People who don’t pay much attention to the Academy Awards might well have heard something about this being the Whitest Oscars since 1998. That meme conveniently defines diversity only in terms of the nominees for acting (not editing, sound, makeup, or what-have-you), and even then, only in terms of skin color – not nationality, not sexuality, not gender, not class circumstances. So the #oscarssowhite hashtag and meme gets discussed on all the “news” programs, joked about by all the late-night hosts, but do we ever get any follow-up about how the Academy Awards’ ceremony addressed that? If said follow-up fails to feed the Perpetual Outrage Machine? Of course not. Except here. So here you go.
Well, it’s not like anyone at last night’s Oscars, including its gay host, broke the news that all of this summer’s films would star only non-white people. No, there was nothing that big. Instead, the two lead acting prizes went to people (brilliantly) playing disability. As you might guess, there is an extant debate about perfectly abled actors putting on “disable-face” (you know, like blackface and redface) particularly to win awards, and as someone who (not by choice) is part of that community, let me say that anecdotally, the majority seems to feel that it very much depends – certain maladies, very much including ALS and Alzheimer’s, would be rather difficult, perhaps impossible, for their in-real-life sufferers to portray onscreen. As Julianne Moore put it onstage last night, “We were hopefully able to shine a light on Alzheimer’s…one of the wonderful things about movies is that it makes us feel seen and not alone.” Now, I don’t expect #oscarsshinealight to trend anywhere near as much as #oscarssowhite. But at least you, dear reader, know better.
Every Best Picture nominee went home with at least one Oscar last night, the first time that’s happened since they expanded the category six years ago, which says something about diversity, full stop. One of those was Selma, which won Best Song just after Common and John Legend brought the house to its feet – three separate times – with “Glory.” Imagine if another song had won, after the way they sequenced that? Imagine if the Oscar producers had chosen not to give each song its own performance, as they’ve been known to do? Imagine if Selma had been shut out last night? THEN you’d be hearing from some angry trending twitterers who’d in turn control the conversation on Kelly and Michael, The View, The Five, the Jimmys, Jon Stewart, etc. But since the Oscars recognized (a very deserving) Selma, you won’t hear anything about that, except here.
In another minor victory for pluralism, Graham Moore, the writer of The Imitation Game, in full recognition of tragedies attendant to Alan Turing’s life, likewise brought the audience to its feet when he spoke of his own teenage suicide attempt and then begged the next kid like him, “There is a place for people like you. I promise. Stay weird. Stay different. And someday you’ll be here and I hope you pass on this message to the next person.” At another point, Patricia Arquette entreated viewers toward wage equality and equal rights for all women.
Small beer, you might be thinking. Scraps off the table, perhaps. All right, here’s a bigger one that click-baiting sites won’t bother you with: last night Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu, writer-director-producer of Birdman, became the first non-white man, and only the seventh person (sixth, if you count the Coen Brothers as one person) to win Oscars for writing, directing, and producing a single film – joining Billy Wilder, Francis Ford Coppola, James L. Brooks, Peter Jackson, and Ethan Coen and Joel Coen. And Iñárritu is only the third to achieve this feat with an original screenplay, after Wilder and Brooks. (Iñárritu became the ninth person to win three Oscars in one night; the other two are Fran Walsh and James Cameron, whose three didn’t come in those exact three categories.) Not the most terrible list to be part of, right? (Strange thing, but based on and despite last night, I don’t think most of Hollywood, never mind America, is any closer to knowing how to pronounce “Iñárritu.”)
Throw in the fact that his non-white director of photography, Emmanuel (“El Chivo”) Lubeski, became the third person to win Best Cinematography two years in a row (Leon Shamroy and John Toll are the other two), and it might be time to stop comparing AMPAS to the Augusta National Golf Club. And another thing: no white, American-born man has won Best Director since the Coens seven years ago; since then the winners have been two Brits, a Frenchman, Kathryn Bigelow, Ang Lee, Alfonso Cuarón, and Iñárritu. Oh, but I forgot, we don’t care about the people who exercise final cut over movies unless we can accuse them of something sundry.
Look, as a larger issue, of course Hollywood needs to do more to support non-white-male talent. Of course it’s not a meritocracy; it’s still a lot easier to become a star if you look like Channing Tatum or Ryan Gosling than it is if you don’t. Sure. Yes. We all understood that truth within a week of the #oscarssowhite hashtag trending. But that doesn’t mean the Academy Awards are doing nothing.
