It's either a great fall for women in movies or a terrible one, it all depends on how you look at it. You can see the box office success of Gravity and the critical success of Blue Jasmine and cheer the fact that Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett can carry a movie. Or you can look at the current prospects for the best actress Oscar and see the familiar lineup of stars who have already won trophies and lament at how the movie industry doesn't seem to be able to nurture new female talent.
That isn't to deny that a big, money-making, critically-praised film that has a woman at the center isn't good news for women in film. As Melissa Silverstein writes at Forbes, "Gravity is important because it is a movie that will be a part of the Oscar conversation for the duration and that means we will be talking about a female astronaut who has to basically overcome every adversity you could imagine to survive." At Awards Daily Sasha Stone praises the fact that the film, while putting Bullock's character front and center and not sexualizing her in anyway, also didn't make her just another version of a male character. "Here comes another film with a female in the lead — not naked, not having sex, not someone’s mother, wife or girlfriend headlining the film. Not only that, but Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity turns on her inner world," Stone explains. "It isn’t just that she’s the one saving herself — it’s that she’s also allowed to be a woman in the part; she doesn’t have to suck it all up and deal, or act like a man."
Stone however goes on to note that people will try to discredit Bullock's impact on the film's box office, either pointing to the fact that it was "an effects-driven film with rave reviews" or that George Clooney also starred. While Stone says "none of that matters," we disagree. Gravity's success is owed to the combination of buzz, high wattage stars, technical marvel, as well as Bullock's performance, not just one of those factors. And it's not really a revelation that Bullock can open a film. In what was a particularly crappy summer for women in film, Bullock starred in The Heat, one of the rare successful female-driven films of the summer.
At Grantland, Mark Harris points out that there's a good chance this year's best actress Oscar race is one for the veterans. Beyond Bullock and Blanchett, whose Blue Jasmine was one of the earliest lauded female performances of the year, other frequently mentioned contenders include Judi Dench in Philomena, Meryl Streep in August: Osage County, and Emma Thompson in Saving Mr. Banks. All formidable performers, that lineup would be bad news, argues Harris. "I don't know what's most dispiriting, the strong suggestion the Best Actress field lacks a deep bench, the comparative paucity of opportunities for actresses that a non-deep bench implies, or the assumption that Academy voters are disinclined to look beyond people they already know can give a nice speech," he writes.
Harris contrasts the best actress race with the truly interesting best actor competition, which features diversity in age, race, and veteran-status. While there are a number of men that seem to be vying for a spot in the best actor race — with both newcomers like Michael B. Jordan for Fruitvale Station to Hollywood royalty like Robert Redford for All Is Lost — the actress race feels disappointingly sealed. Great performances by younger, more unknown actresses, like Brie Larson in Short Term 12 or Adèle Exarchopoulos in Blue Is the Warmest Color, may be pushed aside in favor of the wonderful, but safe lineup of former female winners, giving us little hope that the Oscars this year can help boost the profile of a new generation of female stars.
So let's cheer the success of Bullock and Gravity, but note that while we're off to a great start this isn't a particularly revolutionary year for women on screen.