Ten years ago, on the same evening that Sidney Poitier was presented with an award for lifetime achievement, Denzel Washington and Halle Berry won Academy Awards for their respective leading roles in Training Day and Monster’s Ball. Though I had mixed feelings about their stereotypical roles –Berry as a tragic, dependent sex object and Washington’s portrayal of a corrupt cop – I still enjoyed seeing them honored. In particular, despite the overly exuberant presence of Julia Roberts, Washington’s acceptance speech is what made the evening memorable for me. Perhaps I’m being too hard on Roberts. After all, given the same opportunity, I too would have draped myself all over Washington like a cheap suit.
“Two birds in one night, huh?” – Denzel Washington
Washington began his acceptance speech by referencing Berry who had just won. Unlike Berry who was tearfully grateful, Washington was cool, confident and in control. Washington’s manner indicated that he recognized his self worth and talent with or without the award. The only emotion Washington showed was his acknowledgement of Poitier who looked on proudly. Maybe Washington’s previous disappointments with Malcolm X and Hurricane tempered his enthusiasm and expectations. Perhaps he had come to realize that actors are not always recognized for their most outstanding roles. Or it’s possible that Washington chose to keep his real feelings private. Whatever the reason, Washington showed a healthy respect for the award without appearing to need its validation.
With the Academy Awards about to begin shortly, I find myself emotionally torn once again. I am rooting for Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer to be recognized for their fine work while hating The Help, a film that trivializes the pervasive evil of America’s racism. Will there be another memorable moment tonight? I’ll be watching and hoping…
“And the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true…” – lyrics from “Over the Rainbow”
In a highly ironic and revelatory twist, the 83rd Academy Awards concluded with a performance of “Over the Rainbow” by Staten Island’s PS 22 Chorus. At first glance, it appeared that the Oscars and the film industry valued youth and ethnic diversity. However, with nary a person of color honored and The King’s Speech as the night’s big winner, that carefully presented picture of inclusion was nothing more than an illusion. While some viewers gushed over the chorus’s “inspirational” performance, all I saw were white honorees smiling down benevolently at the group of predominantly Black and Latino singers. Once again, I was reminded how little the Oscars and the film industry have progressed in regards to diversity.
“You look very appealing to a younger demographic.” – Anne Hathaway
Attempting to boost sagging ratings by attracting a younger audience, the best picture nominees were expanded from five to 10 in 2009. The rationale was that more viewers would watch if popular films (translation: box office mega hits like The Hangover) were contenders for the top prize. Demographics and ratings also influenced the selection of Anne Hathaway and James Franco as this year’s co-hosts. The Social Network emerged as an early frontrunner for best picture. However, reminiscent of the old bait-and-switch, The King’s Speech – a 1930’s period drama about Great Britain’s royalty (white, privileged and beyond wealthy) – triumphed over the more contemporary and youth-driven Inception and The Social Network. Viewers who tuned in expecting a youth-oriented program discovered instead that it was business as usual. The values and preferences of the Academy’s older voters prevailed.
“When they first came to me and said that they wanted me to present the award for best picture, my first reaction was to say, No! I’m not going because they have not recognized Black people in the motion picture industry.” – Eddie Murphy
I remember watching the Oscars that night in 1988 and feeling very bored and disconnected. Two things prevented me from channel surfing – the misplaced remote control and my comfortable chair. Instead I flipped through magazines as the show dragged on and on. Then Eddie Murphy came out to present the Best Picture Oscar and took the show to another level. Crackin’ and fackin’ – mixing humor and truth – Murphy broke from the script and shared why he was reluctant to be there. Suddenly, I felt better. Not only did Murphy say something I could relate to, he had the audacity to express it at the program’s climactic moment. His comments, particularly the timing, drew some criticism, but Murphy gained my deep admiration for his truthfulness.
