Archive | March, 2019

The Surprise of Hilda Simms: Revisiting Black Widow (1954)

14 Mar

I began writing this piece in November, thinking I’d post it before the awards season launched in earnest, but it has taken a little longer than I’d expected, and I actually appreciate the extra time for more research and reflection….

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So, there we were, Michael and I, tuning into one of the old movie channels (either TCM or Fox Movies, likely the latter) a few years back as we often do on Saturday mornings. Within a few seconds we were caught up in the bold color palette of 1954’s Black Widow, not to be confused, mind you, with Scarlett Johansson’s Marvel character or 1987’s Black Widow starring Debra Winger and Theresa Russell.  Oh, I love that one too, a cross-country suspense melodrama pitting one determined federal agent in a mind game, not to mention a race against time, with a glamorous serial killer. Fun stuff, that–witty and two snappy performances by two charismatic stars. Plus, both films, the ’54 model as well as the ’87 version, carry the 20th Century Fox logo.

Still, to clarify, only the names and the studio are what connect the films.

The 1954 version is a more traditional mystery involving a Broadway producer, portrayed by ever-reliable Van Heflin, whose kindness toward a young aspiring writer–in the person of former child actress Peggy Ann Garner–soon leads to a shocking demise and ever mounting suspicion. The cast is further buoyed by the likes of Gene Tierney (as Heflin’s wife who scoots out of town for a bit, thereby creating conditions that set the plot in motion), George Raft (a driven, no-nonsense police detective), and, perhaps, best of all, Ginger Rogers [1], sublimely cheeky as Tierney’s best friend and the star of Heflin’s current hit play.  Her Carlotta (Lottie) is a self-possessed steamrolling fashion plate not unlike, say, All About Eve‘s mercurial Margo Channing–the one and only Bette Davis, and, yes, also a Fox production.

Mustachioed Reginald Gardiner creeps along as Rogers’ simp of a husband while veteran great Cathleen Nesbit steps up as a cleaning woman who works for both showbiz couples. Meanwhile, sharp-eyed fans of vintage TV shows will no doubt spot Bea Benaderret (Petticoat Junction) as a party guest and Mabel Anderson (Mrs. Stephens on Bewitched and scads of other gigs, including What’s Up Doc?) as club owner. That’s also Dallas’ own Aaron Spelling–and future almighty TV producer–as the lanky “Mr. Oliver,” an aspiring actor who arrives on the scene just in time to help Raft and the others close the case.

Black Widow looks smashing, thanks to Fox’s in-house Deluxe Color (aka Color by Deluxe) per cinematographer Charles Clarke, whose résumé  boasts one competitive Oscar (Hello, Frisco, Hello) as well as a technical achievement award and an honorary medal. Clarke is in good company with a production design team that includes legendary Oscar winning art director Lyle Wheeler (Gone with the Wind and The King and I among many, many, others) and one-named costume design sensation Travilla, a previous–shared–Oscar winner for The Adventures of Don Juan, with three additional nominations, but perhaps best known for the full-skirted white dress Marilyn Monroe wears in The Seven Year Itch, oh, and, of course, those blissfully over the top designs for Valley of the Dolls. Black Widow pops with bold strokes of color (lots and lots of blues), widescreen appeal marked by expansive sets and clear, crisp depth of field, along with sleekly authentic mid-century Modern interiors, keeping in mind that the two Manhattan power couples, Heflin and Tierney and Rogers and Gardiner, live in posh high rise dwellings–and that includes an impressive view of the NYC skyline. A fake view, mind you, but bas relief style, so it seems, as opposed to a mere painted backdrop–and with simply mahvelous light cues.  The movie is like its own effect.

In spite of its top-flight cast and visual appeal, Black Widow underwhelms in other ways. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I love this movie. It works incredibly well on its own terms, providing like-minded viewers a tidy package with a few twists along the way  though it does not necessarily succeed as an engrossing mystery. Keep in mind, the DVD is part of Fox’s “Noir” series, and that’s a bit misleading. There’s little noir-ish about it, not, say, compared to Fox’s all-time classic, Laura–starring Tierney in one of her signature roles. For that matter, Tierney’s Oscar nominated–and color saturated–Leave Her to Heaven (also Fox) works better as noir. That noted, I’ll leave it to others to debate whether color films qualify as “noir.” On the other hand, Black Widow, scripted by Nunnally Johnson (who also directs) from a story credited to Hugh Wheeler (using the pen, Patrick Quentin) [2], has more in common with a straightforward Agatha Christie whodunit or an amped-up big screen enhancement of such classic TV shows as Perry Mason or Dragnet. Entertaining enough, sure, but also stage-bound at times, even with snazzy visuals, talky, with perfunctory “Just the facts, ma’am” dialogue that tells as often as it shows while percolating along–make that simmering for those with short attention spans–to its conclusion.

So, there we were that Saturday morning, mesmerized by the colorful tale and then something surprising happened, surprising in the person of Hilda Simms.

Who is Hilda Simms, and why is she so surprising?

