OTI Online
Fall 1993

Oscar "Honors" Women?
by Elaine Rapping

The announcement, last winter, that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was planning to make " Oscar Celebrates Women and the Movies" the theme of their 65th annual awards ceremony nearly knocked me off my chair. It was bad enough that the rest of the media had conspired to create the widespread illusion that 1992 had been "The Year of the Woman" primarily (as far as I could tell) because we had elected a president who admitted he valued his wife's abilities, and defeated a vice-president who couldn't win an argument with a sitcom heroine.

At least some strides were made in the realm of electoral politics and television drama. The movie industry, in shocking contrast, has rarely had a worse annual record for its treatment of women. And that is really saying something for an industry that is, even compared to such less-than-egalitarian institutions as Congress and TV, a dinosaur in its commitment to retrograde, patriarchal policies and its near blindness to rising consciousness among women audiences.Talk about guys that "don't get it," these guys have never even heard about it.

In Hollywood today, women play only 34 percent of the roles in studio films. Across the board, they earn 33 percent less than male counterparts for comparable industry jobs ranging from the most illustrious to the most mundane. One reason, of course, is that most Hollywood movies these days target children, men or morons as audiences. On the week the nominations were announced, for example, the top 10 box office draws included only one film, "The Crying Game," that wasn't either a cartoon or an action/adventure.

So medieval is the film industry in its attitude toward women that at a time when women now hold important jobs as writers, directors, producers and camera operators in television, it is still possible to name on a single hand the number of women allowed to direct Hollywood films. And of those few, the most prominent - Penny Marshall, Barbra Streisand, Jodie Foster - gained their clout through their longstanding bankability as stars, hardly a necessary apprenticeship for men.

This has all been true for some time, of course. But what made 1992 the most bizarre choice of a year to celebrate women were the Oscar nominations themselves, which revealed just how far the shaky ground upon which women have always stood in the industry has recently sunk. Of the five films nominated for Best Picture, the two with strong female roles, "The Crying Game" and "Howard's End," were foreign. (It is worth noting, now that the "secret" is surely known by everyone who might care, that even in this category, the juiciest, most politically daring feminine role went to a man.) As for the other nominated films, the ones with the huge budgets and promotional campaigns—"A Few Good Men," "Scent of a Woman" and "Unforgiven" - were all old fashioned, macho genre pieces produced by, for and about the most traditional male audiences and heroes. In fact, there were so many such features last year, starring lots of men and boys and supported by mostly marginalized females and animals ("Glengarry Glen Ross," "A River Runs Through It," "Hoffa," "Malcolm X," "Chaplin"), that there weren't enough nomination slots for all the major releases to fit into.

As for the women's roles, to make the comparison is to invite tears of frustration. Two of the five leading actress nominees came from foreign films, "Indochine" and "Howard's End." As for the others, each played in a film so small and limited in distribution and promotion "Passion Fish," "Love Field," "Lorenzo's Oil" •as to make them negligible. Some industry apologists (and there are way too many of those, about which more below) took to exclaiming that it was "just wonderful" that "at last" independents and art films were being honored. Don't bet on that interpretation. The truth is there were so few major roles for women in big budget, blockbuster, highly-promoted films last year that the Academy was forced to look outside the commercially viable to find any women at all to nominate.

The industry's real attitude toward independents and artfilms was loudly heralded in the Supporting Actress category. That award went to the only nominee playing in a mainstream Hollywood feature, the young, inexperienced Marisa Tomei, running against a slate of accomplished, remarkable actresses in far meatier, mostly independent or foreign, roles: Vanessa Redgrave, Joan Plowright, Judy Davis and Miranda Richardson. That these women were all, amazingly, passed over in favor of a relatively unchallenging performance in a really trivial film was enough by itself to make the awards ceremony a travesty.

But wait, it gets worse. The ceremony itself was an exercise in sheer tastelessness and gall. As the celebrities were ushered into the sumptuously-appointed hall, for example, the orchestra played a rousing rendition of "Thank Heaven for Little Girls." And it was downhill from there. The people who put this thing together were so confused or desperate in their search for female role models, on-screen or off, that they actually chose the job of editing as the place where women, historically, were supposed to have shone. We were subjected to an embarrassing montage of images of women slaving over editing machines, cutting and splicing images of cowboys, gangsters and Marines. If they had gone on to show the women who ironed the costumes, typed the scripts and mopped the floors, it might actually have passed as a political statement about industry sexism.

And so it went. Only Barbra Streisand, who had a personal axe to grind for being slighted last year in the directorial nominations, even dared suggest that the hype about honoring women was premature. Geena Davis, on the other hand, given the job of making the opening thematic statement, didn't even balk at being made to read lines in which women's roles were described as "to tease, to seduce, to flirt, to ..." - well, you get the picture.

Which brings me to the matter of the famous "Hollywood Left" the mainstream media has been so agitated about lately. If we are to believe the New York Times and its lesser satellites, we are in the grip of a wave of "politically correct" popular culture orchestrated by the very powerful likes of such Hollywood activists as Geena Davis herself, a prominent member of the Hollywood Women's Political Committee and ardent crusader for the Clintons.

