Call me a naive twentysomething reared on the ideals of gender equity, but I've been nagged by a troubling question ever since glancing over this season's Academy Award nominations: Why are there separate categories for best actor and actress? Shouldn't men's and women's performances warrant a fair competition? I would never consider pitting Rebecca Lobo against Michael Jordan, but acting?
Acting is an art, and presumably artists of both genders should compete in the same arena. It's like Harvard recognizing a valedictorian and a valedictorienne. Or a male and a female Nobel Peace Prize winner. Or a hers and his Pulitzer Prize. Come on.
Suppose the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences were to combine categories and all contenders--male and female--rallied for the best actor title. What kind of competition would it be?
Let's check out the nominees and see for ourselves. Best actors: Robert Duvall, Dustin Hoffman, Jack Nicholson (of course, of course, and of course), Peter Fonda and Matt Damon. Besides wild card Damon, this a sampling of our country's all-time greats. They're fifty- and sixtysomething, they've been at it for at least three decades, and there's no denying they'll make for a hefty match.
And the female "best actor" lineup? Aside from the well-known, well-respected Julie Christie and Judi Dench, there are Kate Winslet, Helena Bonham Carter and Helen Hunt. Hmmmm . . . I read fresh-faced women who've landed top roles in blockbuster films. Talented? No doubt about it. All-time greats? Give them 20 years and diverse roles to hone their craft, then we'll see. Can you really fathom fair competition in Nicholson versus Winslet? Hoffman against Hunt?
Where are this country's heavyweight female actors? The pros, the "of courses," the Streeps, the Keatons, the Bates, the Langes? Where are the women who will give Fonda and Duvall a run for their Oscar? With comparable talent out of the picture, how could the greats of both genders ever compete with one another when the greats of one gender aren't even in the ring? And why aren't they? Because--and much has been written about this--they aren't getting good enough roles as they get older.
Along with myriad benefits of harvesting fresh talent, Hollywood has a lot invested in featuring lusty leading ladies (we all know sex sells). Cut Cameron Diaz and Minnie Driver, and the box-office sales would dive. I say keep the young blood, but I also challenge Hollywood to create roles that give our veteran female players a chance to strut their stuff (and I don't just mean as grandmothers, aunts and judges).
As long as the top women continue to be excised from the equation, a combined best actor category would be ludicrous. Simply put: There is no competition without the competition.
I propose a return from the pasture of our female greats. I challenge Hollywood to show us Matt Damon under the spell of Glenn Close and Leonardo DiCaprio and Ethan Hawke dueling it out over Diane Keaton.
Or, at the very, very least, the Dustin Hoffman set wooing the Bette Midlers.
Then, and only then, could both sexes realistically compete for the esteemed Oscar.
Carolyn Mackler has edited an anthology for George magazine on ways to improve America, which will be published by Villard Books in early 1999.