When the Oscar is given for best actress, everyone watches for waterworks.
Best actresses are renowned for their weepy acceptance speeches, just as their winning performances often feature crocodile tears. An analysis of this category over the past decade found several such trends — including the academy’s propensity to honor beautiful women who hide it.
Nicole Kidman donned a nose extension to play Virginia Woolf in 2002’s “The Hours.” In 1999’s “Boys Don’t Cry,” Hilary Swank made herself resemble a boy, and she beefed up to win her second Oscar, for 2004’s “Million Dollar Baby.” Julia Roberts looked mostly like herself in 2000’s “Erin Brockovich,” but she did give a boost to her bust.
Charlize Theron is the queen of camouflage, wholly inverting her beauty to play a murderous prostitute in 2003’s “Monster.” And Helen Mirren is widely expected to win this year for her performance as Queen Elizabeth II in “The Queen” — a costumed look quite different from the youthful, sexier roles many associate with the British actress.
“We often confuse the art of disguise and makeup with the art of acting,” says film critic Emanuel Levy, whose books include “All About Oscar: The History and Politics of the Academy Awards.” “I guess we go for actors who are willing to go to the extreme.”
Levy jokes that one trait would be surefire Oscar bait: “They could have a hump!”
Interestingly, all the above performances (except for Swank’s in “Million Dollar Baby”) were modeled on real people. Roberts played the unlikely paralegal Erin Brockovich-Ellis, who helped win one of the largest class-action suits in history. Kidman depicted the famous British author; Swank played the transgendered man Brandon Teena who was raped and murdered; and Theron portrayed the troubled Aileen Wuornos, who was executed for killing seven men.
Last year, Reese Witherspoon won for her performance as June Carter, Johnny Cash’s second wife, in “Walk the Line.”
“The trend is getting so strong they should probably just change the name of the award from best performance by an actress to best imitation by a star,” says Tom O’Neil, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times’ awards site TheEnvelope.com
Mirren fits this trend as well, but she stands out from past winners in one notable respect: She’s 61 years old. Only six actresses over 50 have ever won the best actress Oscar, most recently in 1989, when 80-year-old Jessica Tandy won for “Driving Miss Daisy.”
“This is the big test of Oscar voters this year, whether they really are babe-chasing geezers,” says O’Neil. “It’s rare when we have one of those Jessica Tandy years, but they’re being tested this year to see if they’re not the ageists they’ve been accused to be.”
Levy says that while male actors win most of their awards in their 40s, actresses win more often in their late 20s and early 30s. It’s surely a reflection of not just the academy’s penchant for younger actresses, but Hollywood in general.
“It goes beyond the Oscars. It has to do with American culture and American society,” says Levy. “The academy is a microcosm of the film industry, and the film industry in many ways is a microcosm of American society at large.”
This year’s group of nominees holds some hope for change, though. Alongside typically young actresses as 31-year-old Kate Winslet and 32-year-old Penelope Cruz are Mirren; Meryl Streep, 57; and Judi Dench, 72.
The other best actress winners of the past decade include Frances McDormand (“Fargo”), Helen Hunt (“As Good As it Gets”), Gwyneth Paltrow (“Shakespeare in Love”) and Halle Berry (“Monster’s Ball”).
It was Berry whose gushing acceptance speech put the waterworks on full blast, though the most famous crying done for a best actress winner was probably Chad Lowe, who sobbed from the audience while he watched Swank, then his wife, win (ironically) for “Boys Don’t Cry.”
A few possibly illuminating stats from the winners of the past decade:
- Seven of the performances include crying.
- Six of the roles played have Southern accents.
- Five of the characters played are blonde.
- Four of the winners had previously been nominated.
- Three of the actresses depict sex on screen.
- Two of the 10 films won best picture (“Shakespeare in Love” and “Million Dollar Baby”).
- One of the actresses played a villain.
So, if you were to build an unstoppable best actress candidate, she would be an American actress in her 30s, playing a Southern woman of moral strength based on a real person, in a film that falls short of winning best picture.
And, of course, she would have a hump.