How to Win An Oscar: The Secret All Actresses Need to Know

By Karen Frost

Make no mistake, an Oscar nomination or win is not an objective indication of the quality of a movie or a performance. The Academy Awards nominees do not represent the absolute best of American filmmaking or acting. If they were, we should expect to see nominations for films that almost no one has seen: films from new filmmakers, films with a shoestring budget, films that push the envelope of what is conceivable in storytelling. Films that come from more than just four major studios and their art house subsidiaries. Similarly, actors would span longtime Hollywood stalwarts to talented newcomers. In a truly universal and objective world, we wouldn’t expect to see the same actors nominated year after year, the same studios perpetually exchanging places on the pedestal. Diversity would be a hallmark of nominations.

In reality, the Oscars are a fixed horserace in which America’s small number of major studios compete against each other each year to see who can curry the most favor among voting Academy members. Movies are released in the “right season” and are publicized with an eye to the awards circuit. Hollywood is a business, after all, and only the biggest gorillas in the room get to play in the big leagues, to mix metaphors. (As an example, The Weinstein Company spent an estimated $15 million on its Oscar campaign for “The King's Speech,” a movie that itself only cost $15 million to make. So much for quality speaking for itself. Nevertheless, the gambit was successful: the movie received 12 nominations in 2010, the most of any film in contention.)

The movie “Moneyball” is about how sabermetrics—the empirical analysis of baseball, especially baseball statistics—were used by the Oakland A’s to produce a winning team. As portrayed in the movie, sabermetrics represented a move from subjective, “gut feelings” to objective, statistical analysis that used data to discover non-intuitive trends and information. Presumably, the numbers whizzes in Hollywood started their own system for empirical analysis back in the 1990s at the latest, but data about the movie industry is so pervasive that everyone from academics to armchair statisticians can do their own analysis. For example, a study by Gabriel Rossman and Oliver Schilke, two sociologists at the University of California—Los Angeles, reviewed data from 1985 and 2009 to see what elements were likeliest to draw Oscar nominations. They concluded that war movies, historical epics, and biographies earned the most Oscar nominations, while plot elements of political intrigue, disabilities, war crimes and show business were also very common elements. In short, no matter how good “Finding Nemo” is, it never had a chance at an Oscar nomination for “Best Picture” outside the “Best Animated Feature” (which it did win in 2004).  

To Rossman and Schilke’s analysis, tello would like to add an addendum: since 2002, an A List actress’ best chance of receiving an Oscar nomination for Best Actress or Best Supporting Actress is to play a queer role in a dramatic movie. Here’s why: between 2002 and 2017, there were 80 nominations each for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress (five in each category per year for sixteen years). Of these, we coded 10 of the Best Actress characters as queer (three wins), and three of the Best Supporting Actress characters (one win). 13 out of 160 (8%) actresses nominated playing queer characters isn’t just statistically anomalous, it’s astounding. This is because on average during that timeframe, among the 100 top grossing movies only approximately 0.25% of speaking characters a year were lesbian, bisexual, or transgender females. But the numbers are even more significant than that: in 16 years, 18.75% of Best Actress winners played a queer character, and approximately 30% of actresses who were Oscar nominated for playing a queer character won. Imagine taking a role with a 30% chance of winning an Oscar! 

Since 2002, taking a queer role has meant for A List actresses a 50-50 chance or better at an Oscar nomination. Consider the following: 

In 2002, only two movies had queer female main characters played by A List actresses: “The Hours” and “Frida.” Nicole Kidman (“The Hours”) and Salma Hayek (“Frida”) were both nominated for Best actress, with Kidman winning. Meryl Streep and Ashley Judd, who also played queer in those two movies, respectively, did not receive Oscar nominations, although Streep was nominated for a Golden Globe. 
In 2003, “Monster” was the only movie with a queer female character played by an A-Lister, and that A Lister, Charlize Theron, won Best Actress for it. 
In 2005, Felicity Huffman was nominated for playing a male to female trans character in “Transamerica.” Although she didn’t win, Hillary Swank did win in 2000 for playing a female to male trans character in “Boys Don’t Cry.” This marks a 100% Oscar nomination rate for B List or higher actresses taking trans roles. 

