I am seldom moved by the Oscars, nor is depth really their goal, but as a cultural artifact the Oscars often offers up glimpses of deep anxiety, grace, intelligence, and humor that are imminently teachable. And for me, those retrospective moments when they look over the careers of stars whose contributions to the craft are rapidly fading behind the antics of Cyrus or Hilton, also remind us of the power of cinema to reflect our lives, elevate us when we have fallen, express our hopes and the dreams we may not even know we had prior. Those moments and the odd and wonderful slippages throughout ultimately dare us to dream big.
These are the moments that struck me; please de-lurk and let me know what moved or entertained you:
Dustin Lance Black’s acceptance speech (Text of speech below)
When Black took the podium and began to shake, his passionate smoky blue eyes caught in the camera, a hush fell over our general chatter. As Milk says in the film, we recognized something in him that we had seen in ourselves. Black spoke eloquently about how he himself had been inspired by Milk to live his life freely and to have faith that one day he could love and be loved, marry like everyone else, out in the open, and how his parents had taken him from a “conservative Mormon town” to San Fran so that he could live and not die the slow death that so many young queer people are being asked to in our nation. As Black connected the dots from personal to cinematic to political and back again, I actually began to cry. And as he looked out into the camera and promised queer youth everywhere that one day they would be equal in the eyes of this nation and that they just had to believe, to hold on, to know that people like Black and Milk had loved and did love them, I was not just reminded of Milk’s promise to all of the queer youth out there, or of the scene where the suicidal kid in the wheel chair calls him for support, but blessed by how that connection between hope and despair, finding and choosing hope, had been so expertly woven into the film b/c Black had been a Milk child. And it made me grateful for all of us who keep that message alive in a time when things seem to be moving backward rather than forward. I wish I’d been with the boys, b/c I imagine us all turned into sniveling idiots by Black’s earnestness. As it was, everyone in the room was choked up by him and the beauty of his message. All tho Sean Penn would later make a statement about prop 8 that mainstream media has latched on to, Black’s moment at the podium was truly the shining star of the night.
“Oh my God. This was, um, this was not an easy film to make. First off, I have to thank Cleve Jones and Anne Kronenberg and all the real-life people who shared their stories with me. And, um, Gus Van Sant, Sean Penn, Emile Hirsch, Josh Brolin, James Franco and our entire cast, my producers Dan Jinks and Bruce Cohen, everyone at Groundswell and Focus for taking on the challenge of telling this life-saving story.
When I was 13 years old, my beautiful mother and my father moved me from a conservative Mormon home in San Antonio, Texas to California, and I heard the story of Harvey Milk. And it gave me hope. It gave me the hope to live my life. It gave me the hope one day I could live my life openly as who I am and then maybe even I could even fall in love and one day get married.
I wanna thank my mom, who has always loved me for who I am even when there was pressure not to. But most of all, if Harvey had not been taken from us 30 years ago, I think he’d want me to say to all of the gay and lesbian kids out there tonight who have been told that they are less than by their churches, by the government or by their families, that you are beautiful, wonderful creatures of value and that no matter what anyone tells you, God does love you and that very soon, I promise you, you will have equal rights federally, across this great nation of ours.
Thank you. Thank you. And thank you, God, for giving us Harvey Milk”.
- Cuba Gooding Jr. and Robert Downey Jr – no one watching missed the awkward laughter that bubbled briefly through the crowd as Gooding Jr. took his place on stage underneath a blackfaced image of Downey Jr. This moment ushered in an unease that hung over the entire segment. I had to remind myself that Hollywood has a long history of racism in its award shows. The DGA named its highest award after the director of Birth of a Nation, D.W. Griffith, and, as I reminded myself they gave it out until 1999 without apology or reference to the egregious offense. Scholars of black cinema, the Academy Awards, and some media award recipients have argued that the bulk of awards to African American actors, particular in the modern period, have gone to performances that reinforce rather than contradict stereotype, with few, but powerful, exceptions. Thus Mr. “Show me the Money” standing underneath Mr. “Beans don’t Burn on the Grill” had so many layers of offense and truth that it was like a wreck on the freeway, you just stare at the raw goriness of it all while hoping that there are survivors. As Gooding Jr. said the dreaded words “blackface” Downey Jr., who had originallyshifted awkwardly in his seat before relaxing as Gooding Jr. smiled reassuringly at him, locked his jaw and hid his thoughts behind ice cold eyes. It was a similar tactic to when he was questioned about the role during its promotion. Gooding Jr. walked a thin line between raising the concerns that brimmed under the surface of this Oscar nod and “jokes” about the employment of black actors and directors that were meant to show no ill will to Downey Jr. Instead they just amped up the discomfort as Downey Jr. missed most of them in his own angry rigidity and the rest of the audience seemed astute enough to understand that in fact both Hollywood and the Oscars have failed to cultivate a wide range of African American actors and directors, preferring to reward the status quo, hardly the stuff of jokes when a black man is standing under a photo of contemporary blackface. As the segment came to its painful conclusion, it became clear that more than I had been ashamed of the Oscar nod which may recognize parody but certainly failed to recognize offense and a marketing campaigned based on parody at the expense of black people. (And again, for those having trouble reading what I’ve wrote – I said MARKETING CAMPAIGN NOT MOVIE, I did not see the movie, am not critiquing the movie, will not discuss what you saw in the movie as some how proof the marketing was not offensive) Despite Downey Jr.s’ self-defense and the defense of so many critics, his response to the whole thing proved he is not above the kind of guilt and shame associated with having done what he did and being awkwardly talked about by a black presenter, even if they are friends. Moments later they handed the golden statue to someone else and it was like a bad wind blew out of the room.
