2001 will always be remembered as the year the first black actress won in the lead category. It wasn’t just that, though. Both Halle Berry and Denzel Washington won that night. Here we are, an unbelievable twelve years later and no black actress has come close, save Viola Davis – whose part just wasn’t big enough, whose wasn’t naked enough, and who wasn’t Meryl Streep. I’m all for giving Meryl Streep all of the Oscars. I think she’s the best actor, male or female, currently working in Hollywood or maybe ever. I am dazzled by her work in August: Osage County — and it’s hard to believe that woman is the same one who was in The Devil Wears Prada and Julie and Julia. That she’d only won two Oscars was shameful, considering. And yet…readers grouse about my bringing this up – well, you should have been around in 2001, when Halle Berry and Denzel Washington were in the Oscar race. You think it’s bad now, my friends.
I will say this – the complaints usually start with “it should be about the work.” And that’s partly true. But you have you have remove yourself from the small picture and look at the big picture. The work is about opportunity, subject matter, and public interest. What drives those things determines who gets to try their hand at the great parts. We’re not quite at the place where Hollywood feels free to cast actors in a way that ignores race. Black actors still have to play black parts in films that tell black stories. Those films, as it turns out, almost always have to carry the burden of being both politically correct, not insulting to the black community and not insulting to the white community, plus appealing to the, let’s face it, almost exclusively white community of critics. Those stories have to be universal enough to appeal across the board. It just doesn’t happen, my friends. I always get the angry resistance to affirmative action having a place in a film awards race. Nobody should win “because they are black.” I’ll go along with that as long as we can also agree that people don’t get all of the great roles because they are white.
The status quo is way too easy to sink into, particularly when many of my friends on Twitter howl with fury when I dare bring up race — don’t harsh my mellow, or don’t make this a race issue, or we like what we like – none of that matters because it continues to perpetuate a pattern that has been set in Hollywood since it’s beginning: black characters must be kept in their place – white character rule the day.
That Halle Berry was and remains the first and only black actress ever to win in lead is simply unacceptable. I shouldn’t be the only one writing about the Oscars who brings this up. It is glaringly obvious, as is the collective irritation by critics, and Oscar voters. If discomfort and irritation is the only price they pay, I say, that’s nothing by comparison.
On to Best Picture, there were three films vying for the big prize. A Beautiful Mind, Fellowship of the Ring and Moulin Rouge. A few Oscar pundits lost their minds that year and predicted Moulin Rouge to win Best Picture. But the first thirty minutes of that film made winning impossible. I learned my first hard lesson about how the Oscars work versus how the public thinks they work when I was sitting around a table at a meeting for something entirely unrelated to the Oscars. Everyone at the table was convinced Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring was going to win. No, I told them. It will be A Beautiful Mind, and I laid out the reasons why. The same thing happened in 2009 when it was Avatar versus The Hurt Locker. Everyone thought Avatar was going to win. What people “out there” don’t understand about the Oscar voters is that they are resisting, with every bone in their bodies, the evolving film industry towards big budget effects films. They want it to be how it’s been for the past 80 years — nuts and bolts filmmaking with real actors, real scripts, stories about regular people. Any whiff of fantasy and they reject it out of hand. Gravity will test that theory this year.
Russell Crowe had an incident at the BAFTAS where he had a kind of drunken hissy fit backstage. The story went public and it cost Crowe the Oscar, which went to Denzel Washington instead. Berry’s main competition that year was mainly Sissy Spacek for In the Bedroom. Or maybe Nicole Kidman for Moulin Rouge, both are wonderful performances. But Berry not only gave a great performance but also made history. The next time you hear someone say “it should be about the work” remember that it isn’t about that at all; it’s about opportunity. Winning Oscars means opportunity, even if they sometimes don’t really promise a career like Meryl Streep’s. Why do you suppose there are so many great Best Actor performances this year? Because that is really what it’s all about right now. The opportunities are infinite where white male actors are concerned in 2013. Opportunities for women, black or white or hispanic or asian are fewer and fewer.
I remember 2001 very well. So many great movies from that year – Mulholland Drive (which might have really been the best film of the year0, Memento, which launched Christopher Nolan, AI and No Man’s Land. We’ll be talking about this year some time this weekend. Questions or comments welcome.
Apologies for all of the delays with the podcast – in the busy season it’s difficult to get our schedules squared away.