“[My manager] said, ‘What are you talking about? Black people win Oscars.’ I said Black actors and actresses have won Oscars throughout the 60 years. Hattie McDaniel won the first one. Then Sidney Poitier won one and Lou Gossett won one…” – Eddie Murphy
Although additional black actors have won Oscars over the last 23 years, not much has changed systemically regarding diversity and how movies are green lighted. Similar to the suggested influence of youth, ethnic diversity in the film industry is superficial. Blacks and other minorities are still often portrayed stereotypically and/or in limited ways – when they’re visible, that is. There were no people of color – insignificant or otherwise – to be found anywhere in The King’s Speech or among the nominees this year. Instead the children from PS 22 were brought out to sing about rainbows and infinite possibilities. The message was loud and clear: Hollywood prefers to look inclusive without actually being that way.
This year’s memorial homage to Lena Horne also reflected the film industry’s brand of diversity. During Horne’s heyday in the 1940’s, her musical numbers were filmed as segments that could be easily removed for segregated southern audiences without affecting the plot of the movie. In other words, though Horne was in the movie, she was not an integral part. Lena Horne’s isolation continued as she was “honored” individually with an introduction by a very grateful Halle Berry. Horne was praised for her perseverance; however, a real tribute would have acknowledged the racial discrimination that Horne and other actors of color endured. Instead of compensating for the unfulfilled potential of Horne’s film career, the tribute demonstrated the industry’s denial and/or unwillingness to address its inequities.
“And I’ll probably never win an Oscar for saying this, but, hey, what the heck. I’ve got to say it. Actually, I may not be in trouble because the way it’s been going, we get one about every 20 years. So we ain’t due for one until about 2004, so this may all be blown over.” – Eddie Murphy
What will it take to see genuine diversity in Hollywood? Change will not happen voluntarily or by moral persuasion. Nor does the film industry take kindly to any type of critique. Eddie Murphy was the front-runner for his 2006 supporting performance in Dreamgirls – having won all the major awards up to that point. When his name was not pulled from the sacred envelope, many blamed the apparent snub on the ill-timed release of Norbit. While Norbit didn’t help, I believe it was his candid observations back in 1988 that kept the golden statuette out of his grasp. Murphy was well aware that his remarks could affect his chances of ever winning an Oscar, however, he underestimated how long it would take for it to be “blown over.”
“I have no regard for that kind of ceremony. I just don’t think they know what they’re doing. When you see who wins those things – or doesn’t win them – you can see how meaningless this Oscar thing is.” – Woody Allen
Will I watch the Oscars again next year? Probably. Old habits die hard. I won’t be watching to see what or who is considered the best. Those are decisions I can make for myself. We are all capable of making those choices. My interest in watching will be what’s going on in the film industry in regards to trends, innovations and political maneuvering. I confess there’s a part of me that still hopes for some progressive changes. However, I know better than to hold my breath.
“You know who should have won. My friends can’t be straight with me! It was rigged. That’s like family. They can’t give it to… a stranger!”
Tony Manero in Saturday Night Fever
During a pivotal scene in Saturday Night Fever, Tony Manero (John Travolta) realized that his dance contest victory was more about popularity than performance. Tony was a great dancer, but he knew he had been out danced on that particular night. His friends, however, were not that objective. They voted based on how they felt about Tony. His preferential treatment – though fictional – exemplifies how the Oscars sometimes determines its “best.” It is not always about the quality of the work. At times, in addition to popularity, the determining factors include sentiment and compensation.
As an avid observer of the Oscars for many years, I have experienced countless moments of disbelief. The first one occurred during the 1974 Best Actor contest when Art Carney won for his role in Harry and Tonto against a field that included Jack Nicholson (Chinatown) and Al Pacino (The Godfather Part II). No doubt Carney, a comedic actor and older than his fellow nominees, was the sentimental favorite. The unlikely win by Carney provided a more compelling narrative: “Honeymooners” star conquers drama with Best Actor win! I’m sure the voters also felt that Pacino and Nicholson, unlike Carney, would have more opportunities to be nominated and eventually win. Nicholson would go on to win the following year, and Pacino would finally win in the early 90’s (more on that later).