Hilda Simms is–was–an African-American actress from Minneapolis whose involvement with the American Negro Theatre Company launched a career that led to a starring role in Anna Lucasta on Broadway in the 1940s, inspired by Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie and staged with an all black cast though not necessarily conceived as such. Per the Internet Broadway Database (IBDb), the play ran for two years, and Simms later travelled across the Atlantic to star in the London production as well. She eventually heeded Hollywood’s call, appearing in a small number of films including 1953’s The Joe Louis Story, as Marva Louis (aka Mrs. Joe Louis).

What’s surprising about Simms’ role in Black Widow is that it’s essentially color-blind. For example, she’s not playing a domestic, a maid, as would have been typical of the time, and no reference is made to the color of her skin. None. In 1954. She’s first seen briefly as hat-check girl in Mabel Anderson’s watering hole–and, yes, okay, that looks suspiciously like a maid’s uniform. She re-appears later in the film as a cocktail waitress at a neon lit joint in a relatively lengthy scene opposite Heflin’s beleaguered “person of interest.” He’s been played and needs to avoid the police long enough to retrace a few steps and find the missing piece of a perplexing puzzle. Simms, as Anne, might be the one person to turn the investigation. She and Heflin are presented as equals, that is, two smart, seasoned adults trying to pick each other’s brains to arrive at one inevitable truth.

Look closely at director Nunnally Johnson’s staging. In their three minute scene, Simms and Heflin appear facing each other, mostly in a straight-on two-shot, with Heflin slightly slumped against the bar, thereby equalizing the space between them; moreover, Johnson cuts to Simms, from over Heflin’s shoulder (the actor’s back to the camera) at least as many times as he reverses the angle to favor Heflin. See? The characters–and the performers who inhabit them–are treated as equals through the director’s lens.

Simms makes quite an impression, bringing enviable cool to a small role that helps advance the plot.  As is often the case with performers who exude star quality, the audience wants to see more of her, but that is not to be in this particular film.

The website BlackPast.org features a profile of Hilda Simms (r) though it downplays her contribution to Black Widow, thusly: “Her only other movie role was that of the hatcheck girl in Black Widow (1954).” Though, again, Simms’ turn in the movie brief, the blurb does not best describe her importance in a key sequence (played opposite Van Heflin, as Peter r). Oh, and, again, Simms’ character has a name, and her name is Anne. This IMAGE is from the Noirish website, in which John Grant praises Simms’ “great turn” and also heralds Anne’s frankness, per her role in appraising Peter’s situation for what it is. Good call. https://noirencyclopedia.wordpress.com/2014/10/01/black-widow-1954/

As extraordinary as Simms is, let’s not kid ourselves.  Her role, while strongly written, is still a supporting one, barely more than a cameo, and even though she’d scored a Broadway triumph well before The Black Widow, her name is buried deep in the opening credits, nor is she featured in the DVD box art. Also, as a person of color in this enterprise, she’s the exception rather than the norm in an otherwise all-white cast. Face it: then, the 1950s, as now, Hollywood doesn’t often know what to do with women of color. Yes, the situation is improving, in both films and TV, as witnessed by the continued successes of such recent Oscar winners as Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk, 2018), Viola Davis (Fences, 2016), Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave, 2013), and Octavia Spencer (The Help, 2011), all, ahem, winners in the Supporting Actress category, along with biggies Kerry Washington, Taraji P. Henson, Angela Bassett, Audra McDonald, Alfre Woodard, the great Debbi Morgan, Jennifer Lewis, Wanda Sykes, and the steady rise of Tiffany Haddish, among others [3], sure, but parity is still not the norm. Yet.

Still, Hilda Simms’ brief turn enriches Black Widow with cultural significance beyond its artistic merits, keeping in mind that 1954 also saw the release of the fabelled Carmen Jones, a modern adaptation of Bizet’s opera Carmen (with new lyrics by Richard Rogers, set, to clarify, to Bizet’s original score), with an all-black cast led by Dorothy Dandridge, who made history as the first African-American, male or female, to earn an Oscar nomination in a leading performance category. And good for her. After all, a dearth of opportunities for black performers led to an even bigger dearth of representation at the annual Academy awards. For example, prior to Dandridge’s success in Carmen Jones, the Academy had recognized exactly three black performers: Hattie McDaniel, who famously won 1939’s Best Supporting Actress statuette for Gone with the Wind; James Baskett, the recipient of an honorary award for his role as Uncle Remus in Disney’s Song of the South (1946, by now embarrassingly dated though no fault of charismatic Baskett), and Ethel Waters, portraying the grandmother of a light skinned black woman (Jeanne Crain) who passes for white in Pinky [4].  The end of the 50s saw Sidney Poitier make history as the first black Best Actor nominee (The Defiant Ones, 1958) and Juanita Moore’s Oscar nominated turn, supporting, in 1959’s ballyhooed remake of Imitation of Life. Hooray for these actors who made the most of their opportunities, yes, indeed, but their signature roles were not, to put it politely, color-blind. The actors were cast as much for their skin color as for their talent, and that can problematic when the roles were, or are,  developed and or scripted by white writers, whose conceptions or depictions of people of color might have been, well, limited by their own white remove. Furthermore, only Poitier graduated to superstardom, starring in, among others,  three of 1967’s biggest hits (two Best Picture candidates [5]), and, of course his landmark Best Actor award (Lilies of the Field, 1963). [Of course, Halle Berry made history as the first woman of color to win Best Actress, per 2001’s Monsters Ball, but I digress.]

