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Aaron Sorkin is right. Women don’t get as many opportunities in Hollywood.

Scarlett Johansson was everywhere in 2014, and she was always terrific.
Scarlett Johansson was everywhere in 2014, and she was always terrific.
Universal Pictures
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

The latest celebrity to stick their foot in it in an email leaked from the Sony hack is Oscar- and Emmy-winning writer Aaron Sorkin.

Sorkin's email was to the New York Times' Maureen Dowd. In it, he seems to be saying women just don't have the ability to turn in as great of performances as men.

In the email, which was initially uncovered by The Daily Beast, Sorkin writes:

That's why year in and year out, the guy who wins the Oscar for Best Actor has a much higher bar to clear than the woman who wins Best Actress. ... Cate gave a terrific performance in Blue Jasmine but nothing close to the degree of difficulty for any of the five Best Actor nominees. Daniel Day-Lewis had to give the performance he gave in Lincoln to win — Jennifer Lawrence won for Silver Linings Playbook, in which she did what a professional actress is supposed to be able to do. Colin Firth/Natalie Portman. Phil Hoffman had to transform himself into Truman Capote while Julia Roberts won for being brassy in Erin Brockovich. Sandra Bullock won for The Blind Side and Al Pacino lost for both Godfather movies. Helen Mirren and Meryl Streep can play with the boys but there just aren't that many tour-de-force roles out there for women.

What Sorkin is talking about — albeit clumsily — isn't that women don't have acting ability. He's saying they don't have the opportunities men have in Hollywood. Which is true!

Roles for women in Hollywood often are less impressive than roles for men, largely because studio executives continue to believe people won't go to see movies where women are the sole leads, all evidence to the contrary. This means that the Oscars often come down to a fleet of Best Actor candidates who were the unquestioned protagonists of their films, then a smaller number of Best Actress candidates, who either starred in films notable solely for their performances or films where they still played a subordinate role to a man. (One exception to this is Blanchett, who was the unquestioned lead of a critically acclaimed film that made money. So it's a bit weird Sorkin chooses her to make his point.)

Sorkin's a smart guy, and he almost certainly knew about these structural realities of the Hollywood machine. But his email still makes it sound as if he simply didn't see any great roles for women in movie theaters. And that's just not true at all. He — and the Oscars — just have to look further afield than mainstream releases. They have to turn, most of the time, to the world of indie film.

Here are seven great parts played by women eligible for the Oscar, in this year, who will probably be passed over for a nomination because this year's field is so rich. Let me repeat that: it's highly unlikely any of these seven women will be nominated, because there were so many great roles for actresses in films as diverse as Gone Girl and Wild and Still Alice. Aaron Sorkin may not see lots of great roles for women, but they're there. They're just mostly in indies.

Marion Cotillard in The Immigrant and Two Days, One Night

Cotillard, who already has an Oscar for her work in La Vie En Rose, is one of the best actresses of her generation, able to convey so much with a mere raise of her eyebrows or quirk of her lips. Her two very different 2014 performances allowed her to go big — in the sweeping, turn of the century tale The Immigrant — or very small — in Two Days, One Night, where she must convince her coworkers to save her job, in a scenario that's deeply contrived but finds a kind of ferocious veracity in her work.

Essie Davis in The Babadook

Oscar rarely pays attention to performances in horror films (as does, we presume, Aaron Sorkin), but it should make an exception for Davis's ferocious work as a single mother who suspects her son is being stalked by a strange, fairy tale monster who invaded her home via a children's book. It's an unhinged, unrestrained performance, and one of the best portrayals of a mother who cannot connect with her child in recent memory.

Scarlett Johansson in, well, everything

This was truly the year of Scarlett Johansson, an actress often written off as just a bombshell who, nonetheless, possesses a deeply alien quality she uses to her advantage in her best film work. Her most-seen work was as the best big-screen superheroine yet in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but she might have been at her best with her hugely eerie work as an alien landed on Earth in Under the Skin. She finished it all off as a ditzy young woman who transcends space and time in the hugely weird but entertaining Lucy.

Keira Knightley in Begin Again

Begin Again is a bit of a mess of a movie, held together primarily by great singing and great acting. But Knightley is a living reminder of how interesting her career has been since she escaped the overbearing yoke of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Here, she sings, she smiles, and she makes an engaging heroine in a film that desperately needs one. Knightley is so free and easy onscreen that it's easy to forget how good she can be.

Elisabeth Moss in The One I Love

There was a time when this sort of performance would have been an easy Oscar nomination, even if the movie it was in loses its way in the third act (as The One I Love does). Moss gets to play two different characters, who occasionally share screentime. The film's wacky conceit — a couple on a getaway to rekindle their marriage encounter doppelgangers of themselves — allows for her to play both the fresh-faced innocent at the start of a relationship and the woman hardened by everything her marriage has become, sometimes in the same scene.

Rene Russo in Nightcrawler

Russo is being campaigned as a supporting player for this film, and that's probably technically accurate. But her work as Nina, an exhausted local news producer at the very bottom rung of the ladder and desperately trying to hold on, gives this incredibly entertaining, incredibly seedy look at late-night Los Angeles so much of its moral weight. Without Russo, this film simply wouldn't work. There's no better compliment you can pay an actor than that.

Jenny Slate in Obvious Child

Though quickly written off as a romantic comedy about abortion, Obvious Child snuck in a great deal of meaningful consideration of what it means to be in one's late 20s or early 30s, slowly realizing that the life you've stumbled into is the life you're going to lead. Central to that was Slate, who created a romcom heroine for the ages, one who may not know what she wants to do with her life but realizes what she wants to do with her unplanned pregnancy, even if she's starting to fall for the baby's father. Let's see Daniel Day Lewis do all of that.

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