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Author Stephen Tapert talks new book “Best Actress: The History of Oscar-Winning Women”

I remember the exact moment I fell in love with the Oscars. 

Sophia Loren comes on stage to present the now-renamed Best Foreign Language Film category. She opens the envelope and exclaims, “Roberto,” waiving the envelope in the air, delighted that her fellow Italian, Roberto Benigni, has taken the prize for his film, “Life is Beautiful.” Upon hearing his name, Benigni kicks both feet up in the air and begins climbing on chairs to get the stage, nearly falling on the poor guy in front of him. 

Steven Spielberg is seen clapping; Goldie Hawn is crying. Chaos ensues. And Benigni begins his now-iconic speech by professing his “love” for Loren.

The year is 1999. I am four years old. And I’m utterly delighted by what is, at that moment, one of the strangest things I had ever seen. 

My mom, an obsessive Oscar-watcher who adored “Life is Beautiful,” sits on the couch, giddy with the satisfaction of having her favorite movie win. From then on, I join my mother in her love of the Oscars, cheering for actors whose names I don’t yet know, and movies I’m not old enough to see. 

I tell you this story because, even if you didn’t watch the ceremony every year while clutching your pretend Oscar (others might refer to it as a hairbrush) wrapped in a “custom dress” you “designed” out of your bed sheets like I may or may not have done, I know that everyone has a moment, just like mine, when they fall in love with the Oscars, or more broadly, cinema in general. 

When I opened Stephen Tapert’s book, “Best Actress: The History of Oscar-Winning Women,” it brought back so many of those iconic cinematic moments and introduced me to some I still need to see.

I spoke to Tapert the day after the 92nd Oscars in an extensive conversation that covered this year’s winners, his incredible career, the history of women in film, and of course his beautiful new book. There’s a quote on the back from Andie MacDowell that reads in part that “Best Actress” ‘should be on every library shelf.’

I couldn’t agree more. And yes, I still obsessively track the Oscars every year with my mom, but regardless of how you feel about the show, “Best Actress” is an important look at how our biggest cultural icons have shaped society and, for better or worse, impacted our world views.

Read my conversation with Stephen Tapert below. I hope you consider his insight, and his book “Best Actress: The History of Oscar-Winning Women,” carefully.

To start us off, I want to know, what was your first “Oscar memory”? What was the thing that made you fall in love with the Oscars in your own personal life?

Oh, wow, that’s a great question!

Stephen: I think the first moment where I came across the Academy Awards was the year that Katherine Hepburn won her last Oscar for “On Golden Pond.” She famously never attended the Academy Awards, except for one year in the 1970s when she presented an honorary Oscar to one of her producers. I believe that would have been in 1982, so I would’ve been eight years old at that time. 

But of course, from the very beginning, as we all know, having just watched the Oscars last night, it’s just such a magical event. And yeah, of course, there are moments during the ceremony that we could easily fast forward. [Laughs] But there’s nothing like it in terms of an award that is as meaningful to the film industry, and it seems to be very meaningful to the general public as well.

The films that win validate where we are [as a society] in many ways. Last night, for example, when “Parasite” won the Best Director and Best Picture Oscar, a lot of people celebrated the fact that the Academy was moving in a more international direction. “Parasite” is the first Best Picture winner to be a foreign language film. 

I wanted to save that question for the end, but let’s jump into it! What are your thoughts on last night’s show?

Stephen: Well, I mean, I think the great moments were connected to “Parasite.” It was a film that I really loved. Everyone I know really loved that movie. So, it almost seemed like it was the first Best Picture winner in a long time, or at least among people that I know, [where] there was a lot of consensus around that being the quote unquote “best.”

It’s great because the American public hasn’t really had a strong connection to foreign films since the 1950s and early ‘60s, before the production code finally died. [The Motion Picture Production Code spelled out what was “morally” acceptable content for motion pictures produced in the U.S.]

Prior to the demise of the American production code here in Hollywood, foreign films were talking about subject matters that were denied to Hollywood films at that time [and therefore audiences went to foreign films to see content unavailable to them here in the states]. 

It’s nice to see the pendulum moving in the other direction and people embracing foreign films more and more. I love that. But that really has nothing to do with “Best Actress” at all. [Laughs]

We have a new Best Actress leading lady in Renee Zellweger. She has won before [Zellweger won Best Supporting Actress in 2004 for her work in “Cold Mountain”], but I’m curious how you think her win, and her performance in “Judy,” ties into the themes of your book? 

