How Many Best Picture Winners Are About Women, Really?

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Actress and director Jodie Foster, who portrayed Clarice Starling in the Best Picture-winning 'Silence of the Lambs,' attends a 2011 news conference. Christian Hartmann/Reuters

The 88th Annual Academy Awards will air on ABC on Sunday, February 28. But no revolution is likely to be televised, even as the contentious awards are being widely slammed for a lack of diversity.

For the 88th year in a row, the majority of the feature films nominated for Best Picture—with the exception of Brooklyn, Room and the clandestinely feminist Mad Max: Fury Road —are about men overcoming some kind of struggle. Think about it: There are tales of Wall Street wheelers, dealers and schemers (The Big Short), suits-turned-spies (Bridge of Spies), men pondering life on Mars (The Martian), mostly male, and overcaffeinated and underslept journalists sniffing out systemic abuse (Spotlight). Or in the case of this year's leading Best Picture favorite, The Revenant, a bloody Leonardo DiCaprio being clawed by a bear in the wilderness—though the bear is female.

That's not to say that all Best Picture winners don't feature female leads. But the number of movies in which non-scantily clad women call the shots, lead the story or don't act as devices to further the male-centric plot, are sadly scant. Newsweek crunched the numbers, and they were more depressing than Leo crawling out of a bear trap for his long-awaited Oscar.

So historically are there any actually empowering Best Picture winners, or ones featuring women overcoming anything at all? We counted 14.

Million Dollar Baby (2005)

Hollywood veteran Clint Eastwood—touted by IMDB as "the icon of macho movie stars"—took an unprecedented leap with the female-fronted adversity tale Million Dollar Baby . Hilary Swank plays Maggie Fitzgerald, an amateur boxer hell-bent on going pro, that has to prove herself to old-timer boxing trainer Frankie Dunn (Eastwood). The tale is a victory for women everywhere, and a universal one that beat out male-centric films The Aviator, Ray, Sideways and Finding Neverland for the Best Picture award that year.

Chicago (2003)

Sex, murder and jailbreak run rampant in Chicago, the 2002 musical that swept the Academy Awards the following year. But the people who really run Chicago are women: Renee Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones, who play a thirsty dancer and the murdering nightclub singer Velma Kelly, respectively. Not to mention the warden Mama Morton, played by a lascivious and excellent Queen Latifah. Richard Gere doesn't even hold a candle to these three, who sashay, sing and dance their way to revenge and respect in this musical adaptation.

Titanic (1998)

The ballad of Jack and Rose continues to live on in infamy nearly 20 years after Titanic floated the American box office, reeling in $28,638,131 opening weekend in the U.S. alone. But it was Kate Winslet's turn as the quietly powerful Rose—who chooses loving the working-class Jack (Leonardo Dicaprio, who will one day get that Oscar) over aristocracy on a rapidly sinking ship—is what sticks with us two decades later. This nod to strong-willed women everywhere trumped the likes of L.A. Confidential, Good Will Hunting, As Good as It Gets and The Full Monty, which—surprise—are all about the boys!

The Silence of the Lambs (1992)

Anthony Hopkins has less than 17 minutes of screen time total in The Silence of the Lambs , but he continues to stalk our nightmares as the unblinking, cannibalistic serial killer Hannibal Lecter. Still, it's Jodie Foster's turn as the ambitious FBI cadet Clarice Starling that cements this movie, as she overcomes fear, doubt and terror to form a bizarre bond with Lecter. Foster without a doubt cemented the film as one of the most terrifying Best Picture winners of all time. It's certainly more compelling than the other films nominated for Best Picture that year, which included the likes of Oliver Stone's JFK and Disney's Beauty and the Beast.

Driving Miss Daisy (1990)

In Driving Miss Daisy, the eponymous lead character Daisy Werthan (Jessica Tandy) must overcome her prejudices when she's assigned a black driver named Hoke Colburn (Morgan Freeman). This one was an upset Best Picture, beating out that paean to the liberal arts boy, Dead Poets Society, and the made-your-dad-cry sports flick Field of Dreams.