We have already seen how preposterous the claim that Hollywood movies reflect "left" political biases really is. But that is not to say that the stars themselves are not, in fact, serious activists. Or is it? The behavior of these much-touted "radicals" at this so-called feminist event raises questions. There are many stars who, in their private lives, spend much money and energy in the service of progressive causes, some of them feminist. That they have the cash and the visibility to do this is commendable and should not be underestimated. Stan carry great weight with fans and their endorsement of positions to the left of center, such as reproductive and gay rights, helps to shift public attitudes in more liberal directions.

Nonetheless,as the Oscar debacle made clear, these celebrity "leftists" and "feminists" have a far more marginal role in progressive politics than one might assume from all the hype surrounding them. And what little influence they do have may in certain instances do more harm than good. Certainly the many momentous pronouncements from the stage, jewel-encrusted AIDS lapel pins, and after-hours "benefit" parties associated with the Academy Awards ceremony bear this out. The Hollywood Left believes its own PR, sees itself as political and even noble and heroic. But when called upon to do something even marginally threatening to the actual workings of the industry that pays and glamorizes them so excessively, such as calling attention to the treatment of women in Hollywood, their behavior was neither noble nor heroic. To be sure, empassioned political speeches were heard. The power brokers in the hall and the one billion-plus global TV audience were called upon to consider the plight of Haiti, Panama and Tibet by Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins and Richard Gere, among others. But no one watching the proceedings would have had any way of knowing that while these "leftists" were doing their "political work," the streets outside the hall were filled with feminist activists protesting the awards with no support whatever from those on stage.

In fact, while no media report or coverage of the awards ceremony event except for MTV even hinted at this fact, members of WAC (Women's Action Coalition), a national 4400-member organization supposedly supported by the Hollywood Left, were out in good numbers, demonstrating all day (and for weeks before, organizing) against the idiocy I have just described. Indeed, they had called upon die very women prominent in the nominations and ceremonies, as well as the many others who were interviewed by the E! entertainment network (which ran continuous coveragefor24 hours before the event, and substantial promotional coverage at least a week beforehand) to support them. They asked, at the very least, that stars wear a W A C lapel pin symbolizing support of women in the industry.

Well, I looked and looked, and listened and listened, but I did not hear a single word or see a single WAC pin on the likes of any "politically active" Hollywood women seen and interviewed that night. In fact, Jodie Foster, Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon (the only ones whose interviews I heard), bent over backwards NOT to answer questions about the issue. Sarandon and Foster thought it was "nice" that women were honored and hoped for "better roles" for all. Davis did even better by admitting she had no complaints since "a lot of the good roles come my way."

Not surprisingly of course, every celebrity on the Left and Right was wearing the ubiquitous red ribbon in support of people with AIDS, and the Black celebrities added a lavender one to show they opposed urban violence. So important was it, I suppose, to be unequivocally on record as opposing death and disease, that any other issue, even one related to the theme of the evening, was forced to take a backseat. Not a single star could find space for the little W A C pin. And herein lies a tale about women, power and politics in Hollywood. While even female corporate executives, public officials and professional women of all kinds network, organize and share information, clout and skills, the women of the Hollywood Left, who are among the wealthiest and most culturally influential in the country, choose to maintain their outrageously token positions at the expense of die thousands of actresses, script "girls," wardrobe workers, secretaries, and would-be directors, writers and producers who serve them.

The truth is that there are about five women—Foster, Sarandon, Davis, Meryl Streep, Glenn Close—who are offered every good role (and they are few and far between) that comes along. T o change that feet— to demand better roles, more roles, more opportunity and equity throughout the industry - they would need to organize on behalf of the other women and against the existing order on screen and behind the scenes. And that, it seems, is too risky.

In the wake of this embarrassing attempt to "honor women in film," and the Hollywood Left's participation in the spectacle, the media were quick to yet again make fun of"political correctness," activism and progressive people generally. Sarandon, the most visible female politico, was singled out in the mainstream print media as a "pampered celebrity" indulging in fatuous "do-goodism" in the interest of her own "smug, self satisfied" ego. Y et again, we heard the dangerous right-wing propaganda that equates politics to a yuppie "lifestyle" and warns of "bleeding-heart liberals" running Hollywood. But as angry as I was at the press for pushing such nonsense, I was even angrier at Sarandon and the others. They have so much visibility, so much media access that it is understandable that what they define as "politics," what they single out as a crucial issue (meat eating and fur wearing are very big these days) gets greater attention and acceptance among the American public. And so, the truth about movie industry sexism and about political activism itself-—which involves commitment and personal sacrifice, not to mention collective, strategic planning for actual social change—were seriously distorted, to the delight, no doubt, of right-wing misogynists everywhere.

Elayne Rapping, Professor of Communications at Adelphi University, is the author of The Movie of the Week: Private Stories/ Public Events (University of Minnesota Press, 1992). She is writing a book on women, addiction and the recovery movement to be published by Beacon Press next year.

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