The Big O: When Actresses Are Given Their Just Rewards – And It Feels So Good

nullTen screenwriting contenders, all men.

Eight best-picture nominees, each revolving around male characters.

Five directing slots, and no women allowed.

Oscar, you have done the ladies wrong.

It’s true this winter will not go down as one of the most female-friendliest awards seasons. But rather than simply dismiss 2014-15 as an “annus horribilis” when it comes to rewarding great women involved in the film industry, let’s look for reasons to cheer this Sunday night during the 87th Academy Awards.

And there is no better place to start than among the expected winners in the lead and supporting actress categories. 

Just as sports enthusiasts often have sentimental reasons for feeling especially gratified when a certain team wins, so do movie buffs when it comes to rooting for key players in Hollywood’s answer to the Super Bowl.

There will be few moments more satisfying for Oscar watchers than when the favorites in those categories, Julianne Moore in “Still Alice” and Patricia Arquette in “Boyhood,” actually hear their names being called out from the stage. That is because their potential wins go beyond simply celebrating a great performance.

Yes, Moore is typically splendid as a 50-year-old academic and mother who learns she is suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s. Alas, she outclasses her movie, which is a slight cut above a disease-of-the-week melodrama despite equally fine work by Kristen Stewart as Moore’s errant but ultimately loving daughter.

Notes Nell Minow, a film critic for Beliefnet.com whose reviews can be found at MovieMom.com, “Moore made an awards-bait part into something meaningful in its exquisite detail.”

But what will make a triumph for Moore even more satisfying is that the 54-year-old actress, who has been nominated four times before with no Oscar to show for her efforts (and probably should have had a fifth nod for 2010’s “The Kids Are All Right”), is considered long overdue. She hasn’t even been in the race since 2002.

Meanwhile, 46-year-old Arquette — a member of a high-profile acting clan who made her film debut in 1987’s “A Nightmare on Elm Street 3” — has never gotten the recognition she deserves for her standout roles in such films as 1993’s “True Romance,” 1994’s “Ed Wood,” and 1996’s “Flirting With Disaster.” She has been better served as the star of the TV series “Medium,” which aired for seven seasons starting in 2005 and won her an Emmy.

As for Arquette’s role in “Boyhood,” in which she plays a devoted mother determined to better her position in life, it is essentially a lead and probably the most substantial showcase for her talent that she has ever had. That alone practically assures that she will not go away empty handed.

“Arquette brought grace and honesty to the role of an ordinary woman who made good and bad choices as she aged, not in a Hollywood way but in a real way over 12 years,” Minow observes. “As they say in acting class, that is a commitment.”

And those who have followed the actress’s career over the years will applaud not just her win, but also that she is finally getting the credit she deserves in a part of a lifetime.

As Minow says of what are expected to be two of the highlights of the evening: “It will be extra satisfying to see both Moore and Arquette being recognized not for just these two extraordinary performances, but for decades of sensitive, precise, fearless work.”

Since 2000, there have been other instances when extraneous factors came into play to make a lead or supporting actress win all the more noteworthy. Here are six of the more satisfying victories of recent vintage.

1. Halle Berry, “Monster’s Ball” (2001). Berry’s portrayal of a struggling widow of an executed prisoner who unknowingly has a torrid affair with a guard involved in his death allowed her to enter the history books as the first black actress to win an Oscar for a lead role.

There weren’t too many dry eyes when she said in her impassioned acceptance speech, “Oh my God. I’m sorry. This moment is so much bigger than me. This moment is for Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll. It’s for the women that stand beside me — Jada Pinkett, Angela Bassett, and it’s for every nameless, faceless woman of color that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened.”

2. Nicole Kidman, “The Hours” (2002). If not for Berry, Kidman might have won in 2001 as the doomed cabaret singer and courtesan in the musical "Moulin Rouge!" And many felt she was unfairly overlooked years before by the Academy for her sly take on a lethally seductive TV weather girl in 1995’s “To Die For.”

