Written by Robin Hitchcock
|Last year's Best Actress and Best Actor Oscar winners, Meryl Streep and Jean Dujardin. The Iron Lady was not nominated for Best Picture. The Artist was nominated for and won Best Picture.|
It's February, which means it is the Dog Days of Oscar Season. So for this week's post I've done what any obsessive fan would do: create a massive database to conduct some simplistic statistical analysis to which I will subsequently ascribe excessive importance and profundity!
Specifically, I decided to look at the Academy Awards' 843 nominated performances for Best Actress and Best Actor over their 85-year history, and see how many of those were from films that also received a nomination for Best Picture. My hypothesis was that the movies that earn their leading ladies Best Actress nominations are less likely to be nominated for Best Picture than those films that garner Best Actor nods. I'll speculate on some of the reasons why that might be in a bit, but first I will share the results I found:
|Pie chart illustrating relationship between Best Actress nominations and Best Picture nominations|
Out of the 423 performances that have been nominated for Best Actress, 153 were in films also nominated for Best Picture. This means that approximately 33.16% of Best Actress nominees were from Best Picture-nominated films. In contrast, 229 of the 420, or 54.5% of the performances nominated for Best Actor were in Best Picture-nominated films.
|Pie Chart illustrating relationship between Best Actor nominations and Best Picture nominations|
Some minor notes on how I calculated these figures. These are incredibly minor quirks that only the hugest of geeks would care about, so push up your glasses. I counted all of the performances for which the nominees in the first year of the Academy Awards separately, even though winners Janet Gaynor and Emil Jennings were awarded for their cumulative work. I did not include Bette Davis in Of Human Bondage in 1934, because she was not nominated even though she did come in third place through write-in votes. I separated films not nominated for Best Picture but nominated for Best Foreign Language Film in the above pie charts but not in the calculation of data, because several foreign language films have received Best Picture nominations straight out (for example, this year's Amour). You can check my work in my [Oscar Spreadsheet of DOOM, and you probably should, because my brain DID NOT want to accept the fact that The Reader was nominated for Best Picture, and that was only four years ago.
The disparity here is plainly evident but I did my statistical due diligence and ran a chi squared test, proving that the distribution of Best Picture nominations between the sub-groups of Best Actor and Best Actress deviates from what you would expect. The chi squared value here equals 28.634, with 3 degrees of freedom and a p<.0001. That's math talk for "something isn't right here." Basically, these figures offer proof of the statistical significance of Best Actor nominees more frequently appearing in Best Picture nominated films than nominees for Best Actress do.
Now let's consider why this might be the case. Oscar nominations for Best Actor and Best Actress require more than a great performer: that performer needs a meaty role to play. What this data suggests is that the kind of movies that provide these great parts for actresses are less likely to be "Best Picture caliber" than the films that have Best Actor-worthy male roles. The films that yield Best Actress nominations are more often "small" (e.g. Frozen River, TransAmerica, You Can Count on Me) or "non serious" movies (e.g. Julie & Julia, Bridget Jones's Diary) that aren't as attractive to the Academy as Best Picture contenders.
|2003 Best Actor winner Sean Penn (for Best Picture-nominated Mystic River) with 2003 Best Actress winner Charlize Theron (for non-nominated Monster).|
Notably, in the years where there were 5 or fewer nominees for Best Picture (1927/28–1930/31, 1944–2008), the disparity between Best Actors and Best Actresses appears even greater: 109 out of 348 (31.32%) Best Actress nominations were for Best Picture-nominated films; whereas 177 out of 347 (51.01%) Best Actor nominations were for films nominated for Best Picture. The chi squared for this data set is actually a smidge lower at 27.841, but that still indicates considerable statistical significance.
Conversely, isolating the years with an expanded list of Best Picture nominees (1931/32–1943, 2009–2012) finds no statistical significance in the disparity between Best Actor and Best Actress nods correlation with Best Picture nominees. Both Best Actor and Best Actress nominees see a significant bump in the chances of their film being nominated for Best Picture: up to 71.23% for men and to 58.6% for women. The chi squared is 2.565, df=3 and p=.4637, so these results aren't statistically significant. Unfortunately, this data set is much smaller than the other ones I looked at, and makes the strange bedfellows of the last four years of Oscars and a set of nominees from 8 decades ago, so it may need to be viewed more skeptically.
To get a better idea of how these trends might have changed over time, I also split the data into two roughly equal blocks, everything before 1970, and everything after. The good news is that the disparity had already started to narrow in the modern era even before the Best Picture nominations field expanded in recent years. When the data is split into these two groups, the earlier era gets a chi squared score of 20.037 (df=3, p<.0002), indicating extreme statistical significance; the newer data computes to a chi squared of 9.816 (df=3, p=.0202), which indicates statistical significance as well but less dramatically.
But this does not mean there has been steady progress on this front over the years. These graphs show fluctuation over the years and decades for both genders of nominee, with men remaining slightly above women most years and more substantially above women in all decades:
|Charts showing disparity between Best Actor/Actress and Best Picture nominations over years and decades|
To sum up: Academy Awards nominees for Best Actor have been nominated for films also nominated for Best Picture to a much greater degree than the nominees for Best Actress. In years that have a wider field of Best Picture nominees, the disparity between actors and actresses narrows to the point it is not statistically significant. The disparity has also decreased in more modern years but remains statistically significant.
I believe, optimistically, that this is more of a problem with Oscar's past than it's present and future. With more (but still not enough!) women filmmakers active, we're going to see more and more women in central roles in the Big Important Pictures that tend to get nominated for Best Picture, as we have this year with Best Actress nominee Jessica Chastain at the center of Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty. Furthermore, the expanded list of nominees for Best Picture makes room for different kinds of films, so smaller, women-centric gems like Amour, The Kids are All Right, and Winter's Bone are included in the Best Picture nominee club. In the future, I hope the sex of a nominated performer won't be predictive of the Best Picture nomination of his or her film. While this is certainly only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the Academy's limitations in recognizing diversity in their nominees, I'm still glad we're seeing progress here.