I might be wrong; after all, I’m not an expert. I have not seen every single movie cranked out by the major Hollywood studios in the 1940s and 1950s. Simms’ turn in The Black Widow might not be quite the “surprise” I perceive it to be. For all I know, black actors and black actresses might have been given opportunities to play scads and scads of color-blind roles in dozens upon dozens of films of which I remain woefully ignorant, yet my experience tells me otherwise. A look at some of the era’s top grossing titles reveals movies dominated by whiteness. And, again, the Academy’s choices underscore that lack of representation; after all, even the great Ethel Waters was passed over for a second nod when she recreated her stage success in Member of the Wedding for the movies. Also, don’t forget that the MGM powers-that-be looked to Ava Gardner, not known as a singer, to play the role of bi-racial entertainer Julie in yet another big screen transfer of Show Boat when, again, Lena Horne, who was both gorgeous and an accomplished vocalist, would have been ideal. And I actually like Gardner in Show Boat, all things considered (including the fact that she was at least partially dubbed), but a cheat is a cheat. One possible exception? The great Juanita Hall, a Tony winning Broadway actress, African-American, who was cast as Asian women ( one Tonkinese [Vietnamese], the other Chinese-American) in both stage and screen versions of South Pacific and Flower Drum Song, and that’s also problematic, but, again, I digress.

Black Widow did not bowl over the critics in 1954, nor was it a box office biggie, necessarily, though it has attracted followers since then, mainly on the strength of its stunning visuals and the gaiety of Ginger Rogers’s snappy delivery. Seemingly, bland Garner, outmatched by almost every actor in any given scene, shouldered much of those negative reviews though not enough to bring her career to a complete standstill. To be perfectly clear, even with Hilda Simms’ jolt of a turn, the movie did nothing to advance her career in pictures, for sure.  Indeed, the IMDb shows only a smattering of credits for Simms, the most famous being, arguably, a 9 episode arc on The Doctors and the Nurses, a serialized drama from the early 1960s. Besides the fact that Hollywood has simply never known what to do with black actresses, Simms faced additional obstacles due to McCarthyism in the 50s as she refuted accusations that she had ties to the communist party even going so far as to pen an article entitled “I’m No Benedict Arnold.” Even though Hollywood never embraced Simms–and she likely never embraced Hollywood–she remained a vital active woman, hosting her own New York based radio program, starring in plays, including The Madwoman of Chaillot, serving as the Creative Arts Director for the New York Human Right’s Commission, and, importantly becoming a teacher and earning a master’s degree in education. She died in 1994 at the age of 75.

Despite Fox’s marketing strategies, Black Widow barely qualifies as noir, but it amuses as a guessing game, packs a punch as colorfully retro eye candy, delivers Hollywood charisma galore with a star laden cast, and surprises with the inclusion of super-stunning Hilda Simms, a knockout casting move as culturally significant as it is satisfying, and one that bucks 1950s Hollywood-think. And that’s a surprise for the ages.

(Sources listed following notes.)

[1] – To clarify, both Van Heflin and Ginger Rogers were Oscar winning vets at this point. Heflin won Best Supporting Actor for 1942’s Johnny Eager, starring Robert Taylor and Lana Turner; Rogers snagged Best Actress accolades for 1940’s Kitty Foyle, reinventing herself as a “serious” actress after her streak of successful musicals in the 1930s with Fred Astaire.

[2] – In his day, Johnson ranked as one of the busiest writer-hyphenates in the business, meaning he worked as writer, director, and sometime producer, earning Oscar writing nods per his adaptations of The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and Holy Matrimony (1943) with additional screenwriting credits for the varied likes of How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation (1956), The Dirty Dozen (1962), and 1942’s Roxie Hart (yes, essentially, the basis for Chicago), which starred Ginger Rogers, his Black Widow leading lady–74 writing credits, per the IMDb; additionally, his directorial credits include The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956) and The Three Faces of Eve (1957), both of which he also scripted. Meanwhile, Hugh Wheeler was best known for his work in theatre, winning Tony awards for his books (scripts) for the musicals A Little Night Music (’73), Candide (’74; that’s back-to-back wins), and Sweeney Todd (’79). His screen credits include the adaptation of 1972’s Travels with My Aunt. Apparently, “Patrick Quentin” was a common pen name among series detective fiction scribes, not unlike, say, “Carolyn Keene,” credited as the official writer of Nancy Drew books.

