For over three hours on Sunday night, we watched beautiful people pass golden statuettes back and forth while bestowing awards on worthy winners. As usual, four of the Oscar categories — best actor, supporting actor, actress and supporting actress — were divided by gender. None of the others were. There is no award for “best sound editing by a female” or “best screenplay by a gentleman.” So why are acting awards split up this way?
The division has been in place since the first Academy Awards ceremony, in 1929, but there are signs that change is coming. Last month Justin David Sullivan, a star of the Broadway musical “& Juliet” made headlines for declining to be considered for a Tony because, as a trans nonbinary performer, they did not feel comfortable being nominated for a gender-specific prize.
Nonbinary actors such as Emma Corrin, Bella Ramsey, Emma D’Arcy and iris menas have all given award-worthy performances in the past few years, so it seems inevitable that the Emmys, Golden Globes and Oscars will need to reconsider how they categorize people when it comes time to hand out awards. But in a society where the criteria for what makes a strong performance can be gendered, how can this be done?
Getting it right won’t be easy. In music, the Brit Awards recently switched to a gender-neutral format for artist of the year — and ended up with a slate of nominees this year that consisted entirely of men. (Harry Styles won and dedicated his award to female musicians.)
“What none of us want to see is a general acting category where it ends up being all male nominees,” the Oscar-winning writer and director Sarah Polley recently told The Times. Angela Bassett, nominated for best supporting actress this year, offered a blunter take on the idea: “I don’t like it.”
It may be tricky to imagine a solution that will offer more opportunity for everyone, not less. But it’s not just our approach to Oscar categories that needs to evolve. Our notions of what Oscar-worthy acting looks like and who gets to do it are mired in outdated, constricting notions of gender. We need to rethink those first.
In Shakespeare’s day, women were barred from acting, with men assuming female roles. Now when we think of great acting, we often think of pyrotechnics — the fabled “Oscar clip” moment, like Al Pacino gesticulating in “Scent of a Woman” or Sean Penn screaming at the sky in “Mystic River.” For a woman, the default for great acting is often … tears. Men rant, women cry. Or, as Emma Thompson once observed, the leading roles for women can too often be reduced to telling the leading man, “Please don’t go and do that brave thing.”
There have been moments in acting history when the rules have shifted. Part of why the new American screen acting ushered in by John Garfield and Marlon Brando in the mid-20th century made such a powerful impact was that it allowed for depths of vulnerability and emotionality — stereotypically considered feminine traits — in male performance.
The anxieties raised by this approach moved from subtext to text in 1955, when James Dean, a Brando devotee, starred in “Rebel Without a Cause,” a film explicitly about the chaos unleashed when the edifice of traditional masculinity begins to crumble.
Male actors learned to flourish in parts that combined toughness and delicacy, monstrosity and wounded vulnerability, explosive rage and searing pain. Brando ascended with his portrayals of Stanley Kowalski in “A Streetcar Named Desire” and Terry Malloy in “On the Waterfront.” Those performances are seared now in our collective mind as the epitome of “great acting.”
The record when it comes to women is more complicated. The year Brando won an Oscar for playing Malloy, best actress went to Grace Kelly, a model of traditional feminine grace, for her role in “The Country Girl.” There were other kinds of actresses at the time, but none of them enjoyed the careers afforded to stars like Kelly and Audrey Hepburn.
Jo Van Fleet, so formidable in films like “East of Eden” and “Wild River” that you could imagine her playing King Lear,didn’t reach fame until she was in her 40s, only to discover there were no good roles for her to play. As Elia Kazan put it in his memoir, “Jo stagnated and, since she knew it, became bitter. She waited, wrote letters to producers and directors, pleaded with agents to help her, year after year, to no avail.”
Kim Stanley, widely believed by her peers to be the greatest American stage actress of the 1950s, could project a stereotypically masculine ferocity — just watch her terrifying work in “The Goddess,” if you can find it. But she appeared in only a handful of films and never became a household name.
The gender divide in acting was accentuated again in the late 1970s with the arrival of reserved and contemplative film actors, exemplified by a young Meryl Streep. In 1982, when Pauline Kael decided to take Ms. Streep down a peg, she dismissed her as too cool and controlled to give a truly great performance. Ms. Kael accused Ms. Streep of acting only with her face, writing that after she’d finished with a Streep movie, “I can’t visualize her from the neck down.” Ms. Kael wrote that this could explain why Streep heroines “don’t seem to be full characters, and why there are no incidental joys to be had from watching her.”
The assumption is that what constitutes great female acting is not control but histrionics. Specifically, great geysers of tears. That conception persists. On Sunday night, before Michelle Yeoh’s name was announced as the deserved winner for best actress, the accompanying clips highlighted her character’s tearful reconciliation with her daughter rather than her multiple physical transformations as she assimilates new personalities and abilities from across the multiverse.
Ms. Yeoh rose to prominence as an action star who combined death-defying stunt work, graceful martial arts and serious acting chops in films like “The Heroic Trio,” “Supercop” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” She can do things that most actors of any gender wouldn’t even attempt. But the role the academy finally recognized was the one that combined those skills with the emotional displays that fit the existing best actress template.
When actors do explore gender or challenge gender stereotypes onscreen, we can celebrate it — up to a point. Charlize Theron’s Oscar-winning work in “Monster” was extraordinary, as was Hilary Swank’s in “Boys Don’t Cry,”but both actors are thin, conventionally attractive, cisgender women playing against type, and both of their characters die. Rami Malek, Eddie Redmayne and Jared Leto can get Oscar nominations or awards for playing trans women or fabulous queer men, but only if their effeminacy is worn like a flamboyant dressing gown that we know they can remove at any time.
Yet even as the categories remain rigid, our conceptions of what’s laudable show signs of evolving. “Nomadland” was in many ways a gender-reversed “Five Easy Pieces,” with Frances McDormand channeling Jack Nicholson’s doomed anomie (and winning her third Oscar for best actress). Cate Blanchett’s turn in “Tár”is so extraordinary in part because she embodies the total dismantling of gendered expectations in a way that Kim Stanley would never have been allowed to do. In Lydia Tár, Ms. Blanchett found her Stanley Kowalski: an overpowering physical presence (just look at her stalk a rehearsal room like a panther) rife with mystery and febrile emotion.
Acting is one of the primary tools that cultures have to better understand the moment we live in. As an art form, it cannot help but reflect our anxieties about gender at us. Great acting allows us to witness a human transcend the self and imaginatively enter another’s experience. Michelle Yeoh did it. Marlon Brando did it. And Kim Stanley did it, too.
The movies love to remind us about the richness of the human condition. But it’s so much richer and more interesting when we let ourselves look at acting — and one another — anew.
Isaac Butler is a cultural critic and the author of “The Method: How the 20th Century Learned to Act” and an author of “The World Only Spins Forward,” an oral history of “Angels in America.”
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