"Sexism is everywhere," Sandra Bullock recently told Entertainment Weekly in response to talk that her Academy Award nomination and box-office success are changing the Hollywood men's only club. "Ageism is everywhere. But you know what? It's about making money. Look at what Sarah Jessica Parker did with 'Sex and the City.' Look at what Meryl Streep is doing every other week! The proof is in the pudding … I’ve never had this many opportunities in my lifetime."
Bullock's "The Blind Side," in which she plays Leigh Anne Tuohy, a white tough-as-nails Southern mother who saves a troubled black teen from a life on the street with a little bit of football and a whole lot of love, has hit a staggering $245 million in box-office sales and has brought Bullock a Golden Globe, a SAG Award and an Academy Award nomination for best actress. "Blind Side" is the first female-led film to cross the $200 million domestic box office mark, according to Variety. Bullock's other surprise hit from this year, Disney's "The Proposal," raked in $163 million.
The commercial and performance power of women in Hollywood has never been stronger. Meryl Streep, also nominated for best actress, had two hits of her own this year: the rom-com "It's Complicated" and the foodie flick "Julie & Julia," banking over $205 million combined in domestic box-office sales. And of this year's 10 films nominated for the best picture, there are at least 10 standout female roles — great performances by the likes of Mo'Nique, Carey Mulligan and Vera Farmiga. The evidence is strong that this will be a history-making Academy Awards for the ladies in the house.
Traditionally, female roles in Hollywood fall into one of three categories: the mother, the ingénue and the quirky (usually unlucky-in-love) best friend or sidekick. Not this year. What we were served in 2009 were some real characters, storylines and performances we could really sink our teeth into.
"It took a lot of physical practice, getting Precious right," Sidibe, a college student who auditioned on a whim and landed the role, told reporters while promoting the film at Cannes. "She shrinks into herself to try to take up less space, to hide. … But we all know what it's like to just want to be normal, but to very much feel like we're not."
As Alex Goran in "Up in the Air," Vera Farmiga (up for best actress in a supporting role) turns the tables in the traditional girl-chases-boy Hollywood dynamic, and had George Clooney pursuing her across — and above — the country. She is driven, calculating and shockingly blunt: "Think of me as you," she tells Clooney, "with a vagina."
In "Inglourious Basterds," Melanie Laurent blazes as the revenge-obsessed Shosanna Dreyfus. While she is in some ways the traditional ingénue — young, beautiful, alone in the world — the similarities end there. After her parents are slaughtered by Nazis, the French Jewish Dreyfus plots to set a movie theater ablaze on the night of a Nazi film premiere, downing the top echelon of the Third Reich in one fell swoop. Her mission is a kamikaze success in the film's explosive climax, but it's her character's unshaken will, driven by revenge and consumed with rage, that takes center stage. "I am a basterd, too," Laurent bragged on the red carpet at the film's premiere.
A Nazi-killing basterd is far cry from the guileless little-girl-lost that we see so often from the Hollywood machine, as is the vast majority of female roles in this year's Academy awards. "In the larger picture, I hope this is the start of something great and long-lasting," says Bartyzel, who also points out that the growing number of female directors acclaimed by the Academy is another game-changer for women in Hollywood.
Will all this make difference in box-office returns? Absolutely. This year's films featuring robust female characters were strongly supported by female audiences, says Bartyzel. Calling out "Precious" and "The Blind Side" in particular — to which we can add "Avatar" — she says their commercial and critical success is a harbinger of better things to come: "It's a solid return to any crusty studio exec who tries to say that female audiences don't matter."