[3] – I’m referring to the likes of past and present greats, trailblazers who’ve left their marks on American pop culture, including but not limited to Louise Beavers, Pearl Bailey, Claudia McNeil, Ruby Dee, Beah Richards, Eartha Kitt, Nichelle Nichols, Diahann Carroll, Gail Fisher, Pam Grier, Tamara Dobson, Isabel Sanford, Phylicia Rashad, Loretta Devine, Madge Sinclair, S. Epatha Merkerson, CCH Pounder, Lynne Thigpen, Oscar winners Whoopi Goldberg, Jennifer Hudson, and Mo’Nique, media dynamo Oprah Winfrey,  the aforementioned Lena Horne, Diana Ross, and LEGENDARY Cicely Tyson, again, among others.

[4] – Of course, Crain, in spite of her extremely generous Oscar nod, was an especially egregious casting choice. Hello, Lena Horne, anyone? Okay, 30ish Horne might have been a wee old to play girlish Pinky, but she would have been more credible than vanilla Crain.

[5] – In ’67, Poitier starred in Best Picture winner In the Heat of the Night as well as Best Picture also-ran Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, both among the year’s most popular audience draws as well. Additionally, he enjoyed great success with To Sir, with Love in the same year. In spite of all that, a Best Actor nod failed to materialize for the much in-demand actor (for…take your pick?), likely a case of Poitier being too good in too many films in one year, thereby splitting votes with himself. After turning to directing, successfully, btw, Poitier returned to acting with 1988’s Shoot to Kill and Little Nikita. He won a well-deserved Honorary Oscar in the spring of 2002.

 

Hilda Simms at BlackPast.org: https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/simms-hilda-1918-1994/

Hilda Simms per Curt Brown for the Star Tribune (Minnesota): http://www.startribune.com/hilda-moses-simms-went-from-st-margaret-s-academy-to-broadway-and-hollywood-blacklists/304005451/

Hilda Simms, per the IMDb: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0799968/

Hilda Simms, per the Internet Broadway Database: https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/hilda-simms-60107

Black Widow at Norish website, per John Grant: https://noirencyclopedia.wordpress.com/2014/10/01/black-widow-1954/

Easy-to-use “List of black Academy Award winners and nominees,” per InterPlanetary File System (IPFS) – Wikipedia (last updated in 2016 but suitable for the purpose of this post):

https://ipfs.io/ipfs/QmXoypizjW3WknFiJnKLwHCnL72vedxjQkDDP1mXWo6uco/wiki/List_of_black_Academy_Award_winners_and_nominees.html

Juanita Hall at BlackPast.org:  https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/hall-juanita-1901-1968/

Thanks, as well, to the National Association of Black Journalists: https://www.nabj.org/page/styleguideA

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That’s a Wrap: King and Queens’ Rhapsody

3 Mar

What can you say about a movie awards show that begins as though it were a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony?  Welcome to the 91st Academy Awards: ‘We are the Champions” vs. “Poker Face” edition.  Indeed.

To be clear, despite all the hoopla, this is not the first Oscar show to ever proceed without a host and since the show clocked in at just slightly more than three hours, that’s not such a bad thing.  Yes, the producers wanted to bring the show in at exactly three hours, and they came close, not bad for live television; plus, everyone at ABC and the Academy needs to realize that the show just is what it is. That’s the maddening thing, knowing that too many people  in charge want the show to be something other than what it is and continually chase after a demographic, fanboys, that’s not interested and likely never will be.

After the opening performance by rock legends Queen, fronted by Adam Lambert–yet again assuming lead vocals, per the long ago passing of iconic Freddie Merucry, the subject of multi-nominated Bohemian Rhapsody, an announcer introduced Tina Fey, Maya Rudolph, and Amy Poehler who delivered a lively but not tremendously inspired–nor funny–monologue before segueing to the award for Best Supporting Actress. I like Fey and the crew, and have especially loved Fey and Poehler on the Golden Globes, but the bit was not stellar. Fortunately, Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk) capped an incredible awards season by claiming Best Supporting Actress honors. She looked super-stunning in a white strapless gown and  began her speech, refreshingly, by thanking author James Baldwin, the legendary writer of If Beale Street Could Talk, the book, and then King thanked her mom. Often, writers get thanked toward the ends of speeches rather than at the beginning, so kudos to King for her graciousness, and, of course, once again to the late Baldwin for crafting such an indelible story. I just love that this former child performer has grown into an even more successful mature actress–and she did so without suffering the scandals that often plague such youngsters as they become young adults. Of course, King’s victory, the fifth by a Black actress in this category in just under 10 years, is welcome and shows evidence of more diverse approaches to moviemaking, but more work is needed to ensure that actresses of color, such as King, have more opportunities to star in leading, rather than supporting, roles.

