What Oscar likes in a woman

Best Actors play psychos, but Best Actress winners have to be noble crusaders

by Brian D. Johnson

What Oscar likes in a woman

In Conviction, Hilary Swank plays another working-class warrior—a dropout who gets a law degree to exonerate her brother; George Pimentel/Getty Images

Meryl Streep used to routinely complain about the dearth of strong female roles. Those days are long gone. In fact, Hollywood seems to have adopted a new double standard, by which women have a monopoly on outsized heroic virtue. Over the past decade, the Best Actor winners have included two psychopaths (Training Day, There Will Be Blood), a mass murderer (The Last King of Scotland), a prima donna journalist (Capote), a philandering junkie (Ray), and a shambling alcoholic (Crazy Heart). Only one actor was awarded for playing a righteous crusader: Sean Penn in Milk. With the women, it’s another story. Of the past 10 Best Actress winners, just one played a psycho: Monster’s Charlize Theron. Among the other roles are a beloved queen, a string of noble martyrs, and two stubborn crusaders—Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich and Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side.

Real-life heroines tend to dominate Oscar-pedigree roles. And though it’s early to start handicapping the awards, the trend seems stronger than ever—with the notable exception of Natalie Portman’s sensational tour de force as a ballerina in the melodrama Black Swan. Lately I’ve seen a glut of powerhouse performances by actresses cast in true stories of underdog crusaders triumphing over long odds—Diane Lane in Secretariat (opening Oct. 8), Hilary Swank in Conviction (Oct. 15), Naomi Watts in Fair Game (Nov. 5), and Rachel Weisz in The Whistleblower (release date pending). Each of these roles fits a particular mould: a working mother who tests her family’s patience by taking the world by storm.

Swank has forged a career portraying tough working-class warriors, winning Oscars as the transgendered martyr in Boys Don’t Cry and the fearless boxer in Million Dollar Baby. Now she’s going for a hat trick with Conviction, starring as Betty Anne Waters, a high-school dropout who earns a law degree as part of a marathon fight to exonerate her older brother (Sam Rockwell), who received a life sentence for murder in 1983. “I don’t say to my agent, ‘Find me powerhouse roles,’ ” Swank told me after Conviction’s festival premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival last month. “But I like to dive into things that scare the crap out of me. I’m completely drawn to these people who, against all odds, persevere. And when you don’t have fictional licence, it’s an added challenge because you’ve got this enormous responsibility to portray someone’s life in a way that does them justice.”

The real-life heroines seem only too happy to assist in their big-screen beatification. Swank posed with Waters at her premiere, just as Lane shared the red carpet with Penny Chenery, owner of the Triple Crown-winning horse Secretariat. At TIFF, Weisz worked the media alongside her Whistleblower inspiration, Kathryn Bolkovac, a Nebraska cop turned UN peacekeeper who exposed her colleagues’ scandalous involvement in a Bosnian sex trafficking ring. And in Cannes, defrocked CIA spy Valerie Plame Wilson—the bombshell who came in from the cold—drew almost as much attention as Naomi Watts, who portrays her in Fair Game.

When an actress is so deeply in cahoots with the person she’s playing, you have to wonder how much fictional hagiography creeps in. In all these movies, the heroine’s long-suffering loved ones are incredibly forgiving. In Conviction, Waters’s obsession with her unsavoury brother takes a toll on her family, but in the end it’s all lollipops and roses. In Secretariat, Chenery is more besotted with her horse than with her husband, yet he and the kids are at the track to cheer her champ across the final finish line.

Two of the fall’s most Oscar-buzzed movies are The King’s Speech and The Social Network, non-fiction fables about a new British king trying to conquer his stutter and the cold-hearted geek who built Facebook. Perhaps the ultimate test of gender equality onscreen will come when an actress can play a real-life anti-hero—like The Social Network’s Mark Zuckerberg—who would not be caught dead with her on the red carpet.

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