Another compelling narrative that has been irresistible to Academy voters is: Actor triumphs in directing debut! Such was the case with Robert Redford in 1981 and Kevin Costner in 1990. Ironically, both wins came at the expense of Martin Scorsese’s superior work in Raging Bull and Goodfellas, respectively. Even though Ordinary People is a fine movie that survives the test of time, there is no way it should have topped Martin Scorsese and Raging Bull in the Directing and Best Picture categories. The same is especially true for the woefully overrated Dances With Wolves in regards to Goodfellas.
Then there is what I like to call the “make-up” Oscar which is used to compensate an actor for his or her body of work. As much as I love Pacino, his 1992 Best Actor Oscar was more about recognizing the sum total of his remarkable career, which includes The Godfather and Dog Day Afternoon, than his over-the-top performance in Scent of a Woman. Many – and I include myself in that number – felt that Pacino’s Oscar came at the expense of Denzel Washington’s extraordinary turn in Malcolm X. Perhaps Washington’s loss was meant as a slap to Spike Lee, an outspoken Hollywood outsider, or due to the controversial title character.
Nine years later, however, Washington won the Best Actor Oscar for his 2001 performance in Training Day. Yes, it was fun seeing Washington play the bad guy, but based on what I’ve seen of him during interviews and by his own admission, Washington’s performance, ad-libs and all, was not much of a departure from his actual personality. Nevertheless, the Academy did not miss the opportunity to compensate Washington for Malcolm X while at the same time punishing that year’s frontrunner, Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind, for behaving “badly” at a movie awards show in Great Britain. Crowe’s Oscar snub was made even more obvious when the film he starred in took home the major awards.
I began this blog more than a month ago as the 2010 movie awards season culminated with the Academy Awards (informally known as the Oscars). The working title was If I Produced the Oscars,and my intent was to critique the overall quality of the awards ceremony with suggestions to make it more efficient and entertaining. However, after watching the program and frustrated attempts to blog on the aforementioned topic, it dawned on me that the Oscars and the film industry are two sides of the same coin. Consequently, a critique of one is applicable to the other, which raises the following question: What do the Oscars reveal about the Hollywood film industry and vice versa? This will be examined over the next few weeks in a three-part series: Part One: Revenge of the Nerds; Part Two: All in the Family; and Part Three: The Illusion of Inclusion.
“Congratulations, nerds.” — James Franco
As co-host of the Oscars this year, Franco’s attempt at humor revealed much about the film industry’s priorities. When founded in 1928, the Oscar’s stated purpose was to acknowledge the excellence of professionals in the film industry. However, the Oscars, with all its related pomp and pageantry, became more of a popularity contest and fashion show for movie stars than a way to recognize worthy accomplishments. Eighty-three years later, little has changed. Those who work in front of the camera are the focus of adoration, as evidenced by the most frequently asked question of the evening: “Who are you wearing?” Meanwhile, the “nerds,” who are responsible for the film industry’s scientific and technical innovations, are barely acknowledged. Their participation is reduced to a brief video recap of a previously held awards ceremony. Like those relegated to the kiddie table, the scientific and technical honorees are to be seen (barely) and not heard.
This apparent disregard for the visionaries who operate behind the scenes also reflects the film industry’s overall resistance to change and taking risks. For example, when The Jazz Singer, the first talking picture, was released in 1927, it was excluded from the Oscar’s Best Picture contest. The given reason was that it shouldn’t compete with silent films. The film’s technological breakthrough was of no consideration. However, it was not until The Jazz Singer created such a sensation (translation: made lots of money) that the industry took notice and transitioned to talking pictures. A great deal of the film industry’s progress and modifications – impacted in the past by television and more recently by digital technology and streaming media – continue to be made under duress.