With his Oscar for Green Book, Best Supporting Actor winner Mahershala Ali earns the rare distinction of being one of two Black men with multiple wins in competitive, rather than honorary, categories, that is, for acting, specifically, the other being Denzel Washington. Additionally, if my research holds, Ali is second only to Oscar winner Morgan Freeman among black men performing key roles, leading or supporting, in multiple Best Picture winners. Freeman famously appears in Driving Miss Daisy (1989), Unforgiven (1992), and Million Dollar Baby (2004), for which he also won Best Supporting Actor. Ali, of course, won his first Oscar for 2016’s Best Picture winner Moonlight. Elsewhere, iconic Sidney Poitier famously starred in two of 1967’s Best Picture nominees, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and In the Heat of the Night, the latter taking top honors. To clarify,  by the time Poitier starred in two of 1967’s biggest hits, he’d already made history by winning Best Actor for 1963’s Lilies of the Field. Additionally, Forest Whitaker was still an up and coming talent when he delivered a strong turn in Platoon, 1986’s big winner, and later played a pivotal role in 1992’s sensational Best Picture nominee The Crying Game. He won a Best Actor Oscar for 2006’s The Last King of Scotland and then later played the title figure in Lee Daniels’ The Butler, a 2013 Best Picture nominee.  I’ll continue to research and update accordingly.

Daniel Craig and Charlize Theron, the latter looking uncharacteristically subdued, at least from the front, walked onstage to present Best Supporting Actor, much later in the show, yet the second time that the tradition of last year’s winners presenting awards to the new winners had been tossed aside, and I wondered what that was about, but the producers’ purpose would be made clearer later. At any rate, the upside–of sorts–is that Mahershala Ali (Green Book) wins a second Best Supporting Actor award–only two years after his first. Good job, Mr. Ali, and I guess, good work, too Academy. I enjoy Mahershala Ali, always, always, always, but I still have reservations about the machinations that went into this specific award since this actor’s work in Green Book is more leading than supporting, but two Oscars are still two Oscars, and this actor is a phenom. He’s certainly no flash in the pan, to be sure. To put Mr. Ali’s victory into context, consider that only two Black actors have scored more than one competitive acting trophy from the Academy, the other being, natch, Denzel Washington; moreover, consider that the likes of Jamie Foxx (Ray) and Forrest Whittaker (The Last King of Scotland) have yet to garner a single nod in the years since their Oscar victories.

Btw, when do we get to see the aforementioned Craig and Theron together in a smashing romantic comedy with hints of espionage and thrills?

Interestingly, over the past week, Richard E. Grant (Can You Ever Forgive Me?) was increasingly chatted up as a possible spoiler–more a threat, if you will, to Ali than sentimental favorite Sam Elliot (A Star is Born). Grant won an Independent Spirit award over the weekend, not that “indie” means the same thing it once did, adding fuel to the story of a possible upset.

So, RBG loses the Best Feature Length Documentary to Free Solo…so what? RBG is already a HUGE favorite, of at least those who have seen it, and Justice Ginsburg certainly does not need the Academy’s validation; plus, National Geographic, the entity behind Free Solo, traditionally produces quality offerings. Still, this girl is scratching her head over the snub of Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, the documentary about Fred Rogers that connected with moviegoers last summer and reminded all of us of what we miss most in our own neighborhoods in an era of increasingly cynical leadership.

Clever that, maybe too clever, showing a clip from Best Picture contender Vice only seconds before the same film is honored for Best Makeup, thanks, mostly, to the transformation of Best Actor nominee Christian Bale into Dick Cheney, among others, but mostly the work on chameleon Bale, virtually unrecognizable as aging, bald, and doughy Cheney. I guess that’s an achievement. Still not enough to convince me that I need to see Vice, but congrats, anyway, to the team that includes first-time nominees Kate Biscoe and Patricia Dahaney in addition to Greg Cannom, already a (previous) four-time winner.

Melissa McCarthy slayed, coming onstage to present Best Costume in a elaborate gown spoofing Queen Anne’s love of rabbits, per The Favourite‘s Sandy Powell–accompanied as McCarthy was by equally outrageous Bryan Tyree Henry; however, the winner was NOT Powell, who already has three statuettes–and was nominated twice this year (the other being Mary Poppins Returns). Instead, the Academy astutely awarded Ruth E. Carter, a previous two-time nominee, for her fantastic work in the super-hero blockbuster Black Panther, and well, well deserved, all things considered, given the degree of difficulty in her assignment, the enormity of a super-charged action-adventure movie with a larger than average cast.. Then, things got even better when Black Panther won in the Best Production Design category. These victories are significant in that Carter is the first Black woman to win in her category, AND because Best Production Design co-winner Hannah Beachler (w/Jay Hart) is, in fact, the first ever Black woman even nominated in her category. As with Carter, Beachler’s victory is historic. Of course, she shares her award with Jay Hart, previously nominated for Pleasantville and L.A. Confidential. The Black Panther production design award is especially thrilling because it involves creating a whole new super-fantastic realm as opposed to recreating historic locales–especially if that means redressing pre-existing locations (per The Favourite). These victories, specifically Carter’s and Beachler’s, stand as powerful rebuttal to dunder-headed remarks by no less than Matt Damon who mansplained to a Black woman, not that long ago, that diversity is created in-front of the camera, through casting, rather than behind the scenes talent. Eat your words, Damon, and savor defeat.

