The Playgoer: Best Actor/Best Actress: Shall the Twain E'er Meet?

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Monday, March 08, 2010

Best Actor/Best Actress: Shall the Twain E'er Meet?

Making waves across the net this weekend was Kim Elsesser's NYT op-ed asking one of those good questions that seems so obvious when asked, except no one (publicly, at least) ever asks it:
Suppose, however, that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences presented separate honors for best white actor and best non-white actor, and that Mr. Freeman was prohibited from competing against the likes of Mr. Clooney and Mr. Bridges. Surely, the academy would be derided as intolerant and out of touch; public outcry would swiftly ensure that Oscar nominations never again fell along racial lines.

Why, then, is it considered acceptable to segregate nominations by sex, offering different Oscars for best actor and best actress?
And so I put the question not to the Oscars, but to...the Tonys!  In 2010 are we really committed to reinforcing in the theatre some idea of men and women being separate acting species?

Two of Elsesser's more persuasive points:
While it is certainly acceptable for sports competitions like the Olympics to have separate events for male and female athletes, the biological differences do not affect acting performances. The divided Oscar categories merely insult women, because they suggest that women would not be victorious if the categories were combined. In addition, this segregation helps perpetuate the stereotype that the differences between men and women are so great that the two sexes cannot be evaluated as equals in their professions.
Worth considering, no?

Now it will never happen, of course. At least not at high profile glitz events like the Oscars and (albeit on a much chintzier level of glitz) the Tonys.  My theory is that in addition to the no-doubt embedded sexist underpinnings of the entire entertainment industry, there's also the issue of these shows as a kind of "movie" in themselves that need both male and female "leads."  (Like that photo you usually get the morning after of the Best Actor posing with the Best Actress.)  Plus you can look at it as "affirmative action" as Elsesser implies guaranteeing men--who inevitably win as directors, producers, technicians, not to mention hosts--will not dominate the whole show.

But in the end, it just really, really makes no sense, does it.

So I wonder: can we pressure maybe some of the smaller theatre awards--like the Lortels, the Drama Desk, yea even the vaunted NY Critics Circle--to reconsider?

(Obies already get around this by, a) having no nominees, and b) awarding all actors under the label "performance.)

Then again, maybe when we realize how ludicrous it is to say men and women can't comete against each other in acting, we'll also realize how ludicrous it is to treat acting as a competitive sport at all.


Anonymous said...

Not impossible. Think of the Obies. No nominations - and thus, no "losers" and no competition. And no male or female categories.

Charlene said...

Perhaps the question we should be asking is not whether female actors are equal in talent to male actors, but whether the parts available to female actors are equal in quality and number to the parts available to male actors. I'm not convinced that that is yet true. And I always assumed that that was the reason for the gender split, not that we assumed that the talent of women wasn't as great, but that the opportunities available to them weren't as great.

Ken said...

You're right, the Obies has the right idea:
a)No nominees, so no sickening "horse race" aspect to the proceedings--of course that also means no media attention-- outside of the Voice itself, of course.
b)No acting category more specific than "performance".

Thomas Garvey said...

Yeah, it's a great idea if you want to see women getting fewer acting awards.

Manda said...

I think it's great that gender parity is getting attention in our industry, but have to agree here with Thomas...this article actually went out to members of the League of Professional Theatre Women to see if we wanted to support the idea, and I had to say I'm opposed, and find the op-ed espousing a really narrow interpretation of equality and parity.

I believe that gender, though a complex construction and by no means universal, is something that should be celebrated. I don't find this separateness insulting nor do I see it as a way to perpetuate any kind of stereotype. In fact, I find the un-sexing concept more offensive in that it implies that our experiences, that our perspective as women, are not distinct or complimentary to those of men. I am all for shattering the glass ceiling, but on our own terms. Women should not have to concede what makes us women in order to achieve parity.

In fact, the separateness of these categories (unlike those for best director, playwright/screenwriter) have probably done more to advance the careers of women actors, and give them both visibility and bargaining power, where their creative counterparts are still struggling to be heard. Would we have had to wait 50 years for a woman to win a genderless "best actor" as we've seen in the case of Kathryn Bigelow--who incidentally won for one of the most macho, romanticized war movies in recent history....

Playgoer said...

Interesting argument, Manda. I see your point. I really posed the question as a thought experiment. Indeed abandoning the gender categories could create real havoc, especially if, say, men ended up winning all the awards.

But it does also beg the question: SHOULD we have Best Male & Female Director? How about Cinematographer? Where do we draw the line? Why just performers.

I also take Charlene's point about focusing the discussion on male/female ROLES, not performers. But then again there will inevitably be those tricky cases of genderfuck roles like Felicity Huffman's in "TransAmerica" or (going way back) Linda Hunt in "Year of Living Dangerously."

Perhaps it's worth keeping as, basically, affirmative action. But it seems to me if you polled, say, critics every year about simply "the best performances" it wouldn't be too skewed towards one gender.

Anonymous said...

After watching more awards this evening I wondered why the order is still best Actress then Best Actor, thereby always giving more importance to the male actors. Perhaps we could start by asking this be swapped every second year?