By Susan Wloszczyna | Women and Hollywood January 29, 2014 at 2:00PM
Hear that "ouch"? It's the sound of frustrated pundits pulling their hair as they attempt to divine the outcome of the Oscars' best-picture race this year.
Those of us who put our reps on the line as awards prognosticators (full disclosure: I am a longtime participant in both Gold Derby and Movie City News' Gurus o' Gold) are more flummoxed than usual by a rare three-way gallop to the finish. Usually, two titles rise to the top as the prime contenders after the guilds and the Golden Globes chime in with their choices. In 2012, it was Argo vs. Lincoln. In 2010, it was The King's Speech vs. The Social Network. In 2009, it was The Hurt Locker vs. Avatar.
Not this time. Complicating matters this season is that most of the early indicators have spread the wealth among a trio of very different movies: the space odyssey Gravity, the con-artist romp American Hustle, and the historical epic 12 Years a Slave.
The Globes handed Best Comedy to Hustle and bestowed Best Drama upon 12 Years. The Screen Actors Guild gave its top prize, Best Ensemble, to Hustle. The Directors Guild went with Gravity's Alfonso Cuaron for the win. Meanwhile, the Producers Guild totally confused matters by declaring its first-ever tie for Best Film, rewarding both Gravity and 12 Years.
Don't expect the Writers Guild, which holds its ceremony this Saturday, to clarify the situation, either. Gravity didn't make the cut for Original Screenplay, a category whose winner will likely be Hustle. And 12 Years wasn't eligible to compete for the Adapted category.
Another deciding factor tends to be which film has the most total Oscar nominations, generally considered a sign of strong support across the Academy's 17 branches. But given that Gravity and American Hustle share that honor with 10 nods -- and 12 Years is close behind with nine -- there is no clue to a favorite there, either.
This nail-biter of a best-picture contest might make for an exciting finale when the Oscar champs are announced on March 2 -- all the better to draw in more TV viewers. And even if Gravity, with its bold visuals and astute use of 3-D, takes all the early tech awards, there still is no guarantee it will grab the most coveted trophy of the night.
For readers of Women and Hollywood, however, the more important question to consider might be which movie would give the biggest boost to females in the film industry, both behind and in front of the camera?
The obvious answer: Gravity, which is propelled for most of its running time by Best-Actress nominee Sandra Bullock's heart-rending performance as a stranded astronaut struggling to survive. That is despite the fact that the movie famously fails the Bechdel Test, a sort of gender-equality measure that requires that two named female characters in a movie talk about something other than a man.
I would say Bullock speaking to herself might qualify, given the unusual circumstances of her near-solo role. But there is no need to make excuses for an action film that dares to put a mature woman front and center, especially after director/co-producer Cuaron successfully resisted studio pressure to change Bullock's character into a man.
As my fellow Oscar predictor and Indiewire blogger Anne Thompson says, "Gravity is a big-budget studio action movie hung on a strong, competent female protagonist. This is huge. It was a hit and that does not happen often enough." Neither does such a substantial role for an actress closing in on 50.
Gravity also has a female executive producer (Nikki Penny) and associate producer (Gabriela Rodriguez), but Cuaron and co-producer David Heyman will be the ones to accept the Oscar if the movie does win.
What about American Hustle? Does it earn its female-friendly stripes? As a filmmaker, David O. Russell certainly has a proven track record of creating strong and memorable women characters, even in male-dominated movies. Melissa Leo, for example, won her supporting Oscar as an overbearing matriarch and boxing manager in 2010-s The Fighter. And the success of The Hunger Games franchise may have helped Jennifer Lawrence become a household name, but it was Russell's 2012 effort, Silver Linings Playbook, that allowed her to carry the title "Oscar-winning actress."
Just like Playbook, Hustle has claimed a spot in each of the four acting categories. But while the tense push-pull between Christian Bale's con artist and Bradley Cooper's FBI agent drives much of the plot, they would be just a couple of scammers with scary 70s hairdos without Lawrence as Bale's wife and Amy Adams (who also earned a supporting Oscar nod for The Fighter) as his mistress.
The combative energy between a jealous Lawrence, 23, and a defensive Adams, 39 -- enhanced in part by their age gap -- during a heated powder room exchange that ends with an impromptu kiss between the two is one of the movie's high points, nearly up there with Michael Corleone kissing his traitor brother Fredo in The Godfather II.
But Hustle also boasts a powerful female presence behind the camera as well: a well-funded super producer in the making who is starting to give the likes of Harvey Weinstein and Scott Rudin a run for their awards-season money. As the founder of Annapurna Pictures, Megan Ellison (who turns 28 on Friday and whose father is the billionaire CEO of Oracle) previously left her mark on the 2012 Oscar race by backing such artistically daring efforts as Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master (which scored three Oscar nominations in the acting categories) and Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty, Ellison's first best-picture contender.
This season, Ellison has made history by becoming the first woman and only the fourth person to be nominated for two best-picture Oscar nominees in one year, with both Hustle and Spike Jonze's Her competing.
Says Nell Minow, aka the Movie Mom, a film reviewer and writer for Beliefnet.com: "Clearly the MVP of this year's Oscars is Ellison. Her extraordinary achievement for someone so new to the industry makes her this year's winner, no matter whose name is in the envelope."
And, as it turns out, American Hustle easily passes the Bechdel Test, even if it is mostly due to Lawrence's character discussing her nail-polish obsession with a mayor's wife.
As for 12 Years a Slave, the harrowing true-life tale about a free black man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the pre-Civil War South, it has its own influential female producer in Dede Gardner. The president of Brad Pitt's Plan B production company was previously nominated for Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life from 2011.
But 12 Year's greatest female asset is its 30-year-old breakout star, Lupita Nyong'o, the stunning Mexican-born Kenyan actress who attended Yale drama school before making her feature film debut.
While British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor invests blood, sweat, tears and more into his nominated lead role as Solomon Northup, Nyong'o is equally unforgettable as Patsey. Her slave character not only works harder than any man on the cotton plantation, but she also must endure near-constant sexual abuse heaped upon her by her sadistic master (Michael Fassbender), as well as physical and verbal cruelty delivered by his unstable wife (Sarah Pauley).
Does 12 Years pass the Bechdel Test? Not really, though there is much discussion about it on the test's database site. One could argue that 12 Years transcends such issues by focusing on the deplorable treatment of slaves, no matter the gender, while offering a fascinating contrast in how male and female slaves were dehumanized in different ways.
Of course, all three films do have downsides to their portraits of women. Gravity still felt the need to briefly feature a major male attraction like George Clooney as box-office insurance.. Hustle's female empowerment mostly was dependent on a character's sex appeal. And 12 Years is still primarily a story told from a man's point of view.
Still, whatever the outcome, the good news is that crowning any of these films will be a win in some way for its female cast and crew. And if a dark horse like Philomena -- which not only passes but exceeds the Bechdel Test as the one best-picture nominee to focus on an actual female story -- sneaks in to take the gold, that would be cause to celebrate as well.