The Marvel streak continued with Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse capturing the Best Animated Feature Film award, which is way cool because Spiderman is always cool, and this animated film is a break from the Disney-Pixar empire–and, to further clarify, this is a Marvel offering that comes to us free from the folks at Disney who own increasingly more of the Marvel titles. Oh, I get it, Sony-Columbia is still a big corporate entity, but not being Disney is in this instance is still an improvement. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I’ve loved the past few Disney and/or Pixar winners in the Best Animated Feature category, Coco, Zootopia (especially Zootopia), and Inside Out, but I also like to mix things up a bit come Oscar time. Oh, and, Peter Ramsey, among the movie’s winning creative team, also made history as both the first African-American nominee in the category, but, also now the first ever African-American winner.

Thanks to multi-talented Tyler Perry, btw, for making special note that the Best Cinematography award presentation would be live, in real time, on camera rather than off-camera during a commercial and edited into the television show a bit later. This, a rebuff to the Academy’s original proposal (or the show’s producers’ proposal) to keep the show under three hours by relegating a few select awards to “lesser than” status, Best Cinematography for starters. Who can imagine not wanting to properly–correctly–honor the people who make the pictures in motion pictures possible? At any rate, the winner was Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, a black and white offering, which is cool. Even cooler, I guess, is the fact that director Cuarón, already an Oscar winning director, served as his own cinematographer for his most personal film. What a hardworking talent. Then, to the surprise of almost no one, Cuarón was invited back to the stage to accept the Best Foreign Language Film award. The “surprise” part is being reminded that no Mexican film has ever won in the category. Really? Yep, it’s true. Of course, Cuarón upped his own ante by taking Best Director as well–again, his second such win after 2013’s Gravity. If you’re keeping count, that’s 4 career Oscars…so far. (Note: he also won for editing Gravity.)

It’s hard to sometimes distinguish the two awards for sound, but one is essentially for sound effects while the other is specific to overall sound mixing. How Academy members, those who don’t specialize in sound, especially, are able to make their choices when marking ballots is bound to be a little intimidating…if not downright confusing. No surprise then when the same film, Bohemian Rhapsody in this case, wins both awards. It’s easier that way, but in this case likely justified, considering the film’s musical source. The film went on to capture additional honors for Best Editing. Good stuff.

Interestingly, Bohemian Rhapsody emerged the evening’s biggest winner, earning more Oscars in more categories than any other film: four in all (w/out also capturing Best Picture, to be clear), the biggest being Rami Malek’s Best Actor win for playing Queen’s legendary lead singer, Freddie Mercury. Malek had been a virtual shoo-in based, again, on numbers as he’d already won most of the season’s high profile awards: Golden Globe, SAG, and BAFTA (British Academy equivalent). I especially enjoyed Malek’s speech as he described being born of immigrant parents (from Egypt) and the experience of playing a queer man of Iranian descent. Again, diversity as that factors into the American Dream of equal opportunity is good–not that it’s always equal, and that’s my point. It needs to be and should be. Have I seen Bohemian Rhapsody yet? Nope, but, now, maybe I will. (My reasons for not seeing it, so far, are both complex and stupid, and I can live with that, but I don’t necessarily feel compelled to share, either, but I refuse to criticize a movie I haven’t seen.)

Speaking of Best Actor, you know what else I want to see? At Eternity’s Gate with four time nominee Willem Dafoe as Vincent Van Gogh. This is one I really, REALLY wanted to see–and from the moment I first read about it and/or saw the trailer. And I would have been pleasantly surprised if Bradley Cooper had won for A Star is Born. I thought he was especially compelling as the film’s burnt-out rock star, but his contributions as an actor–in a movie he directed, co-wrote, and co-produced–have been overshadowed by one thing or another.

Other clever bits: Queen Latifah cracking-wise that “It’s good to be queen” when introducing the clip from The Favourite, starring Best Actress contender Olivia Colman as Queen Anne. HA! Then, only a few minutes later, Keegan-Michael Key descending, brave man, from the rafters wielding an umbrella, Mary Poppins style–himself looking very 007ish–to introduce, yes, a Mary Poppins Returns Best Song nominee, “The Place Where Lost Things Go”  as performed by the one and only Bette Midler, a star well-familiar with how to make an unforgettable entrance.

Generally, the Best Song lineup was weak, weaker than usual, actually, and to the surprise of no one, A Star is Born‘s “Shallow,” fueled by Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s powerhouse vocals, snagged the prize. This means that, as expected, Gaga emerges an Oscar winner, one way or another, whether for Best Actress or Best Song. Good for her. She and Cooper’s live performance loomed buzz-worthy in its intimacy, but Ms, Gaga cannot sole credit for the song, a collaboration between her, Mark Ronson, Anthony Rossamado, and Andrew Wyatt.  Wait a second. It took four people to come up with that? Yes, it’s catchy, but repeating “Shallow, shallow” over and over again is hardly genius lyric-writing. Four people. huh? Oh, but that emotional speech, endearingly goofy as it was, though, again, did Gaga’s collaborators feel shortchanged regarding their own acceptance speeches?