Stephen: This is not necessarily connected to Best Actress specifically, but “Judy” is another biopic, and that’s a major trend in the last 20 or 30 years, to see performers take an Oscar for having played a real-life person.

In this case, it’s somebody who is very connected to Hollywood — of course, Judy Garland. Judy Garland never won the Oscar competitively. She did win the Juvenile Oscar [in 1939 for “The Wizard of Oz”] during the days when The Academy gave that award out, which is no longer the case. Famously her daughter, Liza Minnelli, did win the Oscar for Best Actress [in 1973] a few years after Judy Garland died, for her performance in “Cabaret.”

I liked Renee’s Oscar acceptance speech. I liked how it was a real tribute to Judy Garland and she made the connection making sure that we looked at these people as real heroes who have a profound effect on us.

I thought she did a great job and she really owned that movie. And according to people I know who’ve met her and who have interviewed her, she is an extremely nice and gracious performer. So, it’s always great to know that, too. 

Do you think that there’s an overarching theme that connects these performances that you have profiled in your book? If there’s one thing that you want people to take away from reading “Best Actress,” what do you think that would be?

Stephen: The one thing I would want people to take away is the fact that every year we watch the Academy Awards, it’s watched by estimates of up to half a billion viewers. It’s a gigantic platform and viewership. And at the end of the ceremony, as was the case last night, the second to last award that’s given is Best Actress, and across the board from the very beginning [of the award], up until Renee Zellweger’s win for “Judy,” we can see that each of these performances is linked in some way or another to issues of prejudice and discrimination.

And as a result, they play a really big role in helping us to understand where we are on this long and complicated journey towards gender equality. So, I’m very proud that The Academy, from the very beginning in 1929, decided to make sure that there was an Oscar that would be guaranteed to women.

Of course, we know that — and this was referred to throughout last night’s ceremony — that there is a lot of work to be done in terms of gender equality within the film industry. To make sure that more women are given opportunities, and to be put into a position where they ultimately could win Oscars in other categories.

But the one category that was guaranteed to women from the very beginning is the Best Actress Oscar. The Best Supporting Actress Oscar didn’t come about until nine years later. [It was first awarded in 1937.] It’s important to recognize that. And if you compare The Academy to other organizations or institutions that fully guaranteed an award to a woman, you’re not going to find very many.

The only other organization that I can find that predates The Academy in terms of annually guaranteeing an award to a woman would be the U. S. Tennis championships, The U.S. Open. [The U.S. Open Women’s Singles Championship was created in 1887.] That wouldn’t be the case withthe Olympics since the Olympics are only every four years. And the Nobel prize or the Pulitzer prize, those are awards that have sometimes given awards to women, but it’s certainly not every year. 

So, I want to make sure that people recognize that and tie the Best Actress Oscar category in with women’s rights. We know that films are an extremely important part of our lives. They come as active viewers to where we are as a society. And the fact that this category is seen, as I said before, by so many people. And these stories are all connected to prejudice and discrimination. I don’t think we stop and acknowledge how much this connects to the women’s rights movement.

I wanted to press you on something; there’s a quote on the first page of your introduction that absolutely fascinated me. You write: “Much more so than the Academy Award for Best Picture, the Oscar for Best Actress always seemed to come closest to capturing the cultural zeitgeist.”

Do you still think that’s true? If you think about it, Halle Berry is the only Best Actress winner of color in your book, in 92 years of Oscar history. So, is the Best Actress Oscar really that closely linked to the cultural zeitgeist? And how so?  

Stephen: I definitely do, because it’s the only category that is annually connected, as I said before, to issues of prejudice and discrimination.

And it acts as a mirror. Yes, I completely acknowledge the fact that there’s only been one woman of color who’s won this award, Halle Berry [For “Monster’s Ball”], in 2002. And that’s it.  And, more shocking than that, there have only been 17 women of color nominated for Best Actress in the entire 92 years of the Academy’s history. Seventeen. I mean, that is, to me, even more shocking than the fact that Halle Berry is the only one to win. 

[Writer’s Note: I have listed all 17 non-Caucasian actresses nominated for an Oscar at the conclusion of this piece. I have to agree with Stephen that seeing the list for yourself makes this startling fact the more maddening.]

But nonetheless, it’s important to take these films into consideration because they are dealing with social and political issues annually. And that I don’t believe is as much the case with, say, the Best Picture category. 

In doing research for this book, was there something you learned about an actress or performance that you thought you knew about that then led you to reevaluate their work or change your perspective?

