Last month, a Page named Ellen turned out to be gay. This month, another out, gay Ellen helped turn a page.
With 12 Years a Slave’s win for Best Picture, Hollywood turns the page on a century of minimizing black filmmakers telling black stories. When Oscar had bothered to notice race in its Best Picture winners of the past, the person telling the story was inevitably a white man – the directors of Gone with the Wind, Driving Miss Daisy, Crash. Today is a new kind of Crash, and a welcome one.
If Hollywood puts up any banners to celebrate Gone with the Wind’s 75th anniversary this year, at least its companion piece is now set in stone one shelf over. Scarlett, Rhett and Melanie aren’t the only canonized version of the antebellum south anymore. Ellen Degeneres declared at the outset: “Possibility #1: 12 Years a Slave wins Best Picture. Possibility #2: You’re all racists.” This was just true enough to elicit major laughs, but just false enough to merit status as a joke. No, the Oscars could have made blacks wait for another 12 Years (ha ha), but let’s face it, Oscar voters haven’t exactly set the bar at Lawrence of Arabia heights lately. And that’s the other page that got turned, almost more importantly for close Oscar-watchers – as I wrote in another post, the last three winners have been relentlessly Show People, and that might have happened again had American Hustle managed to hustle a win. Even a Best Picture win for Gravity would have maintained the grousing that the Academy Awards have abandoned gravitas. But with 12YAS wearing the crown, the Oscars have proved that they’re still in the market for serious, slightly artsy, dare I say humanist epic films. Thanks Oscars, good to have you back.
In other news, American blacks didn’t ask to be brought here in chains, nor to have to fight for their civil rights years later. But blacks clearly produced some heroes along the way, so perhaps the Oscars were right to listen to some voice – David Bowie? Enrique Iglesias? Mariah Carey? Dave Grohl? – that told them they should do some “salute to heroes” this year. The montages to this effect were fine, though they did serve as useful reminders that we really shouldn’t allow Hollywood to tell us who is and isn’t a hero. But when you come up with one of these big themes, you’re still stuck with the people onstage to interpret it. That’s where things get sticky.
Put me down as loving Bette Midler singing “Wind Beneath My Wings.” She was doing gay clubs back when they were in the shadows, and they made her who she is, so yeah, that works. The song also connected well to most of the people in the “In Memoriam” montage. I even liked that they didn’t have her sing over the images of the recently deceased.
Ellen Degeneres can somewhat reasonably be called a hero, because back in the 90s, appearing on the cover of Time with a “Yep, I’m Gay” wasn’t something too many celebrities did. I guess the producers thought the presence of Ellen might tie the whole hero thing together. Instead, Ellen did what she could to rip it apart – well, more accurately, she tried to humanize the ceremony, tried to present, dare I say deconstruct, the people in the first few rows as “jus’ folks.” With pizza delivery and seat poaching she tried to communicate what U2 did much better as a song – in other words, to be or understand heroes, just open your heart to ordinary people and ordinary love. Well…I love Ellen extraordinarily, but I’m not sure it worked.
On one level, sure, Meryl, Sandra, Leo, Angelina, they’re just like us, see? But on another level, here’s a bunch of millionaires congratulating themselves as they lounge in a place we’ll never be, wearing clothes we can’t afford. When you see Harvey Weinstein and Brad Pitt chucking $100s in a hat to pay for the pizza, what do you really think? Ha ha, hey, this is just like when I passed the hat around a party and only a few people bothered to pony up? Or, ha ha, these guys can “make it rain” as easy as I squeeze a sponge, meanwhile I could have used Harvey’s throwaway scrilla to pay my rent? I’m not saying Ellen fatally miscalculated, but if she wanted to humanize our celluloid heroes, this was…hit and miss.
Still, points for trying something new. Much less forgivable was the constant use of her Samsung Galaxy, just before the next commercial break was announced with “The Oscars are brought to you by Samsung Galaxy!” When I wrote about smartphones on Friday, I was actually trying to avoid the subject of the Academy Awards; yet is there any other product – Aqua-Net? Coca-Cola? Isotoner gloves? – that you could hawk that often and that shamelessly and get less blowback for it? (Yes, I’m giving Ellen blowback here, but you won’t read that in too many other recaps.) Ellen may not be able to normalize A-list celebrities (or maybe she can; I think some people question their place in our lives), but smartphones are already so normalized that we’ve forgotten to question their crazily intimate places in our lives.
Then you have the winner’s speeches, some of which were absolutely lovely – and even rhymed, thank you, couple from Frozen! (Ain’t nobody begging Elton John or Randy Newman to come back and write some more Disney movie songs this morning.) Steve McQueen, who has spent this whole award season in a dignified stupor, finally let loose and jumped up and I think we all felt the relief! Alfonso Cuarón was terrific and heartfelt. Jared Leto and Lupita Nyong’o – awesome. And a reminder that Supporting Actors can be sumptuous wind beneath other, nuttier wings. God bless the brilliant talent that is Best Actress winner Cate Blanchett, but her first three statements were basically dumping on Hollywood! I quote, “Sit down, you’re too old to be standing. Thank you, Mr. Day-Lewis, from you, it exacerbates this…” I know she meant that he made the award better, but the Freudian slip was telling; on some level, being famous-fabulous is a tedious chore, right Cate? “…as random and subjective as this award is, it means a great deal.” I realize Blanchett meant nothing bad by any of this, and she certainly made some great points later about women’s films. It’s simply funny that on a night where a large group of pundits was waiting for her to throw Woody Allen under the bus, she instead began by throwing the town there. Nothing terrible, just a little atonal.
Far, far worse, and the opposite of heroic, was the Best Actor acceptance speech given by Matthew McConaughey. Had he given the exact same speech if he won Supporting Actor for Mud, I would have loved it as a free-wheeling look into the kooky life of a zen Texan who’s half-shamus, half-shaman. But to ignore Ron Woodroof AND any gay activists AND anyone who died of or fighting AIDS? The toxic combination here was Length + Major Engagement on Subject of Heroes + Ignoring Heroes Who Put You On That Stage. You can’t go on and on about your father’s food and drink choices in heaven and ignore the reason that you wouldn’t have won if you’d, say, switched roles with Leo DiCaprio in Wolf of Wall Street. When Hollywood takes on a subject like the real-life AIDS crisis, it both shines a light and tries to minimize anything that looks like exploitation. With that speech, McConaughey, who seems like a decent guy, makes it look like he just exploited Woodroof’s story to move up the A-list. Drama is in enough trouble in Hollywood; five more Oscar speeches like that, and Hollywood will give up on bio-pics altogether. Afterward, those “heroes” Oscar montages will look a little different.
But as a wonderful character said in The Big Lebowski, I’d rather shine a light than curse the darkness. Gravity deserved most of what it got, and that’s outta sight. The Independent Spirit Awards (given the night before) matched up with the Oscars as never before, and you have to love that. This year, the good guys won. As audiences we get to enjoy what all these amazing winners will do with their newfound clout. Results-wise, this may be the best Oscars since roughly 2007. Oh, and David O. Russell getting shut out? Somehow I see that as a win as well. He’s gonna come back even hungrier and even better. Hollywood shouldn’t be asked to provide heroes, but I do want to see its next Hustle.