There's something I've been realizing more of late, and it's an answer to a question I've had for many years. Why do I tend to like women's roles so much less than mens? The answer, I think, is pretty well exemplified by the nominees this year.
The lead actors are nearly all men of power or at the top of their craft. Javier Bardem's character had a certain amount of power but almost falls out of this. Other than that, we have a billionaire, a king, one of the best U.S. Marshalls and an exceptional outdoorsman. I think it's fairly common for men's roles to be about their craft or an adventure they embark on (Bridges and Franco here as well). Despite this commonality in character, I don't feel like their craft defines them. Firth was a million things more than a King. He was a man with a stutter. Franco and Bardem were men facing death hoping to console their families.
The women on the other hand are almost exclusively maternal. With the exception of Portman, they are all defined by their maternity and family roles. Benning is a mom and a spouse of a cheating partner. Lawrence is a stand-in mother trying to save her home so her family has something. Kidman is trying to come to grips with the loss of her child. Even Williams is trying to manage a family with an abusive husband. Portman has that family wrinkle, but that's all it is - a wrinkle. Her role is about her craft, much like the aforementioned male roles. Portman, though, is defined more by her craft than the men tend to be.
I think this generally holds less true with supporting positions. Even still, for the actors you have Renner, Rush and Bale as craftsmen. For the actresses Weaver, Carter and Leo are career family women.
While the men are characters defined by different things but wrinkled by their craft, the women are people defined by their families and wrinkled by different things. The male characters are different. They have that similar wrinkle, but that's all it is. The female characters are more human, and thus probably more relateable, but I feel like there are only so many ways the motherhood role can be wrinkled and kept interesting. I think this is definitely partly why Portman and Steinfeld were strong runners up for me in each of their categories.
This is by no means to say that motherhood is uninteresting or to say that women are bad at acting. I think that had Hailee Steinfeld's character been a wife instead of a daughter and played by Kidman or Williams, it would have been out of the park. Jacki Weaver as a mother was out of the park. I just think that you can only revisit and twist the same basic role so many times. I also have concern with the fact that I honestly liked Aaron Ekhart (opposite Kidman) and Ryan Gosling (opposite Williams) at least as much as I did the actresses in their respective films. I almost feel like instead of the magic negro, we have a similarly tired role in the maternal woman. Lucky for her, she's getting nominated for Academy Awards.