- Ben Stiller does Joaquin Phoenix – everybody seemed confused when Ben Stiller took the podium and hung all over it bearded and defiant. It was not until he took out his gum that some in the audience began to laugh in recognition. Despite a general acceptance that the parody of Phoenix was funny, there was again an element of awkwardness, including from co-presenter Natalie Portman who may have been trying to mimic Lettermen but came across as embarassed to be part of the skit. Many in the industry have worked with Phoenix and/or his older brother. They count him among one of the best actors of his time and have loved him for overcoming great personal tragedy. His current film is getting early buzz despite that fateful moment on Letterman and many have speculated that he will get an Oscar nod; how awkward will it be if he has to step up after being openly mocked by his peers? Again the audience showed themselves more astute about the climate than Stiller, and only laughed quietly. After all, there has been much speculation that Phoenix is either playing a fake role that will be revealed to be an Affleck movie or that he has had some sort of psychotic break that might speak to illness in the family. To me, this moment, spoke about a certain kind of humor that is common which relies on the humiliation of others or the self in order to get the laugh. I have never been a fan of this strain of humor from Dangerfield to Leno to Stiller but when it works, it works b/c it lacks real or imagined malice and can be laughed at without causing someone shame or pain . . .
- Sean Penn stands up for prop 8 – in Slumdog Millionaire’s sweep of the Oscars, Harvey Milk nearly got eclipsed. I had hoped it would win for best director b/c Van Sant did an excellent job of moving between his own and archival footage. He also deftly recreated period and people and staid true to the political complexity of Milk’s candidacy by showing difference within the queer community (establishment vs. counter culture), political mechanations that were seldom more evolved than any straight politician’s, and gender dynamics that continued to be oppressive toward women, even as he sanitized Milk’s sexual practices to appeal to a wider audience. Ironically, the film includes a moment when Milk refuses to do just that in order to win the campaign. (It also recreated the age old myth of queer=white by almost completely omitting poc from the film despite Milk’s own outreach and references to African Americans.) Instead, the big Milk Oscar win of the night went to Sean Penn. Penn whose anger management issues were the joke of the night even tho everyone deftly avoided the continued rumors that his anger doesn’t stop with the paparazzi. And yet, as he took his place in the spotlight, and his eyes teared, I actually believed he had done this film not only so he could call up Madonna and tell her excitedly he’d kissed a boy, but b/c he believed in gay rights. While many are quoting his “commie homo” joke this morning, I had to wonder why. Altho it trades on a further destabilization of Penn’s macho image it also trades on heteropatriarchy that both Deniro and Penn are implicated in, despite both playing gay men in their careers. More effective was when Penn called shame on prop 8 supporters with a directness that was echoed by the applause of the room. And even tho I applauded in my head, some of my friends applauded outloud, I couldn’t help but think about what equality means to a man who went off on Jamie Foxx last award season over an innocent joke about Jude Law that some felt was both generally out of line and also racialized or who, according to some, is the inspiration for Madonna’s DSV song and Wright-Penn’s oft-trips to hospital, neither of which has been proven but has dogged the actor.
- Slum Dog Millionaire wins Best Picture – besides the great musical score performances and wins, this was the moment that will stick for me. While the producer spoke incoherently, the real stars of this film – the child actors – stood beaming just steps away. The joy in their eyes was worth more than anything else last night and yet the controlled way in which, at least the one closest to the microphone, was held in place made my bones ache with the memory of how important discipline and control are to maintain class hierarchies. I had hoped that they would be allowed to speak before the end of the night, but like all the rest of the award season, they were not. And here in lies the shame, because ultimately the movie is both about and made special by those three children and as I will write about later, the impact Hollywood has had on their safety, the decision-making in their families, and has failed to make on their circumstances while capitalizing on their performances is one that could not have been solved by allowing the subaltern to finally speak. But hearing from them would have at least given a moment of equality to the film’s real stars and perhaps prevented them from being cropped out of all of the images of the win by the press. (I was also shocked by how the film was described, I think by Boyle himself tho I could be wrong, as having no known actors outside of India. The adult male lead is in fact one of the assemble cast of Britain’s hit show Skins which just finished playing to rave reviews on BBCAmerica and is a resident of England not India. Despite all this, my celtic pride was showing when Boyle took the mic for best directer.)
- Shirley McClain and Anne Hathaway – far less political was the speech McClain gave in honor of Hathaway’s career. Unlike the pairing of Lauren and Streep which seemed as much a slight about age as it did an honor about long-term contribution to Hollywood, McClain seemed a genuine fan of Hathaway and spoke to her like a mentor ad confidente despite the arena. Hathaway, who everyone predicted had no chance of winning, responded with equally genuine gratitude. It was a moment more touching than if she had actually won, and a moment that reminds those of us so invested in generational conflicts that in fact we women have so much to learn from and to share with one another if we only let it happen.
These are the moments that stuck with me as an intellectual who teaches race, gender, and sexuality in film. They have nothing to do with people’s clothes or hair, the montages, or Hugh Jackman’s singing (ugh). I know that most want fluffy, uncomplicated reviews of things as innocuous as the Oscars, but you knew you wouldn’t get that here didn’t you?