Battle of the sexes: why this year the Oscars will become a gender war

From Little Women and Bombshell on one side and The Irishman and The Two Popes on the other, the Academy will have to tread a careful line picking this year’s nominations

British politicians are not the only people preparing for the campaign trail; Hollywood’s awards-season schmooze offensive has also begun. Gala ball dates are being added to diaries, academy voters are being targeted and a clutch of frontrunners is emerging. Trends – most of them worrying – are also appearing.

In summary, this year it is “boy films” v “girl films”. A gaping gender divide seems to have split the field. On the girls’ side, we have two well-received titles: Bombshell, dramatising the sexual harassment scandal at Fox News, and Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women. Both are stories of female defiance at the male-dominated status quo, and are cast with an embarrassment of awards-bait: Little Women features Meryl Streep, Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Emma Watson and Laura Dern; Bombshell has Nicole Kidman, Charlize Theron, Margot Robbie and Allison Janney.

Lining up against them, we have the “boy films”: Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman and Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in … Hollywood are somewhat nostalgic studies of that very same male-dominated status quo, focusing on platonic male relationships at the expense of all others. Despite a combined runtime of more than six hours, neither find much space for female characters. Snapping at their heels are other testosterone-heavy, Bechdel test-failing films, including Sam Mendes’s first world war drama 1917, motor-racing yarn Le Mans ’66 (AKA Ford v Ferrari), father-son space odyssey Ad Astra and Vatican drama The Two Popes.

A few individual performances are likely to figure in the acting nominations: Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker, Renée Zellweger’s Judy, Jennifer Lopez in Hustlers and Tom Hanks in It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood, for example. Otherwise, we could find ourselves in a situation where Little Women and Bombshell dominate the women’s shortlists while The Irishman and Once Upon a Time in … Hollywood do the same for the men’s, with almost zero crossover. Virtually the only contender to straddle the gender chasm is Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story – which is really a divorce story. In keeping with this year’s theme, it pits the sexes against each other. On one side of the courtroom is Charlie (Adam Driver) and his lawyer (Alan Alda); on the other is Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and hers (Laura Dern). Informed by Baumbach’s own separation from Jennifer Jason Leigh, it arguably favours the husband’s perspective, but Johansson’s performance has also turned heads.

Could this bizarre divide be an unintended side-effect of the #MeToo movement? In the past few years, the film industry has, at least superficially, addressed gender inequalities on and off screen. This year, we have seen more stories with overtly female perspectives across the board: comedies (Booksmart, Late Night, The Hustle, Little, What Men Want), crime stories (Hustlers, The Kitchen, Miss Bala), horrors (Midsommar, Ma, Crawl), even superhero movies (Captain Marvel). This femme-friendly realignment could well have provoked some dad-centric counter-programming: tales of gangsters, warfare, cars and spacemen. Or does the gender gap suggest there are a lot of male auteurs out there who can’t or won’t tell women’s stories?

Viewed from a different angle, another worrying aspect of this year’s frontrunners becomes evident: the lack of people of colour. Remember #OscarsSoWhite, and how appalled we were by the lack of diversity in the 2016 Oscar nominations? Again, the situation has improved dramatically since. Last year Hollywood was patting itself on the back for recognising films such as BlacKkKlansman, Roma, Black Panther, If Beale Street Could Talk, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and, er, Green Book. But we are unlikely to see #OscarsSoWoke trending this year. In fact, we are virtually back to square one. All the aforementioned boys’ and girls’ films are overwhelmingly stories about white people. Nor has it been a vintage year for LGBT-themed movies – Rocketman, anyone? Furthermore, with the exception of Little Women and a co-writer credit on 1917 for Krysty Wilson-Cairns, all these 2019 frontrunners were written and directed by straight, white men.

If there is another #OscarsSoWhitewash, it will be especially embarrassing for the Academy, which could be good news for more diverse outsiders. Lulu Wang’s Chinese-American family drama The Farewell, for example, benefited from a fresh cultural perspective. Taika Waititi’s anti-Nazi satire Jojo Rabbit won the coveted People’s Choice award at the Toronto film festival, following in the footsteps of Green Book, La La Land and The King’s Speech. It could be this year’s Life Is Beautiful. Similarly, up-to-date teen drama Waves could be this year’s Moonlight, with its lyrical focus on African American family angst (although it was directed by a white guy, Trey Edward Shults), or momentum could gather for performances such as Cynthia Erivo’s Harriet (as in Tubman), Lupita Nyong’o in Us, or Eddie Murphy in Dolemite Is My Name.

Awards ceremonies used to be glitzy showbiz love-ins, but after the public reckonings of recent years they have become more like anxious end-of-year assessments. Voters and academies are no longer concerned solely with how good the movies are, but also how good their nominations make them look. This year, more than ever, it could be a question of keeping up appearances.