Off the Carpet: Best Actor and Best Actress make for a tale of two industries

Look across the landscape of Best Actor Oscar contenders this year. Michael Keaton, Steve Carell, Benedict Cumberbatch, Eddie Redmayne, Bill Murray, Timothy Spall, Chadwick Boseman, Kevin Costner, Ralph Fiennes, Jake Gyllenhaal, Tom Hardy, James McAvoy, Channing Tatum all seen and stumped for. Joaquin Phoenix, David Oyelowo, Brad Pitt, Jack O'Connell, Bradley Cooper, Oscar Isaac, Matthew McConaughey and Mark Wahlberg all looking for room on the other side. Gael García Bernal, Ellar Coltrane, Brendon Gleeson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Tommy Lee Jones, John Lithgow, Alfred Molina, Miles Teller all likely to find supporters besides.

Now look at the Best Actress contenders…

It seems an oft-repeated lament. The leading lady category always feels just wide enough to manage a healthy slate of nominees, while the fellas deal with shocked asides on Oscar nomination morning about Tom Hanks or some such somehow missing the cut. “It was just too competitive.” But it never seems to be “too competitive” on the Best Actress side of things, does it? And this year really looks like a banner year for that dichotomy.

“Wild” star Reese Witherspoon was recently asked why she feels proud to be a woman. Her response is of note:

“Because we are capable of anything. And we do it all. We do it all so well. I don”t know any weak women. I honestly don”t. People say to me, 'why don”t you play weak characters?' And I say, 'I don”t know any weak women!' Sometimes I read them in scripts and I think, 'this isn”t representative of any woman I”ve ever met in my entire life.' Sometimes you see a girl in a script and you don”t even know what she does for a living. Or what her parents do. Or if she has siblings. You have no information and that”s categorized as a female lead in a film? I find it appalling. It”s head-scratching for me. I have no intention of putting that out in the world. It”s not reality.”

But it gets at part of the issue as it pertains to awards season. It's not that there aren't enough Best Actress contenders in the fray every year. It's that there aren't enough strong female characters in movies period, particularly on these shores. Hardly new news.

That said, yes, there is typically a well to draw from full of the under-considered. This year it will include names like Marion Cotillard, Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Jenny Slate, among others. Meanwhile, campaigns will no doubt focus in on the dearth and try to spin magic. The push behind “Boyhood,” for instance, seems to just be looking for a reason to promote Patricia Arquette as a lead there. Focus had been contemplating what to do with Felicity Jones in “The Theory of Everything,” but after this weekend's Toronto reaction, they'll likely be pulling the trigger on a lead strategy. And Saban Films/Roadside Attractions has been gunning hard for “The Homesman” star Hilary Swank ever since Cannes, a somewhat dubious play to me given that the life of the film is Tommy Lee Jones (not to take anything away from what Swank does with controlled precision).

The only names that feel real to me at present are Amy Adams (apparently stand-out in “Big Eyes”), Rosamund Pike (get ready for a whirlwind around her when “Gone Girl” drops) and Witherspoon. Jessica Chastain is part of what is essentially a two-hander opposite Oscar Isaac in “A Most Violent Year” (triple-dipping with her “Miss Julie” and “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby” performances in the category – she'll go supporting for “Interstellar”).

Beyond that? Mostly crickets. Shailene Woodley has support for “The Fault in Our Stars” but can that maintain? Perhaps it can with such soft competition. Meryl Streep can get nominated for anything, so even if extensive reshoots signal trouble for “Into the Woods,” she might as well stay in the conversation for now.

Last year, albeit on the back of a popular brand, “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” became the first female-led film to top the domestic box office in four decades. It was a gong Cate Blanchett kept banging en route to her own Oscar win for Best Actress. “Perhaps those of us in the industry who are still foolishly clinging to the idea that female films with women at the center are niche experiences – they are not,” she said from the stage of the Dolby Theater in March. “Audiences want to see them and, in fact, they earn money. The world is round, people!”

So where is Viola Davis' “Aliens?” Where is Patricia Clarkson's “Terms of Endearment?” I don't mean to be reductive with those thoughts, but the fact is there is a wealth of female talent out there that has been and continues to be underserved. That fact bears itself out in the awards race each and every year, and it's a bummer, because you can tell so many are ready, willing and able to take the ball and run with it.