Oscars 2012: Best Actress Category Prefers Physical Transformation

Five women in five very different roles make up the Best Actress category at the Oscars this year. But four of them share one thing: Each had to transform her face and body to play her role.

Glenn Close plays a woman who plays a man. Michelle Williams and Meryl Streep play Marilyn Monroe and Margaret Thatcher, respectively. Rooney Mara lost a significant amount of weight, shaved her eyebrows, pierced numerous parts of her body and dyed her hair pitch-black to play Lisbeth Salander, a performance that garnered as much praise for her severe aesthetic as it did for her chilly bravado. Only Viola Davis seems to have escaped long hours in the makeup chair.

"Actors have sometimes had to apply putty, age implausibly, etc., but definitely women have to prove their 'seriousness' more," said Molly Haskell, film critic and author of "From Reverence to Rape: the Treatment of Women in the Movies," in an email to The Huffington Post. "Looking ghastly and being criminal got it for Charlize Theron, whereas acting bitchy (in the interesting 'Young Adult') gets her nothing."

If you look at the Best Actress winners over the last decade or so, this year's nominees are part of a growing crowd. From Theron's dressed-down murderer in "Monster" to Natalie Portman's sickly thin psycho ballerina in "Black Swan," the Academy has often rewarded actresses who not only embody the roles they play but also transform their physical appearance drastically in the process.

"It's simply part of the Academy's overall agenda, or bias, [their] preference for the bloated, the obvious, the historical, the solemn, the 'important,'" explains Haskell. "Since they're still insecure about the art form over which they preside, especially where women are concerned, they're more comfortable going for something obvious and theatrical, acting with a capital A."

When Michelle Williams plays Marilyn Monroe, she has to look like Marilyn Monroe, because everyone has some idea of what Monroe looks like. But in his Oscar-nominated performance in "Moneyball," Brad Pitt's physical resemblance to the real-life Billy Beane is less important.

"John Berger said a long time ago, 'Men act and women appear.' It just hasn't really changed," said Linda Williams, a film professor at UC Berkeley.

In this year's Best Actor category, George Clooney and Brad Pitt pretty much look like George Clooney (in "The Descendants") and Brad Pitt (in "Moneyball"). Jean Dujardin and Gary Oldman play historical roles, but neither would be out of place walking down the street today. As an illegal worker in "A Better Life," Demian Bichir is dressed down but in no way made up.

According to Williams, the trend has some basis in movie history. In costume dramas of the 1930s, for example, women would necessarily look more outlandish than men, because historical fashions for women were so much more outlandish than men's (think big wig, wide skirt). But even today, "it is always the women who are going to be fooled with, or fiddled with the most in terms of their faces and their dresses and their costumes," Williams says.

The Oscars may simply reflect Hollywood's more general approach to the genders, as most movies marketed to women are romantic comedies. While Helen Hunt and Diane Keaton may have won Academy Awards for "As Good As It Gets" and "Annie Hall," few romantic comedies today provide actresses a chance to show off their acting skills.

"The most obvious long-term trend is the whole difficulty the academy has with finding enough nominees for the Best Actress category," said John Alberti, director of Cinema Studies at Northern Kentucky University. "It doesn't speak to the lack of quality work, so much as that most mainstream movies are about men."

Indie films like "Melancholia" and "Martha Marcy May Marlene," which featured two strong-willed, (mostly) realistic female leads, were not honored this year, though Kirsten Dunst won the best actress award at Cannes for her role in the former. The problem, Alberti says, may be that the Academy recognizes that the awards can provide a significant marketing boost to the movies it honors, and so is reluctant to honor movies that might not have a major audience base.

"Complex adult women used to be a staple of movies up until close to our period," said Alberti. "Hollywood feels there isn't a market for 'more realistic' movies about women's lives and experiences. They keep proving themselves wrong about that."