The Perpetual Outrage Machine still controls click-bait; instead of what I’m talking about, today’s internet traffic reflects Sean Penn saying “Who gave this son of a bitch a green card?” as he announced that Iñárritu’s Birdman had won Best Picture. Even the redoubtable Matt Zoller Seitz, who edits Vulture, has two new books about Wes Anderson, and controls rogerebert.com, backed down from a tweet where he said “Do people know that Sean Penn won many awards for Iñárritu’s 21 GRAMS?” After enough people tweeted back that “green card” can’t go with humor about Mexicans, he tweeted “retracted.” So that’s where we are…sigh. Iñárritu can joke about new immigration laws (as he did, in his Best Picture acceptance speech), but Penn can’t. Yeah, and there’s no irony at all in Alan Turing’s life’s work becoming the P.O.M. Not a bit.
I don’t want this to sound like I celebrated Iñárritu for a token gesture, so let me finish with something else: Birdman might represent the sort of genius that America has long needed immigrants for. In the last week, at least three major Oscar-beat writers quoted Mark Harris’ observation, from two weeks ago, that Birdman stood to become the 3rd Best Picture in 4 years to be about show business (as though half the commenters on awardsdaily.com hadn’t made the same observation). Let’s continue with our since-the-Coens (No Country for Old Men, 2007) narrative and take Harris a step further. 5 of the last 7 Best Pictures have had third acts (the last 20-30 minutes of a movie) dedicated to their lead male Putting on a Show – Slumdog Millionaire (2008), The King’s Speech (2010), The Artist (2011), Argo (2012), and now Birdman (2014). 4 of the last 5 were about a white middle-aged man using that Show to resolve his midlife crisis. Harris sees Birdman as simply one more bead on a string of self-reflexive Best Pictures “looking inward”; is there be another way to read Iñárritu’s accomplishment?
Birdman (not my choice for Best Picture; I wanted Boyhood) is more than just another piece about performance; it is both the culmination of the trend Harris cites and a significant deconstruction of it. Onstage with his three co-writers (!), Iñárritu said that Birdman began as an idea three years ago. That’s appropriate; around that time, The Artist won Best Picture, which was a film that shined a light on showbiz in 1927, and Iñárritu’s film shines a light on showbiz in 2027, during the time after we’re finally done with our two-decade-long orgy of superhero films. What will we think of Hugh Jackman, Robert Downey Jr., and all the rest when they’re, uh, about as old as Michael Keaton is now? Will they have wasted their stardom? How would we prefer they use it? (Uh, and where were you guys when they came out with Prisoners and The Judge?) Though Riggan Thompson (Keaton) does seem to be having a midlife crisis, Keaton is actually 63; compared to the stars of the films that Harris (and others) lump him in with – Colin Firth, Jean Dujardin, and Ben Affleck – Keaton does represent a more “mature” take on some of the same themes. Think “mature” in terms of desperate for legacy before time runs out…and make no mistake, the movie industry is terrified of going the way of the music industry.
Ever spoken to someone who prefers a given writer’s memoirs to their fiction? Sure you have. Their point: so-and-so writer’s fiction is nice, but it’s nicer when she drops the pretense and just tells what’s happened to her. Alan Turing’s distant grandchild, the Web 2.0 which roughly began ten years ago, has in many ways become dedicated to the diffusion of “real” narratives – mommy-blogs, surveillance videos, twitter, pinterest, behind-the-scenes-on-fiction-shows (think Girls or Game of Thrones featurettes), et cetera. The message keeps coming back to writers, to everyone: Write What You Know, Show Us How You Live(d). (Never mind that some of your all-time favorite writers steadfastly ignored that advice; let’s not bother with that list here.) In such a decade, should it really be surprising that Hollywood (or at least AMPAS) is crouching behind, ahem, I mean, honoring narratives that are (however fictionalized) About How They Live(d)? And Birdman is arguably both a wallow and a clever comment, with its surveillance-video-like single-take that seems to say How Do We Get Out of This? Birdman is a crystal ball of thick wax, a summary of the industry’s problems and a portrait of how difficult they will be to overcome. And now that a chocolate-colored Mexican with a lovely thick accent has given us that message, can we get over the idea that such problems are only a matter of white privilege? Gracias.