I enjoyed, if that’s the best word, Spike Lee’s incredible, fact-based BlacKkKlansman in which, yes, a real-life 1970s African-American police officer, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington… yes, Denzel’s son), infiltrated a Colorado chapter of the KKK, with the assist of a white–Jewish–partner (Adam Driver), even “fooling” no less than notorious klansman David Duke (Topher Grace). Of course, Lee’s films have not always been readily embraced by the Academy. It’s not that he’s never been nominated because he has, but he’s never won a competitive award, per, for example, his screenplay for Do the Right Thing or the documentary 4 Little Girls, and until this year, his movies, mostly Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X, have been overlooked as candidates for Best Picture and Best Director. Yes, he won an honorary award a few years ago, but this is better. A win for co-scripting, that is, adapting BlacKkKlansman, (in tandem with Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, and Kevin Willmott) along with nominations for, yes, directing and producing–as a Best Picture nominee. Good for Mr. Lee. He’s a visionary and a true mover-and-shaker within the motion picture industry, and kudos are long overdue.

That noted, the Lee movie I love most dates all the way back to 1990: ‘Mo Better Blues. If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth more than a look as it stars Denzel Washington, incredibly sexy, or charismatic, in his first ever Lee vehicle (hot on the heels of Washington’s Best Supporting Actor Oscar for 1989’s Glory), and only Lee’s fourth feature film–along with a smashing jazzy score by the elder Lee, Bill Lee, with soundtrack contributions by Terrence Blanchard and Bradford Marsalis, along with gorgeous, gorgeous cinematography by the one and only Ernest R. Dickerson–and I still wince every time I think about how Dickerson was passed over for even a nomination from both the Academy AND the American Society of Cinematographers. How’s that? Among others, I gasped watching Samuel L. Jackson give what can surely be described as a volcanic performance in Jungle Fever, stupidly overlooked by the Academy (though honored at Cannes), also featuring Halle Berry in an early role. Lee’s Inside Man is a fun puzzle of a movie, richly cast with Denzel Washington (again), Clive Owen, Jodie Foster (outrageously good in a supporting turn), Christopher Plummer, Willem Dafoe (speaking of…), and Chiwitel Ejiofor. Then, of course, there’s always Crooklyn  starring the one and only Alfre Woodard.

On a more sobering note, how fitting (perhaps?) that Senator John Lewis, a colleague of Martin Luther King Jr., was on board to co-present a clip from Best Picture nominee–and ultimate winner–Green Book. And right as Black History Month comes to a close. Ah that. Well, many of us know by now what Spike Lee thinks about that  development, and that’s fine for him. I happen to like Green Book even if, okay, it truly was not my favorite picture of the year; however, since my top two picks, Crazy Rich Asians and If Beale Street Could Talk, were out of the running, why not Green Book? As stated, once Roma took honors for Best Foreign Language film, a Best Picture victory, as well, seemed a bit of a stretch. Plus, I think by choosing Green Book, Academy voters sent a message to home video platform Netflix. More people have seen Roma on Netflix than those who saw it in its miniscule Oscar-qualifying theatrical run, and that was always the plan: get it into theatres to beat the deadline, and then straight to home video. Yes, and the argument can be made that, compared to the high cost of ticket prices, not to mention even more outrageous concession prices (though shockingly low compensation for theatre employees), along with sketchy distribution patterns for foreign language films, Netflix seems a far more democratic approach to levelling the moviegoing field, granted. At the same time, I’ve read comments by industry professionals, lamenting that Roma movie truly deserves to be seen on the big screen in order for audiences to fully appreciate the genius of director Cuarón‘s vision, the depth and detail of his design, which are almost obliterated on home screens. Plus, movies were always intended as communal experiences, weren’t they? Think about some of the most incredible times you’ve had sitting in a dark, crowded theatre being thrilled by a spectacle so much bigger than life. (Black Panther, anyone?) It’s the movies. At least, it used to be. As I write this, reports indicate that no less than Steven Spielberg wants to rethink Netflix as that concerns eligibility for next year’s awards.

Amid all the back and forth regarding Green Book’s merits as the Academy’s pick for Best Picture, one important truth has not been given its due. See, here, Octavia Spencer, Best Supporting Actress winner for The Help (2011) with additional nominations for Hidden Figures (2016) and last year’s big winner, The Shape of Water? She’s right there in the middle of the image, resplendent in a midnight blue ball gown. A few members of Green Book‘s winning team thanked Ms. Spencer in their acceptance speeches. Does she appear in the movie? No, but she is credited as one of the film’s executive producers, and even though the Academy has restrictions on how many members of a producing team can appear on the ballot for Best Picture honors, meaning Spencer did not qualify for the gold, per se, but Spencer, Oscar or no, is still likely the first black woman with a producer’s credit on an Academy Best Picture winner. That’s huge, and certainly worth celebrating. To clarify, full-time media mogul and sometime actress Oprah Winfrey, similarly earned a producer’s credit on 2009’s Precious, a Best Picture contender without being included on the final ballot though she earned that distinction outright, and made history accordingly, as one of the eligible producers of 2014’s Selma. Furthermore, Kimberly Steward likewise earned a nomination as one of Manchester by the Sea‘s official team members just two years ago.   (IMAGE: https://goo.gl/images/SGauDL)