Stephen: That’s a really good question, but it’s a difficult question to answer because I would say all of them. [Laughs] I mean, the book has 75 women! Unfortunately, Olivia Colman and now Renee Zellweger are not featured in this book, because at some point I had to cut it off. Fortunately, I was able to cut it off with some clean numbers. It’s the first 75 women who have won this award, and it’s over the first 90 years. 

If I had to choose, I would say Jodie Foster. She won twice[for 1988’s “The Accused” and 1992’s “The Silence of the Lambs”]. Her performance in “The Accused,” which is a film from 1998, it’s based on a true story about a woman who was gang raped.

She eventually goes on to try the men who encouraged the rape in the room, the bystanders who egged on the rape. Now, when this film came out, I was in middle school, and I remember so much press and media attention around this film. And, I don’t know if you’ve seen the film before, but there’s a three-minute sequence where you watch what happens to her character, and it is excruciating to watch.

And I’ve shown this film repeatedly to my students, and it’s not an easy film at all. But the thing that I love so much about cinema, and I think we can all agree, that’s an example of a moment that raises a gigantic amount of awareness, and it gets people to talk about something that in the case of “The Accused” was previously a taboo subject: rape and the culture around rape.

Photo credit: Photofest

That’s why I love cinema. Because I think it has the power to move things in a positive direction socially and politically. Jodie Foster has had a really interesting career, constantly connecting herself to issues related to women and [playing characters] that start off as victims, but then they become victors in the end.

Is there a particular performance or movie featured in “Best Actress” that you think is underseen? Something you hope audiences seek out after reading your book?

Stephen: I would want everyone to watch all of these films. [Laughs] There’s something great connected to them all. 

If I were to pick another one, do you know who Ellen Burstyn is? 

I do, of course. Her performance in “Requiem For a Dream” will stay with me for the rest of my life. 

Stephen: She won Best Actress for a 1974 film called “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.” One of the rare films directed by Martin Scorsese dealing with the life of a female protagonist. And in that film, she is a woman, at the beginning of the film, who’s living with her dictatorial husband. She is really just there to help support him. And then he dies in a traffic accident and she, as a result, has a chance to have this new lease on life and pursue her dreams.

Long story short, this is a movie that really inspired women in the 1970s, who at that point in time were fighting for such things as workplace equality, abortion rights, the opportunity to own their own credit card, the opportunity to serve on a jury.

This was a time where colleges were first introducing Women’s Studies courses as part of the curriculum. It was a really interesting time, and as a result of that movie there was such a thing as “Alice Doesn’t Day,” inspired specifically by the movie. Women decided not to attend  work, decided not to go to the grocery store. They wore armbands to show their solidarity as they were fighting for all these things that we might now take for granted. But there’s still, of course, many things to fight for in regards to Women’s Rights. I always think that’s interesting when you can look at a film that has had a huge influence on society.

Photo credit: Photofest

I really enjoyed the chapter on [Burstyn] because it was so much about how a film has the power to change things — just as I said with Jodie Foster’s performance in “The Accused.”

Do you have any plans to write another book? Maybe Best Supporting Actress? Best Picture? This is me trying to will those into existence. [Laughs]

Stephen: Oh, absolutely! I think the one that I’m kind of tinkering with right now is Best Actor. And it would be an extremely different book because men have not had to face the same sort of obstacles and overcome the same kinds of challenges as women. But I think there could be some fascinating things to explore in terms of the representation of masculinity over time.

There are a lot of Best Actor winners who are completely forgotten and unknown, and it would be interesting to resurrect their names a little for modern audiences. So that is what I’m contemplating right now. I haven’t committed fully to it, but that’s the project that seems to be calling my name right now.

That is an interesting point that you bring up about the Best Actors. There are many that we don’t really think of anymore. Do you think that’s also true of the Best Actresses as well? Or do you think that these women have had more cultural staying power?

Stephen: There’s a lot of actors in the Best Actor category whose names are completely unknown. I’ve done some informal surveys with different friends to be like, ‘Do you know who George Arliss is? Or Warner Baxter? Or Art Carney?’ Those names are not that well known today.

But I would say that’s not so much the case with Best Actress. I could be wrong. I think the one name in the Best Actress category that is the most forgotten, which is shocking considering that she was such a gigantic hit when she won the Oscar, was Marie Dressler. [Dressler was the fourth-ever Best Actress winner for 1930’s “Min and Bill.”] She was not conventionally attractive. She was considered overweight, but she reached the pinnacle of her fame during The Great Depression, at a time when people and audiences didn’t really want to go to the movies and see examples of extreme power, wealth and beauty. And she offered a much more down-to-earth sensibility. Much like Charlie Chaplin, who she actually worked with early on in her own career, she was known for her comedic talent, but she also brought a great amount of pathos to her work and really moved people in a major way. 

