The Best Supporting Actress race at the 2015 Oscars may be the biggest snooze of the night. Almost every Oscar soothsayer agrees that Patricia Arquette is almost a surefire win for her role on Boyhood, after her masterful transformation from desperate single mom to capable college professor over the course of Richard Linklater’s 12-year production. Game over.
Arquette deserves the Oscar for her incredible performance, but she’s also a virtual lock because her competition is so weak. The only other nominee who even has a shot is Laura Dern for Wild, but she’s in the movie so little that it seems unlikely she’d win. Emma Stone’s nomination for Birdman seems improbable, considering Naomi Watts had a much bigger and more nuanced role in that movie; Keira Knightley played a pretty standard plucky love interest in The Imitation Game. Meryl Streep is nominated for Into the Woods because, well, she’s Meryl Streep.
Even though it’s one of the least exciting races this year, the Best Supporting Actress category is notable for the paucity of plausible winners—and that’s important. Looking at the list, it’s easy to think: Really? This is the best they could do this year? Each of the roles nominated in the category can be boiled down to a basic female archetype: mother, daughter, girlfriend, or witch.
When we talk about women in Hollywood, the conversation tends to focus on the necessity for more “strong female leads.” But that ignores the breadth of change that needs to happen to women’s roles in movies. It’s not just that more women need to be getting lead roles—there also need to be nuanced small roles for women, and more of them. Strong female support is just as important as a strong female stardom.
Take, for example, BBC’s The Fall, the second season of which recently began streaming on Netflix. (It’s a TV show, not a movie, but the point still applies.) It’s the story of a female detective (Gillian Anderson) tracking down a serial killer (Jamie Dornan,) but what really makes The Fall stand out is the women who play strong characters down to the tiniest, one-line roles. Anderson’s character isn’t the only woman in the Belfast unit investigating the crimes—there are dozens of women interrogating witnesses, examining bodies, answering 911 calls, and even taking bullets in shoot-outs. Even nameless parts like “the cop who calls for backup” or “the hospital administrator who aids the police” are women. The multitude of tiny but important women’s roles helps build a world inhabited by many strong women, not just one.
It’s not a surprise that the movies with Best Actress nominations have well-drawn female roles—movies like Still Alice, Wild, and Gone Girl are built around female characters, so they better be good. But the fact that the roles in the Best Supporting Actress category are so meager indicates that when she’s not the lead, female characters often don’t get much in the way of screen time and character development. And that creates an all-or-nothing environment for female characters that makes it hard for Hollywood to make any real progress.
Look at the Best Supporting Actors for a comparison. The material was great—from a volatile actor to a troubled father to a merciless drum instructor, the actors nominated in this category were playing characters written with much more depth and nuance than the roles given to the Best Supporting Actress nominees. Case in point: Keira Knightley’s biggest moment in The Imitation Game was when she says that line you probably remember from the trailer: “Sometimes it’s the people no one imagines anything of who do the things no one can imagine.” Cute, but by the time she gets to say it, two male characters have already said the same line.
So while it’s important to continue the demand for significant leads for women, it’s just as important that women are getting meaty secondary roles, meaty small roles—even meaty cameos. This Supporting Actress pool isn’t cutting it.