Out of Africa (1986)

Astonishingly, a woman is not used as a device or as the throwaway love interest of a man in Out of Africa, and the female lead instead grapples with romance on her own terms in this adaptation of Karen Blixen's novel of the same name. Meryl Streep plays a baroness, Karen Dinesen, who disregards her philandering, drinking husband Bor and becomes entangled with hunter Denys (Robert Redford). This one's a slow-burner that hasn't exactly aged well, but putting Karen's story at the forefront makes it significant in the Best Picture canon all the same.

Terms of Endearment (1984)

Shirley MacLaine and Debra Winger play a mother and daughter, respectively, who work together (even while almost clawing each other's' eyes out) to overcome illness and dysfunction in James L. Brooks' highly-praised directorial debut. Bonus points go to Brooks and Larry McMurtry for the film's whip-smart script, which portrays mother-daughter relationships in all of their fraught, fantastic glory.

The Sound of Music (1966)

The beloved movie musical follows Maria (played by the radiant Julie Andrews) after she's sent away from her convent for skipping through the rolling Austrian hills while singing. Harsh! She begins working as a governess for the seven Von Brat—sorry, Von Trapp children. Through being a generally wonderful person who demands respect, she eventually gets the children's undying adoration and even snags a new beau in the process—all while outsmarting Nazis! No wonder it bested other Best Picture contenders that year, most notably Doctor Zhivago.

My Fair Lady (1965)

Amazingly, this musical adaptation beat out Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove (and another tale of a headstrong woman, Mary Poppins) to take the Oscars' top prize in 1965. But this tale of reinvention captivated audience members' hearts, and has since become iconic thanks to Audrey Hepburn's plucky Eliza, and also probably Eliza's fantastic hats.

Gigi (1959)

At first glance, this film appears to be the story of Parisian reveler Honoré Lachaille, played by Maurice Chevalier. But Gigi surprises—especially for its time—in that it brings girls to the front. Leslie Caron, who plays its eponymous and mischievous leading lady, trained from birth to be a mistress, is brash and unapologetic, and she sings boozy numbers like "The Night They Invented Champagne."

All About Eve (1951)

It's all about the underdog cunningly using her smarts to become top dog in All About Eve . Anne Baxter plays Eve Harrington, a wannabe actress who cozies up to Broadway mainstay Margo Channing (Bette Davis) and eventually tries to usurp her. Having not one but two female leads dominate a lady-driven film was unusual in the 1950s, and its win was hard-won, since it was up against the likes of Father of the Bride and Sunset Boulevard.

Mrs. Miniver (1943)

Though the talkies had been around for less than 20 years by 1943, there were a whopping 10 Best Picture nominees that year, including Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons and Broadway favorite The Talk of the Town . But the wartime flick Mrs. Miniver took home the coveted Best Picture prize that night, and while it's a bit outdated, it's not hard to see why the Greer Garson-led film, which is about struggling with changes on the British home front during World War II, resonated with audiences at home who also found themselves grappling with wartime-propelled confusion and anxiety.

Rebecca (1940)

One of Alfred Hitchcock's lesser-known smashes, Rebecca , is an adaptation of the novel nearly everyone read in high school. It's about a bride-to-be who's haunted by her future husband's first wife, Rebecca, who died under conspicuous circumstances. The psychological drama, helmed by Joan Fontaine, is so riveting that even leading man Laurence Olivier is overshadowed.

It Happened One Night (1934)

Frank Capra's It Happened One Night holds several distinctions in Hollywood: First off, it won all five major Academy Awards in 1935, and it's largely responsible for the invention of the "screwball comedy" genre. It's also the very first lady-driven Best Picture winner, in that it follows Ellie (Claudette Colbert), a bratty heiress who embarks on an adventure after escaping her father's clutches and eventually meets Peter Warne (Clark Gable), a newspaper man who she couldn't be more wrong for. Thankfully, Capra gets it right.

How Many Best Picture Winners Are About Women, Really? | Culture