She won the Oscar and she had recently been diagnosed with cancer. She died not long after winning, and all of Hollywood shutdown to pay homage to her. But shockingly, she’s really not that well remembered today. 

I would say the other names are more memorable. I don’t know, maybe I am naïve? I tend to assume that people are more aware of their history then sometimes they really are. [Laughs]

Don’t worry. I completely relate to that. I was so shocked yesterday because I was like, ‘You mean to tell me there are people who don’t plan their entire social calendar around The Oscars?’ [Laughs] I just can’t fathom not loving The Oscars, despite its flaws.

Stephen: I know, I know. Well, I mean, it’s like the Super Bowl of entertainment. It’s the event of the year. But you know, there’s so many things competing for our attention in our culture and in our world today, it may not be as big as that should be in my opinion. 

I agree. Trust me. But that is an interesting point that has been talked about in the past couple of years, about how the ratings are declining [The 2020 Oscars ceremony was the lowest-rated ever.] and people don’t seem to be as tuned in. What do you think is going on? Do you think that it’s the politics of it all? Do you think that the Oscars are important, culturally, as they used to be? 

Stephen: Well, I mean, one thing that we have to remember, there’s so many other awards ceremonies now, and that wasn’t the case before in terms of them being broadcast on TV. And I think by the time the Oscars rolls around, there is a lot of “awards season” fatigue that sets in. You know, people are just like, ‘Oh, here we go again.’ And because of the award season “campaigning” that takes place, and the exorbitant amount of money poured into awards and campaigning, it almost feels at times as if there’s not as much a sense of surprise as there was before. I think, as we said earlier, the big surprise last night was the Best Picture winner, “Parasite,” but all the acting winners had pretty much been locked in, winning so many previous awards leading up to last night.

We have talked about the fact that women of color have been so obviously underrepresented. And as you said, we have seen a variety of different characters that these Best Actress winners have played. Do you think that there is a kind of performance that you would like to see nominated more? Something that comes to mind for me is comedic performances. 

The Academy doesn’t seem to award comedy performances as much as we used to. I mean, we used to see winners like Gwyneth Paltrow in “Shakespeare in Love [1998]” and Helen Hunt [who won for 1997’s “As Good as it Gets”] but nowadays that’s less and less common. Is there a type of performance that you would like to see the Academy pay more attention to?

Stephen: Oh, absolutely! And I was so thrilled to get Roxanne Gay, the feminist critic and author on board, to write the foreword for the book. She’s just so wonderful, and it was just music to my ears when she agreed to do the forward for the book.

She’s incredible. And her forward sets up the book beautifully.

Stephen: She is! Pretty much everything that she’s saying in her foreword is what I would like to see moving forward. I would like to see more women of color being recognized and not by way of films in which they are portrayed in these stereotypical roles. In terms of all the African American women who have been nominated, they’re always playing women who are dealing with poverty or are on the verge of falling into poverty. The stereotypes need to be broken. It would be so refreshing to see that come into play. We know that the moviegoing public is very diverse, but we’re not seeing that adequately reflected on screen.

The good news is, if you’re looking at the Academy awards for acting categories, is that, yes, in the last 20 years, we’ve seen so many more actors of color win for Best Actor, for Best Supporting Actress, for Best Supporting Actor. But we’re not seeing it, strangely enough, in the Best Actress category.

And I think it’s because of the stereotypes that we are still connected to. We need to put our imagination cap on and stop seeing women of color as just subservient to white women. That is not a positive way of looking at our world. That’s my hope.

Absolutely. While I have you, is there anything else you wanted to mention?

Stephen: This [book] was a labor of love project for me. It’s taken me 10 years to work on it. And one reason I think it took so long is that it had kind of a life of its own. In 2014, it was made into an exhibition that I curated in Turin, Italy, at Museo Nazionale del Cinema, which is currently one of the largest museums in the world.

And we were able to get costumes from a lot of these Best Actress Oscar-winning films. A lot of the Oscar gowns that women wore on the night that they won, and other odd memorabilia connected to the awards. And because of the success of that, it traveled to the Deutsche Kinemathek in Berlin, Germany, where it was expanded.

