Oscar Post 1: Crown Thy Good with Girlhood, Anyone? Anyone???

17 Jan


Well, I think we were all expecting something a little different from the Academy this week, and by that I mean what we expected to see were signs of progress in the Best Director race. Five years after the lone victory by a female in the Academy’s Best Director category (Kathryn Bigelow, Hurt Locker),  many Oscar prognosticators anticipated a historic Best Director nomination for Ava DuVernay (Selma) which would have made her the first African-American female in her category. Would she have won? Who knows? Should members of the Academy’s male dominated–and likely white male, to be sure–directors branch have nominated DuVernay just to make history or to be politically correct? Of course not. But the whole thing still stinks. I think my sweetie nailed it when he opined that if Selma, which chronicles the landmark 1965 voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery led by Dr. Martin Luther King  Jr. and others, had been directed by a white man, it probably would have fared better. Yep, I can hear it now, some well meaning guy blathering on and on in TV interviews about how much he was influenced by Dr. King in college and all that, the director’s long held vision and all that. Once upon a time that would have seemed courageous, but now we know, among other things, that perspective is everything, and there are points of view that are equal to and sometimes even greater than that of the, what, staus quo.

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Director Ava DuVernay (Selma) came close to making history this past week as the first-ever African American female Best Director nominee. She also would have been only the fifth female and only the fourth African-American in the same category, a year after Steve McQueen and 12 Years a Slave. Of course, everyone who knows anything about Hollywood knows that African American females are simply under-represented in feature films, Tyler Perry’s steady output notwithstanding. TV, of course, is much more progressive, what with producer Shonda Rimes leading the way with the likes of Scandal, starring Kerry Washington, and the high stakes shenanigans of How to Get Away with Murder, starring the fabulous Viola Davis; meanwhile, DuVernay joins the ranks of Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou) and Dee Rees (Pariah), African-American women who wrote and directed highly praised films and then watched the Oscars from the sidelines. Still, DuVernay has made history in a different way as the first African American female to direct a Best Picture nominee, and that’s no small accomplishment. Furthermore, no less than Oprah Winfrey has made history as well as the first African American female to produce a Best Picture nominee.  I also feel compelled to include my own shout-out to Martinique born Euzhan Palcy, the first black woman to direct a feature for a major Hollywood studio, 1989’s anti-apartheid drama A Dry White Season, from MGM, for which Marlon Brando earned a Best Supporting Actor nod and for which Palcy won French César honors. Good company, indeed. (PHOTO: Collider.com)

Of course, the Academy’s directors branch is still very much a boys club, and even if those guys don’t mean to act aggressively or harshly toward women, they are still very much informed by their own myths and preconceptions. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I’m not excusing them. No, no, no. On the other hand, I feel compelled to share that since Thursday’s announcement, I have discovered, per the IMDb, that the directors branch includes only two African-American women among its ranks, one of whom is DuVernay, invited on the heels of 2012’s acclaimed Middle of Nowhere; the other is Kasi Lemmons, whose filmography includes 1997’s mesmerizing Eve’s Bayou.

Meanwhile, to make a wee comparison, this year’s presumed Best Picture frontrunner is Boyhood, written and directed by Austin’s Richard Linklater. By now, everybody likely knows that Linklater and his cast, including Best Supporting Actress and Best Supporting Actor nominees Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke, respectively, shot the film one week at a time over a 12 year period. I can’t seem to get too excited over this movie, and one reason is that it just reminds me too much of 2011’s Tree of Life, also from an Austin based filmmaker, Terrence Malick.  What do you think?

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Meet Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the first ever African-American to serve as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and only the third woman to hold the position. This week, she was put in the awkward position of defending a slate of nominees that has been questioned for being too white and too male. (PHOTO: Reuters/International Business Times)

I loved Tree of Life, but enough already with the navel gazing infatuation with what it means to come of age as a white male in this culture. I don’t want to devalue the experience or knock Linklater, but this is familiar territory going as far back as, but by no means limited to, 1986’s Stand By Me, directed by Rob Reiner (based on a novella by Stephen King).  I was somewhat relieved when a morning TV show host expressed a concern that Linklater might very well be honored for Boyhood‘s behind the scenes narrative, the whole 12-years-in-the-making thing, rather than what’s on screen. I think this TV host is on the right track, and no surprise there, not really. Selling “narratives” is a huge entry in the Oscar playbook: the comeback, the hugely successful movie that nobody wanted to make, the actor laying everything on the line to sit in the director’s chair, etc. Look at Sylvester Stallone, a little known actor who wrote 1976’s Rocky as a leading role for himself out of desperation; ditto Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, and  1997’s Good Will Hunting.