In 2006, Dame Judi Dench was nominated for Best Actress for “Notes on a Scandal.” Annette Benning, who played a queer character in “Running With Scissors,” was not nominated, although she was nominated for a Golden Globe. 
2007-2009 had an almost total absence of queer female characters across the board, but nevertheless, Penelope Cruz was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” in 2008. Left out was Julianne Moore in 2009’s “Chloe,” which was the wrong genre for the Oscars. 
In 2010, Natalie Portman won Best Actress for her kinda sorta queer character in “Black Swan,” edging out Annette Benning from “The Kids are All Right.” Julianne Moore again missed out on nomination (“The Kids are All Right”), although she was nominated for a Golden Globe.
In 2011, Glenn Close and Janet McTeer (“Albert Nobbs”) and Rooney Mara (“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”) were all nominated but lost, leading into a dismal 2012-2014 in which no A List actresses were nominated for queer parts (Catherine Zeta-Jones and Rooney Mara from 2013’s “Side Effects” would have been the only candidates, but their movie was the wrong genre for the Oscars).
In 2015, Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara were both Oscar nominated for “Carol.” Julianne Moore and Ellen Page were not for “Freeheld.” Another dry spell then occurred from 2016 to 2017, with no Oscar nominations although Emma Stone played Billie Jean King in “Battle of the Sexes” (2017) and was Golden Globe nominated.

Thus from 2002 to 2017, every A List Actress who has taken a queer role, except for Ashley Judd, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Ellen Page, has received either an Oscar nomination or a Golden Globe nomination. It’s beyond belief. Interestingly, it is as though someone in Hollywood figured this out in 2016, because the movies with queer main characters played by A List actresses released in 2018 include:

“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” starring Melissa McCarthy, a biographical comedy-drama about a woman forging celebrity letters in the 1990s to keep herself financially afloat. 
“Colette,” starring Keira Knightley, a biographical drama about the French novelist Colette. 
“Disobedience,” starring Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams, a romantic drama about gender and sexuality in a strict English Orthodox Jewish community. 

And finally, our personal favorite, “The Favourite,” whose A List cast includes Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz (who stepped in at the last moment for Kate Winslet). Remember how Rossman and Schilke concluded that the movies most likely to be Oscar nominated were war movies, historical epics, and biographies with plot elements of political intrigue, disabilities, war crimes and show business? “The Favourite” is a look at the reign of Queen Anne in the early 1700s during the transition between the Sarah, Duchess of Churchill/Whig and Abigail Spencer/Tory ascendency at court while the War of Spanish Succession reached its terminus. In other words, a (historical) biography at a time during which England was at war, when political intrigue dominated the court and Queen Anne was largely disabled. Given that Olivia Colman just won a Golden Globe for the role, at least one Oscar nomination is in the offing for this wonderful movie, and it would be a shame if there weren’t a slew of them. 

From this data we can derive two conclusions: first, Julianne Moore has played queer more than any other A Lister, but she’s consistently been snubbed at the Oscars despite it. Second, Oscar nominations for queer female (and male) characters are so predictable that we should expect to consistently see A Listers taking those roles and in fact even beginning to seek them out. Recently, it was announced that Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan would be playing queer in an upcoming historical biography of fossil hunter Mary Anning. Why would anyone care about Anning? According to the description released by the studio, Anning was “a fossil collector and paleontologist credited with making important discoveries in Jurassic marine fossil beds in the cliffs along the English Channel.” Hardly the stuff of a blockbuster movie…but definitely the stuff from which Oscars are made. 

Queer female characters have finally become fashionable to Hollywood. What was once a taboo role is now eagerly sought out. It seems an unlikely coincidence, for example, that Rachel Weisz’s first pick as a producer was an LGBT-focused script. While it’s mildly disappointing to be tokenized for shiny gold statue, progress is progress. Guess we’ll all be finding out more about Jurassic marine fossils soon.