that, despite his pleas, Rita was obstinate that she wanted to pursue her new, much more meaningful life- and without him. But why was this surprising? Because, in so many popular rom coms, this is not the case. Love is the answer, they seem to tell us. Time to give up all that career nonsense. In the ending scene of Notting Hill (admittedly, one of my favourite films) Hugh Grant sits reading on a bench whilst the impregnated ex-starlet, Julia Roberts, dozes adoringly on his lap.

Ultimately, cinema has become increasingly masculine in its priorities, whilst female audiences are being tranquilized with He’s Just Not That Into You in between their perusing of Cosmo’s tips on ‘How To Satisfy Your Man’.


Cinema needs more films like The Sessions, for a start, which reveal the very best side of femininity (here, I am not referring to Helen Hunt’s full frontal nudity) and don’t portray them as blinkered bimbos. But I would also like to see a revival of female characters that bite back, not just the kooky understated quality of Michelle Williams, Zooey Deschanel and Carey Williams, but the fiery gusto of Elizabeth Taylor as she fires back at Richard Burton.


Somewhat more recently, the panache of Angelina Jolie in Girl Interrupted and relentlessness and self-sacrifice of Julia Roberts’ Erin Brockovich. The ground-breaking direction in Julia Taymor’s psychedelic Across the Universe or Lone Scherfig’s very different, extremely candid An Education. It is possible.

The women I have named as pioneering examples are, at the moment, anomalies within the film industry. But let’s hope that this can change. There is a place for women in Hollywood. In fact, with male directors catering more and more to a perverse peanut-crunching crowd, there is a desperate need for more women in Hollywood.

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