I make no claim to speak for all sides in the ongoing debate surrounding Green Book; however, I’m not surprised that the Academy selected Green Book as Best Picture because, well, it represents solid, middle of the road moviemaking. I believe it was the late film critic Gene Siskel who once opined that the Academy favors liberal politics served with conservative taste, and that’s why, say, Green Book wins over the likes of edgier offerings such as BlacKkKlansman; plus, Green Book is just commercial enough: $70 million and counting against production costs of 23 million. Does this mean that Green Book is really the best movie of the year? Gosh, no, and too many of us seem to forget that the Academy is an organization comprised of industry professionals who get together once a year to honor what they believe to be the best–again, among those who make movies for a living and whose tastes are shaped accordingly; they invite the rest of us to revel in their excess, I mean, success, and we respond accordingly, or not, and at our own peril.

Comparisons between Green Book and Driving Miss Daisy, 1989’s Best Picture winner–and a questionable choice for many? Well, duh. It’s hard to shake the comparisons between the two: the former, about an elderly Jewish woman and her decades long, sometimes contentious, relationship with her black chauffeur in Atlanta; the second, about a famous black pianist who’s driven to concert dates mostly in the south by a white man, an Italian-American, a beefy bouncer in need of extra cash. I get it. Still, Green Book is highly entertaining and was, indeed, an early Best Picture frontrunner, that is, before the releases of Roma and The Favourite, and some foolishness from the mouth of Best Actor nominee, Viggo Mortensen, who nonetheless was still acknowledged in winners’ acceptance speeches, including that of Mahershala Ali.

I still think Green Book holds value, in spite of some skeptics’ well-levelled criticism, because in this polarizing time with the demonizing of “others,” many Americans need to be reminded that maybe, just maybe, America wasn’t always so great for all its people, per the reality of the actual Green-Book, the real travel guide that advised African-Americans of hotels and motels that provided relatively safe accommodations for black people in an era in which segregation was very much a thing, let alone so-called “Sundown Towns,” in which those same black people were strongly advised–via  actual town ordinances–they best keep moving, and sooner rather than later, to either get out of town–or to stay hidden until the light of day.  Yes, the Green Book was a real thing. Then, when Dr. Shirley’s presumed queer identity is considered, Green Book’s relevance makes it harder to brush aside. Doesn’t it? (And we certainly didn’t get into any of that in Driving Miss Daisy, did we?) Plus, how many of us had ever heard of Dr. Don Shirley prior to Green Book? Not me, and not too many others, relatively speaking, I’m sure. So, yeah. (Though, again, members of Dr. Shirley’s family and Nick Vallelonga, co-writer and son of Tony Vallelonga [the driver] offer differing accounts of the two men’s time together, so there’s always that discussion.) Just to clarify: Green Book won three Oscars. The third, after Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor, was for Best Original Screenplay, per the aforementioned Vallelonga along with Brian Hayes Currie and Peter Farrelly (who also directed–minus famous sibling and collaborator Bobby Farrelly).

Finally, referring back to the one and only Gaga and her “Poker Face” tune from a few years back, what about Glenn Close’s own poker face upon losing the Best Actress award to Olivia Colman in The Favourite, playing Queen Anne…that’s one for King and two for Queens in one evening.  I recently read a comment, something to the effect that, perhaps, the best way to appreciate The Favourite is to consider it terms of America’s current White House, with Anne as a stand-in for the polarizing POTUS and the subordinates played by nominees Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone as representatives of a revolving door’s worth of opportunistic associates. Yeah, I can kind of see that, but even then Colman’s performance only works as a conceit, compared to Glenn Close’s flesh and blood portrayal,  and might as well have been played by Alec Baldwin in drag. I’m just not a fan of The Favourite, but that’s on me; again, it has nothing to do with the Academy though I also believe my reservations regarding whether Colman was campaigned for in the right category are justified.  Yes, there’s certainly no movie without Queen Anne, but she doesn’t drive the plot. It’s a quandary whereas Close surely is the driving force in The Wife. (As an aside, a close friend expressed deep surprise when he learned that The Wife was NOT based on a true story based on Close’s incredibly vivid portrayal. He was surer what we was watching was real.) I’ll give credit to Colman for her gracious shout-out to Close (ever the poker-face) and the transformative nature of her performance in The Favourite, which is hard to ignore given how affable she appears on red carpet interviews, talk shows, and acceptance speeches on various awards shows. In that regard, and in that regard only, her Oscar isn’t completely undeserved.

Also, as I write this and think about how it all might have played out differently if Colman had been nominated for Best Supporting Actress instead of Best Actress, I realize that such a turn might have resulted in a different outcome in the Best Supporting Actress race, and I wouldn’t have cared for that, either, so I’ll just stop here.

Thanks for your consideration…