But they couldn’t ignore her work as author Virginia Woolf in “The Hours.” Not when the Aussie actress emphasized her somber side by obscuring her beauty behind a fake nose. She also might have gained a few sympathy votes after all the tabloid accounts of her 2001 divorce from Tom Cruise, an event that she said “shocked” her. In any case, her lead win was definitely a popular, if weepy, one. As she said in her speech, “I have such appreciation and gratitude for this. Russell Crowe said don’t cry if you get up there, and now I’m crying. Sorry.”

3. Jennifer Hudson, “Dreamgirls” (2006). Who doesn’t love a Cinderella story?

After being unceremoniously booted off the third season of “American Idol” in the Top 7 round, a resolute Hudson picked herself up and made her movie debut as the tempestuous Effie White in the film version of the Broadway musical “Dreamgirls.” They probably started warming up the engraving machine for her supporting statuette the minute she hit the first note of the show’s show-stopping ballad, “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.” Movie audiences would often be moved to break into applause after the song ended on screen.

The overwhelmed Hudson managed to summon a speech that came from both her heart and soul: “Oh my God. I have to just take this moment in. I cannot believe this. Look what God can do. If my grandmother — I didn’t think I was going to win, but, wow, if my grandmother was here to see me now. She was my biggest inspiration for everything because she was a singer, and she had the passion for it but she never had the chance, and that was the thing that pushed me forward to continue.”

4. Kate Winslet, “The Reader” (2008). Talk about overdue. The “Titanic” actress was nominated five previous times, beginning with 1995’s “Sense and Sensibility,” before she took home the gold as an illiterate former Nazi prison guard who has a post-war affair with a much younger man and later faces trial for her past crimes.

Even Winslet’s most ardent admirers probably wouldn’t pick this performance as her crowning achievement. Or even her best that year, since she also impressed as a depressed 1950s suburban housewife in the midst of a breakdown in “Revolutionary Road.” Nonetheless, voters apparently thought it was about time that one of the best actresses of her generation should finally be honored.

Unlike her gushy Golden Globes speech, Winslet managed to hold it together while at the podium, even ending with a funny aside aimed at “Doubt’s” Meryl Streep, who was vying for a third Oscar on her 15th try: “I want to acknowledge my fellow nominees, these goddesses. I think we all can’t believe we’re in a category with Meryl Streep at all. I’m sorry, Meryl, but you have to just suck that up!”

5. Sandra Bullock, ”The Blind Side” (2009). Few would have guessed at the start of 2009 that Bullock, one of America’s sweethearts better known for romantic comedies than serious acting, would soon end up with an Oscar on her first attempt. Turns out, her multi-faceted portrayal of a driven upper-class Southern woman with a big heart who takes in an under-privileged high-school football player did indeed blindside the competition.

Between the family sports film and “The Proposal,” her summer comedy hit that same year, the actress was responsible for grossing $420 million domestically at the box office. If Hollywood didn’t adore Bullock before, they certainly did now.

And it felt so good to watch someone so likable collect all those accolades that awards season — especially when her other film that year, “All About Steve,” earned her a Razzie. She also knew how to start her speech on just the right comic note: “Did I really earn this, or did I just wear you all down?”

6. Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady (2011). Everyone thinks that the world’s greatest living actress must have a roomful of Oscars.

But up until she played British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in a biopic that earned mixed reviews, she had only won two: A supporting award for 1979’s “Kramer vs. Kramer” and a lead honor for 1982’s “Sophie’s Choice.” Instead, Streep — who broke the record for the most acting nominations at No. 13 when she was recognized for 2002’s “Adaptation” — finally won her third statuette on her 17th attempt. Basically, her 28-year losing streak had finally ended. Joy filled the theater that night.

“I really understand I’ll never be up here again,” Streep said then. But don’t count on it, since the actress has continued to be recognized by the Academy for her efforts. Nomination No. 19 arrived this year for her supporting part as the wily Witch in the musical “Into the Woods.” But even the mighty Meryl is unlikely to stand in the way of Arquette claiming her prize.