The Oscar derby often offers interesting, if disturbing, insights into how women are treated in the world of film.
As the year draws to a close, let's review what happened the last time Hollywood gold was handed out in order to set the stage for the coming Academy Award contest, which will officially start when nominations are announced on Jan. 16.
Rewind to late February. The ceremony honoring 2012 titles turned into the official coronation of Jennifer Lawrence as Hollywood's Once and Future Prom Queen. The 22-year-old star of Silver Linings Playbook became the second-youngest lead-actress winner in the award's history, trumped only by Marlee Matlin, then 21, who took home the trophy for her performance in 1986's Children of a Lesser God.
Unlike many at the event, this Little Miss Firecracker enjoyed herself almost as much as if she were in a crepe-papered high-school gym rather than the vortex of a giant, glittery commercial for the movie industry. She even proved herself to be all too human as she tripped on her voluminous gown on the way to making her acceptance speech. While attendees gave her a standing ovation, Lawrence composed herself enough to crack, "Thank you so much. This is nuts. You guys are only standing up because I fell and you feel bad. That was embarrassing."
It was rare misstep for this girl on fire, who is a unique commodity: a natural talent that draws huge crowds. Last month, she showed off her action-hero muscles and her box-office might in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, whose domestic gross is now $360 million and counting. That's good enough for the No. 3 slot for 2013 -- and only $50 million away from Iron Man 3's perch at No 1.
Lawrence, who will likely be nominated in the supporting category again for her shrill sexpot housewife in American Hustle, is certainly deserving of accolades. But there can be a nastier side to the Oscar season as well.
No male candidate was subjected to the sort of social-media slagging -- which included extensive pictorial coverage of an unfortunate "wardrobe malfunction" -- that was aimed at Anne Hathaway as she jumped through the expected promotional hoops for Les Miserables. The Twitter-verse griped that her weepy acceptance speeches were insincere. Her eager enthusiasm was too abundant. Google her name along with the word "hate," and more than 8 million results pop up. Even The New York Times felt the need to do a story headlined, "Do We Really Hate Anne Hathaway?" and employed the term "Hathahaters."
However, when the then-30-year-old actress actually claimed the supporting-actress honor -- in addition to most of the other major movie awards -- for her stunning work in Les Miserables, her win made such conjectures about her supposed unpopularity a non-issue. Besides, it wasn't that long ago when Hathaway was warmly lauded for her performances in The Princess Diaries, Brokeback Mountain, and Rachel Getting Married, the 2008 source of her first Oscar nomination.
In other words, watch your back, Jennifer Lawrence. The media, which adores you now, is a fickle beast.
Thankfully, such catty coverage of a female nominee is likely to be avoided this year. Too many of the Oscar veterans expected to compete, such as Judi Dench (Philomena) and Meryl Streep (August: Osage County), are adept at deflecting such disparaging nonsense. I can't see Oprah, deemed a favorite to grab a supporting spot for her smoldering work in Lee Daniels' The Butler, allowing any drummed-up controversy to spoil her first chance at an Oscar since her film debut in 1985's The Color Purple.
And bringing back Ellen DeGeneres as host almost guarantees a more enlightened touch to the humor than that "We Saw Your Boobs" ditty from months ago.
While it is highly unlikely that a woman will make the cut this year in the directing category, especially when Kathryn Bigelow couldn't squeeze into that category with Best Picture contender Zero Dark Thirty last time, there are a few other bright spots to anticipate, female-wise:
--Female foreign currency. Since the category's inception in 1956, the best foreign-language film category has been much more open to including movies directed by women -- 20 so far. Three of those titles have won: Marleen Gorris' Antonia's Line (1995), Caroline Link's Nowhere in Africa (2002), and Susanne Biers' In a Better World (2010).
This year, a fair share of the movies that appear on the list of 76 potential foreign-language contenders are directed by women -- 11 by my count. But the movie most likely to make the final five is a true ground-breaker: Saudi Arabia's Wadjda, the country's first-ever Oscar entry helmed by its first female filmmaker, Haifaa al-Mansour, who sometimes had to hide in a trailer so she would not be seen on the job in public.
--The over-40 club. If prognosticators are correct, Dench and Streep will be joined by Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine), Sandra Bullock (Gravity) and Emma Thompson (Saving Mr. Banks) in the best-actress lineup. Their average age will be 58.
While there is nothing wrong with rewarding youthful newcomers such as 24-year-old breakout Brie Larson (Short Term 12), there is something to be said in celebrating experience for once, as well as the fact that these abundantly talented ladies were given such juicy roles.
--What's up, docs? Lots of potential for female recognition, that's what. A third of the 15 films short-listed as Best Documentary candidates are directed by women, and many have already been cited on critics' lists as among the best movies of the year, period. Two standouts? Sarah Polley's Stories We Tell and Gabriela Cowperthwaite's Blackfish.
But that doesn't mean the male-directed titles aren't pro-female. There is no more exuberant tribute to the power of sisterhood than 20 Feet From Stardom, about the under-the-radar careers of some of the best backup singers in the music biz. Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer attempts to tell the true story of the Russian all-woman band that was jailed after staging a political protest in a church.
--Animation breakthrough. The selection of Brave as 2012's Best Animated Feature was a mixed blessing. Brenda Chapman became the first woman director to win the prize, but had to share it with Mark Andrews, Pixar's choice as her replacement on a highly personal project based on her daughter.
Disney, which owns Pixar, might set a better example for those hoping for more women to break into the male-heavy animation field with their potential contender this year: Frozen. Not only is screenwriter Jennifer Lee, who co-directed with Chris Buck, the first female helmer of a Disney Animation production, but the movie could become the first release produced by the House of Mouse to win in the cartoon-feature category.
Frozen, however, could be iced out by another strong competitor distributed by Disney's Touchstone label, The Wind Rises, probably the final film directed by 72-year-old Japanese master Hayao Miyazaki, who has announced plans to retire.
And what can we expect at this time next year, when we try to parse the female-friendly candidates that might fit the Oscar mold? Four possibilities that sound tempting are:
--Gone Girl (Oct. 3). This dissection of a troubled marriage is based on the best-selling thriller by Gillian Flynn (who also does screenplay honors), directed by David Fincher (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) and stars Rosamund Pike and Ben Affleck.
--Interstellar (Nov. 7). The space-travel adventure directed by Christopher Nolan (Inception) features Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain and Ellen Burstyn in high-profile roles.
--Annie (Dec. 19). Quvenzhane Wallis of Beasts of the Southern Wild fame will join Jamie Foxx and Cameron Diaz in a contemporary version of the musical based on the beloved comic-strip orphan. It will be produced by music impresario Jay-Z and Will Smith. The director is Easy A's Will Gluck, who shares script duties with Aline Brosh McKenna (The Devil Wears Prada) and Emma Thompson.
--Into the Woods (Dec. 25). Director Rob Marshall hit a somewhat sour note with the femme-filled film adaptation of Nine (2009). But he didn't have Meryl Streep as a warbling witch in just her second movie-musical since 2008's surprise smash Mamma Mia! Also featured in the big-screen Broadway hit based on Grimm's fairy tales are Emily Blunt, Anna Kendrick, and Johnny Depp as The Big Bad Wolf.