Perspective | Emma Stone’s upset win was for acting at its purest

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The only major upset at the Oscars on Sunday night occurred late in the proceedings, when Emma Stone won the Academy Award for best actress, upending expectations that the honor would go to Lily Gladstone.

Stone, who won her first Oscar in 2017 for her performance in “La La Land,” seemed as surprised as anyone that she was onstage instead of Gladstone, who was poised to make history as the first Native American actress to win an Academy Award. (Gladstone had won a clutch of pre-Oscars honors, including a SAG Award; both actresses won Golden Globes.) But few would argue that Stone didn’t deserve the award for her performance in “Poor Things,” a fearless feat of transformation and commitment. As Bella Baxter, a girl-woman coming into consciousness with reckless abandon and insatiable intellectual curiosity, Stone delivered perhaps the bravest — and most bananas — turn of her career.

What’s more, she accomplished all of this without the benefit of the kind of showstopping speech that so often garners a best actress nod. Witness Sandra Hüller’s stemwinder for the ages in the psychological thriller “Anatomy of a Fall,” when her character subjects her husband to a withering diagnosis of his insecurity, competitiveness and resentment. Or “Nyad,” in which Annette Bening rarely missed a chance to riff on long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad’s mantra of “never give up.” Carey Mulligan had not just one but two dazzling soliloquies in “Maestro,” in which her character, Felicia Bernstein, first calls out her husband, Leonard, on his ego and selfishness, then later admits her own role as enabler while having lunch with his sister (Sarah Silverman).

Interestingly, Stone and Gladstone were the two best actress nominees this year who didn’t have the kind of big, showy monologues that usually result in awards attention. Stone’s performance was remarkable in its intense physicality, intellectual acuity, mercurial changeability and ungovernable appetite; Gladstone, who played victimized Osage tribe member Mollie Burkhart in “Killers of the Flower Moon,” was the epitome of watchful, morally galvanizing silence. In a year when there was no shortage of women on screen boldly speaking their minds, Gladstone’s achievement hinged on keeping the quiet part inside, even as her silence spoke volumes. They were both indelible, one by going big, the other by going small.

In the supporting actress race, the same dynamic played out: Although nominee America Ferrera delivered the most famous movie speech of 2023 when her character laid out the punishing double binds of contemporary womanhood in “Barbie,” it was Da’Vine Joy Randolph who took home the Oscar, not for the words she spoke in “The Holdovers” as much as for the accumulation of small, exquisitely observed moments she brought to life as a lonely grieving mother.

The strength of this year’s crop of actress nominees reflected an uncommonly potent year for women in the movies: Not only did Greta Gerwig and Margot Robbie make the year’s biggest film with “Barbie,” but “Oppenheimer,” their closest box office competitor and the night’s biggest winner with seven awards, owed much of its success to its “badass producer” Emma Thomas (so described by the film’s Oscar-winning editor, Jennifer Lane) and NBCUniversal Chairman and Chief Content Officer Donna Langley, who put her studio’s resources behind the risky proposition that a demanding, dialogue-heavy period piece about a nuclear physicist could be a crowd-pleaser.

Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” collected seven awards, including best picture and best director, at the 96th Academy Awards in Los Angeles on March 10. (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post)

Even the winner for best song couched its polemic in hushed tones, when Billie Eilish delivered one of the evening’s most powerful moments in a tremulous, utterly transfixing performance of “Barbie’s” “What Was I Made For?”

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This kind of split-screen effect — deep-seated anger channeled through whispers instead of screams — amounted to the pop culture equivalent of the sea of white-suited Democratic women who attended President Biden’s State of the Union address last week — an impressive demonstration of collective resolve, until one was reminded of the wider context of regression and outright hostility.

Those political realities, it turns out, are just as sobering within Hollywood itself: Although women might have been triumphing on screen, behind the scenes, they weren’t doing nearly as well. When movie industry researchers Stacy L. Smith and Martha Lauzen recently released their annual studies of women in the film business, the statistics were dismal: Smith found that women accounted for only 12 percent of directors of the top 100 movies in 2023; when it came to acting, only 30 of the top 100 films featured a woman in a leading or co-leading role, the same ratio as in 2010. Looking at the top 250 films, Lauzen was just as discouraging in her findings: “While 75% of the top grossing films employed 10 or more men as directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers,” she wrote in her annual “Celluloid Ceiling” report, “just 4% employed 10 or more women.”

Sunday’s Oscars reflected an industry taking baby steps toward progress: Women and people of color were represented in acting and writing categories, as well as editing, costume design, hair and makeup, and production design.

Still, when Stone grasped her Oscar, the distance between the unfettered potential of her character and the constraints still bedeviling women in real life couldn’t have been more dramatic. The biggest takeaway seems to be that Hollywood loves a liberated woman, as long as her freedom comes packaged as an outré fairy tale suffused with sex and alluring steampunk aesthetics.

Although Gladstone didn’t take home an award, her achievement as the first Native American nominee in her category will understandably be celebrated as a symbol of how far she’s come within a medium built on narratives that chronically caricatured, demonized and humiliated Native Americans. It should also stand as a rebuke to the industry that made that achievement historic in the first place.

When it comes to upending the social order, real empowerment isn’t adorable, or easy. Whether they’re delivered from the screen, from within or from a podium, even the best speeches are no substitute for lasting and far more difficult change.

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