As you know, the fall movie season is the Oscar bait season. These are the months we get The Really Good Movies, and spend weeks pitting films and their stars against each other in death matches for the gold. All while professing not to care, of course, and pointing out That Really Great Films went home empty-handed.
As we debate who will be nominated for Best Actor or Actress (and who of those theoretical nominations will be the projected winner), a debate inevitably springs up: Why not combine them? Why not simply have one category of Best Actor and pit the men against the women? Shouldn't a good performance trump gender classification?
This year, the debate seems a little louder than usual. I suspect it's a spin-off of the very legitimate "Where are the great roles for women?" debate, which reached a real crescendo last year as Sandra Bullock walked away with a dubious win. It's also a result of Kathryn Bigelow's historic win as the first female Best Director. The contrast between Bigelow and Bullock's trophies was sharp. One was arguably a win by default (the Best Actress category was thin, though not without good contenders); the other was a win of talent and subject matter. Social, cinema, and gender critics have taken note. If a woman can beat a man on an artistic playing field such as directing (and in directing a lean and masculine film, no less), why can't acting boundaries be erased? Isn't it time?
In my opinion, no. I don't think it will ever be time, and I don't think it should be. But don't misunderstand me; I'm an avowed feminist who firmly believes men and women are equal. I don't think there is a single job a man does that a women can't perform equally well. This extends to acting as well as driving a truck, fighting on the battlefield, or running a country. But we're also different, and it's no failure of feminism to appreciate or accepting that fact. Different doesn't mean bad. It doesn't mean men or women are the lesser for their differences. Equality doesn't come from ignoring that differentiation. It's childish for society to say "I don't see you as a woman!" as a gesture of open-mindedness. We shouldn't have to erase our genetic designs and pretend to be something squishy and neutral. I'm a woman. That is a man. It's fine to recognize that without altering how we treat or judge one another. (Now that takes an ideal world ....)
The difference between men and women will always be a part of acting. It's not a part of writing, directing, editing, or scoring, or costume design. Everyone brings their perspective into these jobs, and gender is part of that, but it's not ever going to be a deciding factor. As Bigelow proved, you can direct a lean and masculine film without playing a game of gender politics or perspective. She simply made a film about soldiers in Iraq. Critics tried analyzing it as the work of a woman, and really failed because the context just isn't there.
But the characters of a film are inevitably reliant on gender, and this factor should be saluted. Again, this doesn't mean actors or actresses are unequal, it simply recognizes that Colin Firth can't play Queen Elizabeth I, and that Cate Blanchett can't play King George VI. It's not even as simple as one is a man, and one is a woman. Queen Elizabeth I was a woman in a man's world, and whose Virgin Queen mythology is built on precise and delicate ideas of femininity and sexuality. King George VI was bullied as a "weak" specimen of a man, and was forced to prove otherwise. An actor needs to bring their own gender experience to these roles. Accepting and honoring that specialized skill (not every man or woman can play these royals) isn't something to be erased lightly.
It's even problematic if you're gender-bending, or exploring different sexual orientations. Linda Hunt won Best Supporting Actress for playing Billy Kwan, a male dwarf, in The Year of Living Dangerously. Hunt transforms herself into Kwan, and it's an unsettling and brilliant performance. It deserves to be recognized as an achievement by an actress. Hilary Swank's performance as Brandon Teena deserves the same praise because Boys Don't Cry is a story about rebelling against one's gender, and Swank had to play both masculine and feminine in the part. Again, this should be praised as the transformation of an actress, not as a featureless model that an idea was imposed on.
Pitting them in one giant actor category erases these distinctions. Sure, it's a neat idea to have Natalie Portman and James Franco battle it out. Both gave very physical performances that required a lot of preparation. It's a fair competition. Less reasonable is asking Jennifer Lawrence to compete with Colin Firth for two radically different worlds and characters. How can you really say Lawrence played an embattled Ozarks girl better than Firth played a struggling king? Do you start breaking them down into MTV-like categories? Best Performance in a Historical Drama? Best Performance in a Physically Demanding Role?
I understand that the actor and actress separation might smack of "separate but equal" and leave a foul taste in the mouth. And yes, you can make a very strong argument that it might undermine the glory of the race. Why shouldn't Portman and Franco compete? Are you saying Portman can't hack it? Or that Franco can't compare? The case can certainly be made that a performance that can't exist or compete outside of gender boundaries isn't much of one. But I'm convinced that telling Portman and Lawrence that I don't see them as women, but just actors, undervalues them just as much as gender discrimination does. I think Portman's Nina has to be viewed as a woman to have her journey appreciated, same with Lawrence's Ree. It's a unique gift and a exceptional experience, and one that deserves a particular prize called Best Actress.