Leading Ladies: Lessons on Powerful Women From All Oscar Noms
The Oscar nominations for actresses in a leading role this year present a precarious view of women in power, women blocked from power and women ignoring their own power.
Regardless of who wins the coveted statue, the characters deftly portrayed offer lessons in leadership—what to do, and perhaps what not to do.
The great news is more women are in roles on screens large and small than ever before. A new report “by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, found that 40 of the 100 top films from last year had a woman in the starring or co-starring role, up from 32 the year before. In 2007, that number was just 20,” the New York Times reports.
“Gains were also made by women of color and women 45 or older. Eleven of last year’s 100 top movies starred a woman from an underrepresented ethnicity, compared with four in 2017. Similarly, 11 top films starred or co-starred a woman 45 or older, up from five a year earlier,” according to the New York Times.
Here are some lessons to take away from the Oscar-nominated actresses in roles that serve as cautionary tales or inspiration.
Glenn Close in “The Wife.” Playing the fictional character of Joan Castleman, the long suffering wife of Nobel Prize winner in literature, John Castleman, Close embodies the frustrated talented women of the 1950s and 60s who routinely subjugated their own careers for their husband’s sake. “I love to write. It’s my life,” the Smith College student confesses. She is quickly scorned to not even attempt to succeed as a writer in a man’s world, “Don’t ever think you can get their attention. They are the ones who decide who will be taken seriously.” When asked following her husband’s win what she does for a living, Close responds, “I’m a kingmaker.”
This is a reminder of Power Tool #2 in Take The Lead’s 9 Leadership Power Tools, created by Gloria Feldt, co-founder and president of Take The Lead: “Define Your Own Terms—First, Before Anyone Else Does.” Feldt writes, “Whoever sets the terms of the debate usually wins. By redefining power not as ‘power-over,’ but as ‘power-to’ we shift from a culture of oppression to a culture of positive intention to make things better for everyone. ‘Power-To’ is leadership.” Joan Castleman grew invisible by deferring her power to create her own writing success to enabling her spouse to pursue his.
Olivia Coleman in “The Favourite.” Playing Queen Anne, who ruled England from 1702 to 1714, the last of the Stuart monarchs, Colman is a complicated, unhealthy, quirky, flawed yet powerful individual who rules with the help of Lady Sarah, the Duchess of Marlborough who is Sarah Jennings Churchill. It was said about Sarah by historians that “If Sarah had been a man, she would have been prime minister.” Four hundred years ago, the power a monarch yielded was both overt and symbolic. But it was also only possible in this period, if the queen’s duties were performed by other women. In this case, that is both Sarah and Abigail Hill, who makes a 21st century declaration, “I must take control of my circumstances. I am on my side always.”
“The movie, for all its style, entertainment, great performances and welcome focus on the women who move the wheels of history, in content it rather resembles those biographies of Sarah that reduce her story to a drama of emotional needs and power plays,” Christopher Rawson writes in Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
The plot of the power plays could take place at any time, and the court could be substituted for a corporate boardroom, with alliances and collaborations and personal relationships. “Even with Anne (Olivia Colman) as head of state, patriarchy rules the realm, and women interested in power, autonomy or survival must navigate the hostile territory of male domination,” A.O. Scott writes in the New York Times. “This does not mean that the women are passive or innocent victims. On the contrary. The busy, buzzing plot of ‘The Favourite’ is propelled by scheming, double-crossing and manipulation” among its female characters.
In the vernacular of Take The Lead, the women are driven by “Sister Courage.”
Yalitza Aparicio Martínez in “Roma.” The actress is receiving an Oscar nomination for her first acting role playing a live-in maid, Cleo, in a middle-class family in Mexico City. The character of Cleo handles her many challenges, heartbreaks and ultimately enormous loss with grace and grit.
Aparicio is the first Indigenous American woman, to receive a Best Actress Oscar nomination. She was in school earning her degree in early childhood education when she went to the audition for the role in “Roma.”
According to Vice, “Over time, she convinced herself that acting was a means to actualize her dreams of teaching. Aparicio says that one of the most satisfying things about Roma was that she was able to express the feelings of a person who doesn’t usually have a voice, and to teach everyone a bit about Oaxaca and the social movements that have marked Mexico’s history.”
The lessons from Cleo’s character are that each person has an important story to share, that is beneficial to all humanity and that expresses the details as well as the universality of emotion and struggles. Aparicio tells Variety, “The fact that despite the film being so personal for Alfonso Cuaron, and that it touches on the different problems here in Mexico, people from different countries identify with the story so much that it touches their hearts.”
Lady Gaga in “A Star Is Born.” Alas, even if we can’t stop humming the song, “Shallow,” we can take time to salute the power struggles of Lady Gaga’s character to make her own success in spite of a partner who drags her down. As Take The Lead reports, one lesson is to pursue your dream on the side. “Ally, the Gaga character, works in a hotel as a waitress for her day job, but also has been writing songs since she was a girl and performs in a bar after work as the only female performer on drag night. She takes the opportunities where she can find them and does not give up on her desire to perform her music. Ally also quits her job in an enviable moment of triumph and daring.”
“Use What You’ve Got,” is Leadership Power Tool #3, as created by Feldt. She explains, “What you need is almost always there. See it and use it with courage. Because power unused is power useless.” This is what Ally does in her burgeoning career. “Convinced she did not make it big because agents told her she was not pretty enough, she maintains her authenticity and continues to perform and practice, write songs and believe in herself,” Take The Lead reports.
Adhering to mentorship advice is also part of Ally’s professional success.”Yes, the Jackson Maine character (Cooper) had more than a professional interest in Ally, but he did mentor her and tell her she was a great songwriter and gave her a chance to perform live at a huge concert,” Take The Lead reports.“‘People need to hear what you have to say,’ he tells her and asks her to switch her concentration from what do others want for her, to ‘What do you want?’ His best advice may be the night he first meets her, when Jackson says, ‘Unless you get out and you try to live, you’ll never know. That’s just the truth. If there’s one reason we’re supposed to be here it’s to say something so people wanna hear it.’”
Melissa McCarthy in “Can Your Ever Forgive Me?”: Talent wins, but you lose if you do untoward—or illegal—acts with your talent. That is the lesson here. “Melissa McCarthy plays the late real-life author Lee Israel who turned to fabricating and forging historic author letters to make a living and pay the rent when her book deals dried up,” reports Take The Lead. “She pulled it off for years, selling some of her faux work for hundreds, even thousands each. Until she was caught and prosecuted.”
Read more in Take The Lead on “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”
McCarthy tells CBS, “She never, ever took back [that] the writing was good. Someone just recently sent me a letter that she’d written, and she mentions this: ‘I’ve gotten myself into a bit of trouble with some writing.’ And then there’s some line after it basically saying, ‘However, the writing was good and the letters are great.'” According to CBS, “McCarthy doesn’t excuse Israel’s crimes. But she hopes the movie might serve as a reminder that there is talent in all of us, and that even those who are unlikable, maybe even criminal, want what we all do – to be seen.”
McCarthy’s lesson from playing Israel has to do with humanity, rather than just the workplace. “I just want people to look up and notice people. I feel like we’re so separate now, and I do think all the time, look up, anyone, you don’t know who’s passing you. You could be passing Lee Israel who is sure to gonna be more interesting and smarter and funnier than the average person. So, like, don’t underestimate people.”
About the Author
Michele Weldon is editorial director of Take The Lead, an award-winning author, journalist, emerita faculty in journalism at Northwestern University and a senior leader with The OpEd Project. @micheleweldon www.micheleweldon.com