Meanwhile, what about Ana DuVernay’s narrative? She got the break of a lifetime when she stepped into a project for which Lee Daniels (an Oscar nominee for 2009’s Precious and the director of 2013’s prestigious The Butler) had already been signed. Remember when Meryl Streep stepped into 1999’s Music of the Heart with only weeks’ notice after Madonna bowed out of the fact-based film? More narrative, right? Plus, let’s face it, the scale of Selma, with huge crowd scenes, is impressive. Maybe not to the degree of Gandhi or The Last Emperor, but close.

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I don’t think Wes Anderson’s cartoony caper The Grand Budapest Hotel has much of a chance at the evening’s biggest prize, which will likely turn into a tight race between Birdman and Boyhood. Still, 9 nods is impressive. At the very least, I think we can expect Anderson’s film to walk away with Best Production Design, possibly Best Costume Design and Best Hair/Makeup as well. For my money, Anderson’s visually sumptuous romp is the most sheerly delightful entry in the bunch even though it’s hardly profound. Still, kudos to the terrific cast, which includes Tony Revolori, Ralph Fiennes, F. Murray Abraham, Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Edward Norton, and Jason Schwartzman among others.

Still, maybe DuVernay might have been penalized due to controversies surrounding the movie’s historical accuracy. That seems a bit of a stretch given the number of biopics and/or docudramas that have also been called into question for one thing or another yet still managed to score with Oscar voters. On the other hand, maybe DuVernay, however hypocritical, is being held to a higher standard. Still, Selma was all but shut out of most races, including Best Actor (David Oyelowo), ultimately snagging only two nods, which indicates the movie just wasn’t liked by most Academy voters. On the other hand, the movie pulled in enough votes to earn a place on the Best Picture roster, along with Boyhood (6 nods), American Sniper (6 nods), The Imitation Game (8 nods), The Theory of Everything (5 nods), Whiplash, and the biggies: Birdman and The Grand Budapest Hotel, both of which scored 9 nods; however, given the Academy’s track record of selecting Best Picture winners with corresponding Best Director nominees, the field narrows considerably from eight to four, with only Linklater, Wes Anderson (Grand Budapest), Alejandro González Iñárritu (Birdman), and Clint Eastwood (American Sniper) on board–well, on board with Bennett Miller, of Foxcatcher, whose chances are surely doomed since his movie is NOT in the running for Best Picture. Miller supplants The Theory of Everything‘s Morten Tyldum who, along with Linklater, Anderson, Eastwood, and Iñárritu are in line for the prestigious Directors Guild Award. The fact is that DuVernay, who was Globe nominated, was shunned by the DGA.

Reese-Witherspoon-Filming-Wild-Pictures

Besides producing and starring in Wild (as seen here) and co-producing Oscar nominated Gone Girl starring Rosamund Pike, Reese Witherspoon also starred in 2014’s The Good Lie, a movie about Sudanese Lost Boys and the American woman who helps them settle into their new lives.

 With all the hue and cry about who didn’t get nominated, especially a certain female director, I do think Reese Witherspoon deserves credit for coming as close to anyone as this year’s Most Valuable Player. A whopping nine years after enjoying a Best Actress victory for her dynamic performance as country & western singer-songwriter June Carter Cash in Walk the Line, and suffering through a series of ho-hum offerings in the interim (though Four Christmases raked in considerable dough), Witherspoon restaked her claim as a major talent and a crackerjack business woman as well, what with producing the fact-based Wild, clearly a grueling enterprise, earning smashing reviews and a Best Actress nod in the process; moreover, the savvy Legally Blonde star also co-produced the crowd favorite Gone Girl, adapted by David Fincher from Gillian Flynn’s massive best selling mystery about the search for a missing woman (Rosamund Pike), one with famous parents, and the increasing scrutiny placed on the woman’s suspicious husband (Ben Affleck). Witherspoon bought the rights to Flynn’s novel soon after publication, no doubt as a vehicle for herself, but the director she hired had other plans. Rather than give into ego, fire the director, and regroup, Witherspoon trusted her instincts and allowed the director to do his job which worked out well, considering that Ms. Pike has now scored her first Best Actress nod, making Witherspoon the producer of not only her Oscar nominated vehicle but also the co-producer of a competing vehicle, but either way, it’s a win-win for the new mogul and likely an Academy first.  

In my next post, I’ll write about the Best Actor race.

Thanks for your consideration….

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