Academy Awards Could Redefine What It Means To Be Best Actor

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Let’s have a conversation about masculinity and how it defines what we consider to be a groundbreaking role. As long as we have separate but equal categories for men and women, part of what we are doing is allowing gender to determine the significance of an award-winning performance. The Academy Awards have rightfully been called out in recent years for lack of diversity in nominees, but the pattern goes even further. In addition to being primarily white, nominees in the Best Actor category are largely older and showcasing intense dramas, whereas the female counterparts in the Best Actress highlight not only a wider range of ages and genre. If Hollywood is truly working towards being more inclusive, shouldn’t we be taking a look at how we determine men to be the “best” at the Oscars?

In modern times, or at least since the year 2000 and up until this year, there have only been a handful of nominees for men under the age of thirty. This includes performances by Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain, Ryan Gosling in Half Nelson, Jesse Eisenberg in Social Network, as well as this year’s nominees Timothee Chalamet and Daniel Kaluuya for Call Me By Your Name and Get Out, respectively. The state of being a man, of being old enough and mature enough is so severed that brilliant performances are often neglected. This lack of diversity throughout the years means the Best Actor category is stacked with older men who have, paid their dues to get even the head nod of being nominated. Because of this, there’s a sort of disconnect between younger men and the serious work they do as actors.

The youngest Best Actor winner ever was Adrien Brody for the 2002 film The Pianist. He was 29-years-old. Marlee Matlin, the youngest female winner, was 21 when she took home the coveted award for Children of a Lesser God.  In the last decade, the youngest man to win the award is Eddie Redmayne at 33 for The Theory of Everything. Not only that, according to a 2016 Washington Post article, across the board, the median age of best actor winners is 44, and I bet you wouldn’t be surprised to know the median age for best actress winners is 36. That’s an age difference of almost a decade.

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One of the more interesting tidbits I noticed in my research is in the last decade, the median age for best actress winners is 41 thanks to wins by Meryl Streep, Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett and Julianne Moore. It appears that the evolution of women in Hollywood has allowed actresses to make waves by stepping outside the role of love interest. Which isn’t to say that men must get even older to win an Oscar, quite the opposite really. They must begin to consider roles and actors who are younger, fresher, and willing to take bigger risks based on these factors.

In a way, even though female actresses have to pop when they’re young and beautiful in order to gain relevance there’s more range for the characters they play as they get older. Perhaps this is just a shifting trend thanks to the overwhelming support of audiences that are also getting older. Still, it’s a really odd juxtaposition because the primary value of women in Hollywood is in their youth and beauty. However, since women aren’t demanded the same “tough/weak stereotype” that men are, women are allowed to be more creatively vulnerable and can access a larger range of roles from any age, and not just because they hit 40 and pretend to wrestle with bears.

Then there’s a genre bias with acting nominees. Even though Emma Stone won for La La Land (a light-hearted musical) and Jennifer Lawrence won for Silver Linings Playbook (a romantic comedy), their male counterparts in those films were nominated and did not win. There is something to be said for the stigma associated with winning the Best Actor award and being a serious actor. Women can step outside this stigma to be taken seriously for their work as comedic actresses. I’m not saying this is a cut and dry issue, but there’s easily an unconscious bias when it comes to what’s considered an Oscar-caliber performance when it comes to the category of Best Actor. There’s a sense that men just make movies until they are old enough to earn the accolades of a big win. Then, if their roles over time have generally been good, they have earned the right to be recognized, more for their career than for a singular part.

Perhaps, divesting from the idea that a man’s career must be of a certain caliber could provide a way for a wider array of roles to receive the accolades they deserve. I’m not saying that frontrunner Gary Oldman doesn’t deserve an award for his incredible performance as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour. I’m saying, why is it any better than what Daniel Kaluuya or Timothee Chalamet did in Get Out and Call Me By Your Name. Even though Kaluuya and Chalamet’s performances were incredible, some would argue that they were nominated to calm the stirring waters of the unrest in Hollywood thanks to the #MeToo movement and the #OscarsSoWhite conversations that have hung over the awards ceremony the last few years. This argument claims the Academy is saying, “Sup guys. We kicked out Harvey Weinstein and included these two performances in the nominations. We’re woke now.” However, it’s important to remember the influx of younger and diverse Academy voters, who have pushed for more inclusive nominations this awards season. 

<> on February 3, 2018 in Santa Barbara, California.Getty Images

Many people attribute Moonlight’s big win last year to this shift made by younger and diverse Academy members that are voting in ways to make Hollywood’s biggest awards ceremony more inclusive. Because of this societal pivot, nominating Chalamet and Kaluuya is a great first step to elevate the Academy out of the dark ages. If the Academy wants to prove that this isn’t for show, that they’re truly evolving, the next move would be to avoid the (anticipated) win of Gary Oldman. Not because he is another 40+ white man who has allegedly beaten his ex-wife Donya Fiorentino with a phone, but because paying your dues and playing the same serious roles isn’t enough to achieve a win anymore.

Realistically, Chalamet and Kaluuya are younger actors, but their performances and the subject matter these roles were based on are simply more worthy of a win. And I say this knowing that neither has been in the industry long enough to be viewed as having “paid their dues”, but so what? Why do we feel like it’s ok for the merit of best actor to be based on an actor’s career and not the role for which they’re nominated? Thanks to the #MeToo movement this is a really interesting grey area that the Academy is really having to explore. What do we do with the great performances and art made by people who have stepped outside the realm of normal behavior?

Hopefully, by the time they’re done navigating these waters, they will have a greater clarity not only how to nominate roles but how to distinguish between a worthy performance and when someone has been around long enough to earn the head nod. If the Academy wants to really shake things up and revolutionize awards ceremonies, they’ll think twice before handing it to another older white man with a respectable enough career. 


Sabrina Cognata is an award-winning writer, producer and storyteller. During a decade long meltdown, she burned her life to the ground and revamped it as often as Madonna. Sabrina has written or produced for HuffPost Live, CBS Radio, TMZ and XO Jane, and she’s currently producing a syndicated news show for FOX television while tirelessly fighting the patriarchy Every. Damn. Day.

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Still quiet here.sas

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