The Best Actress Fallacy
One of the more controversial Oscar winners from this past weekend was Sandra Bullock. This past summer, her career was seemingly in the toilet thanks to that All About Steve fiasco, and then suddenly The Proposal made a buck or two (although if my sister didn’t like it, I do not see what it could possibly have to recommend itself as a romantic comedy). And then this The Blind Side thing happened, and somehow her career trajectory veered so crazily in the opposite direction that she—as predicted—won a Razzie and an Oscar in the same year.
So the question becomes: does Sandra Bullock, mistress of pratfalls and goofiness, big opening weekends and almost supernatural hotness in her mid-forties (YES, REALLY), fit the profile of the Academy Award-winning actress?
First, we need to establish what the profile is. There’s this tendency to think of Oscar winning actresses as grande dames of cinema.
Bette Davis in All About Eve, for example
Or Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard
Would it surprise you to discover that both of those women went up for Best Actress in the same year, 1951? And that both of them lost? Who swiped the award from these two women in the prime of life, tackling two of the meatiest roles in Hollywood history?
Judy Holliday (age 29) in Born Yesterday
Nothing against Judy--that's a great movie, and her performance is more nuanced than 'dim bulb with a heart of gold.' Although that's a lot of it.
It’s clear that the winners of the last 10 years are, without exception, glamorous and Vogue-ready: Kate Winslet (2009), Marion Cotillard (2008), Helen Mirren (2007), Reese Witherspoon (2006), Hilary Swank (2005), Charlize Theron (2004), Nicole Kidman (2003), Halle Berry (2002), Julia Roberts (2001), Hilary Swank (2000), Gwyneth Paltrow (1999).
I mean, that’s a pretty hot group, no? I don’t personally like Hilary Swank’s style, but if I remember that episode of The Office correctly, she was ultimately deemed “hot,” so she counts. Helen Mirren is a generation or half-generation older than the others, but check out the photographic evidence at Go Fug Yourself here. (Incidentally, almost every time I see Helen Mirren, I reflexively think “Holy CATS, Helen Mirren!” because of that GFY entry of her in the bikini.)
Now, if you go back another couple decades, you get some more memorably unglamorous winners. Kathy Bates in Misery (1991) and Jessica Tandy in Driving Miss Daisy (1990)—who at 80 years old set the current record for oldest winner of Best Actress—are two that get mentioned a lot. I think they’re held up as an example of what the Oscars Used To Be About. But the 90s weren’t that long ago. And when I looked at this page, I realized that, in fact, unglamorous winners are BY FAR the exception, and have been since 1929 when little 22-year-old Janet Gaynor took home the first Best Actress Oscar ever. Look at some of the names in the seventies: Liza Minnelli, Faye Dunaway, Jane Fonda (twice), Diane Keaton. You know why we still know those names? Because they’re all still alive, because none of them were yet 40 at the time they won. Beyond youth, they had sex appeal, and style.
For real. Here’s Liza in Cabaret.
So then—you know I love the intersection of movies and statistics!—I toted up the ages from the Wikipedia page, and ran some stats.
- The average age of a Best Actress winner (from the first winner Janet Gaynor in 1929 all the way up through this year’s Bullock) is between 39 and 40.
- The median age is only 33.
- The most common winning age was 29: Reese Witherspoon (2006), Jodie Foster (1992), Julie Andrews (1965), Elizabeth Taylor (1961), Holliday, Ingrid Bergman (1945) and Ginger Rogers (1941) were all that age when they won.
So, in short: stop complaining that the Oscars have lost their integrity, people. What you think they had is a fallacy. The film industry has always, always honored a pretty face above all. Even Katharine Hepburn, who won her last Oscar when she looked like this
won her first Oscar when she looked like this.
Here’s a tribute to some of my favorite lone exceptions:
Kathy Bates (1991)
Geraldine Page (1986)
Shirley Booth (1953) (according to Wikipedia, she was masquerading as 10 years younger than her actual age at the time)
Marie Dressler (1931)