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For anyone fascinated by Hollywood's innermost workings, the hacked cache of emails from Sony Pictures has come as an early Christmas present.

For anyone fascinated by Hollywood's innermost workings, the hacked cache of emails from Sony Pictures has come as an early Christmas present.

From the e-monstering of Angelina Jolie by Amy Pascal, the studio's co-chairman, and one of its most successful producers Scott Rudin to the same duo's racially inflected joshing about a breakfast meeting with Barack Obama ("Should I ask him if he liked Django Unchained?"), the trove seems to bear out every last grubby suspicion about the upper echelons of the American movie business.

The messages are somehow both incredibly trivial and incredibly damaging: of course they were never meant for publication, and much of the coverage has been a scramble to find the most humiliating snipe or barb, regardless of its newsworthiness. But perhaps the disaster will spur, or embarrass, the industry into reflecting on some of its more ingrained practices.

A valuable case in point is the leaked email from Aaron Sorkin, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of The Social Network and A Few Good Men, to New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd about the relative "difficulty" of male and female roles in the Oscar race.

terrific

"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," he wrote. "Cate (Blanchett) 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."

Sorkin went on to unfavourably compare the performance of Colin Firth in The King's Speech and Natalie Portman in Black Swan, and also Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote and Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich.

"Sandra Bullock won for The Blind Side and Al Pacino lost for both Godfather movies," Sorkin continued. "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."

Let's set aside the oddness of picking out Natalie Portman's skin-flaying turn in Black Swan as an example of "easy" acting and look at the bigger picture. Sorkin is right to point out that we're routinely less impressed by the work of actresses than actors, but he reaches the conclusion via two enormous mistakes.

The first is that the most admirable thing about any given performance in a film is its "difficulty": a lasting hangover from the heyday of Method, in which we rejoice when Daniel Day-Lewis teaches himself Czech while preparing for The Unbearable Lightness of Being, even though the film was in English. Perhaps because of lingering suspicions that the life of a film actor is an easy one, it's delicious to audiences when performers have to suffer for a role, either physically or mentally, or ideally both.

shrivelling

Robert De Niro pioneered it, shrivelling and then ballooning for Raging Bull. Christian Bale has built a career on it. Earlier this year, Matthew McConaughey was the latest in a procession of actors to win an Oscar for it.

What Sorkin doesn't seem to appreciate is that making acting look easy is skull-splittingly difficult. On the set of buddy cop drama The Heat, Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy turned up every morning, were painfully funny for hours on the trot and then went home to bed. Effortlessness is the opposite of easiness. That applies to more conventionally "award-worthy" films too: if Frances McDormand can win an Oscar for Fargo without shadowing a Minnesotan police chief for three years, then surely she deserves all the more credit for that.

Sorkin's other mistake is not following his argument to conclusion. Elsewhere in his email he mentions the relative lack of "Bridesmaids-quality scripts": the raw material, in other words, is lacking. As a multi-award-winning screenwriter, you'd think Sorkin might be in a position to do something about this. What's stopping him - and, for that matter, everyone else - from writing films about women?

One possible reason is the business's entrenched queasiness over actresses changing themselves like actors - they have to be elegant, beautiful and cryogenically gorgeous - despite oodles of evidence, from Charlize Theron in Monster to Cameron Diaz in Being John Malkovich and Mariah Carey in Precious, that runs to the contrary.

When I interviewed Melissa McCarthy last year, she told me: "At some point, it was decided that women in comedy are never supposed to be shown in an unflattering light. But in comedy, you need to be able to look ugly, and act ugly, and be an a**hole, and then come grovelling back. So when actresses are cleaned up to the point that they look perfect, and dress perfect, and never act inappropriately, and never say the wrong thing, you've taken away every tool.

"And then they're told: 'And now be funny'. Well, no wonder so many comic roles for women are just a wife standing there with her hands on her hips and sighing, 'Oh, Jim'."

Sorkin must surely realise there are more than enough great actresses. Hollywood scriptwriters - just have to allow them to be great.


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