Hidden Psychology of the Academy Awards Reveals a Bias Against Actresses

Great acting by women has little bearing on the overall assessment of a film, while great acting by men is much more closely linked to appreciation of a great movie.

The headlines are that Daniel Day Lewis has made Academy Award history by winning the Oscar for best actor for the third time. But is there a darker story behind the glittering awards ceremony? Jennifer Lawrence won the equivalent award for her performance in Silver Linings Playbook, but if her and Daniel Day Lewis's awards are truly the same, then the best actor and best actress should contribute equally to assessments of what count as great movies.

Daniel Day Lewis was born in 1957, Jennifer Lawrence in 1990 - does this discrepancy in age reveal entirely different roles for men and women on film, in stories and in our minds?

Research by a distinguished professor of psychology at the University of California finds the best actor and best actress are not competing on level playing fields in Hollywood.

Dean Keith Simonton has conducted scientific research into the Oscar ceremony results, going back decades, uncovering an intriguing bias against female actresses.

This year's ceremony saw Argo win best picture and, as predicted by Simonton's research, while this film also had a best supporting actor nomination, it boasted no best actress or best supporting actress nomination. As Simonton predicted, women don't seem to feature as much in what are considered to be the better stories.

He points out in his paper entitled 'The "Best Actress" Paradox: Outstanding Feature Films Versus Exceptional Women's Performances', that female movie actresses are already known to have shorter careers and earn less than male actors. He reports in one representative recent year the 12 stars with the top gross salaries - those who earn about $20million per film and average about 12% of the gross - included only one woman, Julia Roberts. Even she earned half as much as the two top men, Tom Cruise and Bruce Willis.

Simonton argues unbalanced treatment of men and women continues with respect to the best acting Oscars bestowed by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Women have a much narrower age interval in which they are likely to win an Oscar. Only about one-quarter of the female recipients are older than 39, about two-thirds of the male winners are 40 or older.

Simonton wondered whether actors and actresses, although they may stride up onto the stage to pick up their gongs in an apparently equivalent manner, are in completely different kinds of competition.

He argues that outstanding acting by women is largely confined to lesser films, whereas comparable performances by men, are to be found in the most successful movies.

In a previous study he conducted examining the impact of Oscar nominations and awards on both best picture honours and movie guide ratings, the impact of men's best acting recognition was about twice that for women's best acting.

Another study by Simonton found the impact on best picture awards for outstanding performance in female lead roles was smaller than the power of outstanding performance in male supporting roles - and even smaller than the influence female supporting roles. No contribution, even that of the film editors, displayed a lower impact than did the female leads.

Great acting by women has little bearing on the overall assessment of a film, while great acting by men is much more closely linked to appreciation of a great movie.

Simonton backs up these statistical findings with concrete examples in his paper published in the journal 'Sex Roles'.

A very large number of women have won best acting Oscars in films that were not even nominated for best picture Oscars. The list he provides in his study includes such big names as Mary Pickford, Helen Hayes, Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Olivia De Havilland, Loretta Young, Ingrid Bergman, Joanne Woodward, Susan Hayward, Elisabeth Taylor, Sophia Loren, Anne Bancroft, Maggie Smith, Glenda Jackson, Jane Fonda, EllenBurstyn, Meryl Streep, Geraldine Page, Jodie Foster, Kathy Bates, Jessica Lange, Susan Sarandon and Halle Berry.

Simonton contends the career of Meryl Streep is most indicative of this phenomenon. Streep can claim more Oscar acting nominations than any other woman in the history of the Academy Awards, including both Katherine Hepburn and Bette Davis.

But most of her acting nominations were in films far removed from the running for best picture awards. Examples include roles in Music of the Heart, One True Thing, The Bridges of Madison County, Postcards from the Edge, A Cry in the Dark, and Ironweed.

Her outstanding acting performances, particularly later in her career, had become disconnected from the overall impact of the films in which she appeared. Simonton is not arguing that male actors never contribute award-winning performances to less than top-notch films, he contends however that the separation of stellar acting from film impact, seems more likely to happen for women than for men.

To test his theory, Simonton analysed all films that received special recognition in the 1936-2000 award ceremonies of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. For Best Picture Oscar the impact of a male best actor award or nomination is more than twice that for a female best actor award or nomination.

The discrepancies also hold for both the lead and supporting categories. Most strikingly, the disparity between men and women tends to exceed that between lead and supporting roles.

In other words, if a hypothetically neuter actor had to choose between a male supporting role or a female lead role, the former option would better guarantee an exceptional performance would be associated with an outstanding feature film.

Simonton analysed the data to check whether this gender effect varied across time from 1936 to 2000, and found the gender effect in Hollywood wasn't decreasing - indeed if anything it was getting slightly worse in more recent years.

But the Oscars have been criticised as merely reflecting local Hollywood tastes and politics, so Simonton analysed 1,367 films released between 1968 and 2000 which had received special recognition from one of the following seven societies: (a) the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, (b) the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA), (c) the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (Golden Globes), (d) the National Board of Review, (e) the National Society of Film Critics, (f) the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, and (g) New York Film Critics Circle.

These results again demonstrated that exceptional performance by a male supporting actor is much more likely to be found in an outstanding film than is an equally brilliant performance by a female lead. Indeed, a female lead's chances of being in a great film is about the same as that of a supporting actress.

Simonton wonders if his results can be explained by a deeply ingrained view of what counts as a great story. Perhaps the audience intuitively feels male roles are more strongly associated with superior stories.

This is a long-term trend dating back to classic literary masterworks, such as the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, Homer's Illiad, and Virgil's Aeneid. Such tales stress the same kind of action oriented hero who figures so prominently in the Hollywood blockbusters strongly associated with male leads.

Another possible explanation is that as all nominations for best director and best screenplay writer were for men this year, then the true power base in Hollywood remains firmly in the hands of men, explaining a bias against female leads and storytelling.

Simonton concludes that in a sense, therefore, as far as Hollywood is concerned, women are always playing supporting roles, even when their names appear up in lights, alongside the men.


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