And so, it’s just been an interesting 10 years being so closely connected with this project and [it’s] such a thrill now to finally see it as a coffee table book. There are 200 photographs connected to this. I spent a lot of time trying to find unusual photographs. I was in an interesting [position] to do so, as I had friends who have private collections of photographs tied to film history. I really wanted to spend a lot of time making sure that the photos selected for “Best Actress” were connecting to the social and political issues which are key to this book. 

I have to ask, what was it like to see your exhibition come together in person? That’s an experience not many of us have; talk me through it!

Stephen: Well, I worked on [the exhibition] for a few years and then I flew over to Turin, Italy, for the premiere, and they had it all set up for the premiere, and I’ll never forget the experience of walking into this, first of all, this extremely beautiful museum. It used to be a 19th century synagogue, and it’s kind of set up like the Guggenheim in New York City with a spiral atrium rotunda. And just seeing all these beautiful costumes and beautiful Oscar gowns and these great memorabilia…we were able to get the Audrey Hepburn Children’s Fund, Jodie Foster, Susan Sarandon, Armani, Valentino, Bob Mackey and many other lenders to provide material for this. And I, I’ll never forget the first time I walked in, and just to take it in, and see it come together. It was a real thrill. It was beyond my expectations. Absolutely. 

That sounds incredible! I know you’re a professor. Tell me more about what you teach.

Stephen: I teach at the New York Film Academy, which is a school here in Los Angeles. It’s specifically in Burbank, right across the street from the Warner Brothers studio. The one thing that I love so much about my school is that it is 60% international, so I’m working every day with students from all over the world.

I teach Film History; all the students at the school are there to learn to become actors or directors or cinematographers or producers or game designers or animators, but they’re required to take the Film History classes. And it’s so much fun to talk to them about silent film history. But then there’s a few topic-specific classes that I teach going into the history of Gay and Lesbian Cinema, the history of how women are represented in film by way of the Best Actress Oscar winners and beyond. I teach a class in the history of animation, the history of cinematography… I love what I do.

Stephen Tapert

I love the school and I love the fact that I get to every day be with such a diverse group of people and an international group. I’m someone who strives to celebrate that. 

Well, if I’m ever in California, I will come audit your classes because that sounds amazing! [Laughs]

Stephen: Oh please do! [Laughs]

I have to share with you that my mom and I are both huge Oscar watchers and we always get together to watch every single awards show. And last night we were both so upset because we don’t know what to do with our Sunday evenings now! [Writer’s Note: This is still true!] So, I’d like to thank you for allowing us to extend our Oscar obsession just a little bit further this year with your wonderful book!

Stephen: I mean, what we can all do is watch some of these films, and expand our knowledge and appreciation of Film History. And definitely do so by way of the contributions of women in film. And here are 90 different performances to start with that are featured in this book! [Laughs]

“Best Actress: The History of Oscar-Winning Women” is available now.

17 *non-Caucasian actresses have been nominated for Best Actress at the Academy Awards in 95 years. They are:

1935: Merle Oberon – “The Dark Angel”

1954: Dorothy Dandridge- “Carmen Jones”

1972: Diana Ross – “Lady Sings the Blues”

1972: Cicely Tyson – “Sounder”

1974: Diahann Carroll – “Claudine” 

1985: Whoopi Goldberg – “The Color Purple”

1993: Angela Bassett – “What’s Love Got to Do With It”

1998: Fernanda Montenegro – “Central Station”

2001: Halle Berry – “Monster’s Ball” 

2002: Salma Hayek -“Frida”

2003:  Keisha Castle-Hughes – “Whale Rider”

2004: Catalina Sandino Moreno – “Maria Full of Grace” 

2010: Gabourey Sidibe – “Precious” 

2011: Viola Davis – “The Help” 

2012: Quvenzhane Wallis – “Beasts of the Southern Wild”

2016: Ruth Negga – “Loving” 

2018: Yalitza Aparicio – “Roma” 

2019: Cynthia Erivo – “Harriet”

*Writer’s Note: The actresses listed here are the 15 non-Caucasian actresses listed in “Best Actress” with the addition of “Roma”’s Yalitza Aparicio, nominated in 2019, and Cynthia Erivo, nominated this year for her work in “Harriet.” (She was the only person of color nominated in the acting categories for the 2020 ceremony.) Note that this list may vary depending on how one chooses to define “non-Caucasian.” Special thanks to Sasha Stone, Ryan Adams and Marshall Flores of AwardsDaily for their insight on this important topic. You can read more about these performances in Tapert’s book.

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Featured image credit: Stephen Tapert

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