Sunday, February 27, 2011
Happy Oscar Day!
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For the second time, I have no “sway” over what will happen at the Academy Awards. Last time, I wrote about the wonderful Taraji P. Henson, but the ceremony had been moved to March; her loss wasn’t the result of the Black History Mumf Oscar curse. This year, the ceremony is back in February—tonight in fact—but I can’t hurt anybody because the show is severely Negro-impaired. If you do see a Black face on TV tonight, it’ll probably be wearing a waiter outfit.
Since you’re here, I suppose I should write something. I already feel guilty about my schedule keeping me from being more prolific this year. I have folders of screenshots for three movies I’ve yet to write anything for this month—we’ll have to do BHM extras in March. For now, let’s discuss the past Black winners of acting Oscars. Let’s start with the first winner:
Hattie McDaniel, Gone With the Wind (1939): Olivia de Havilland is the first White actor to lose to a cullud person, but she knew this before the ceremony because, back then, the Oscars were no big secret. Imagine if she hadn’t known! I would pass out if her loss had elicited Shelley Winters’ classic Cleopatra Jones line: “That troublemaking coon!!!” But seriously, folks, McDaniel deserved her Oscar simply because Mammy was no ordinary Mammy. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Mammy was kicking Scarlett O’Hara’s ass when the camera wasn’t on them. Racist White Southerners knew this too: Wikipedia cites that “[h]er role in Gone with the Wind had alarmed some in the Southern audience; there were complaints that in the film she had been too familiar with her white employer.” Too familiar? Yeah, too familiar with airing her employer out. “Go get me a switch, Miss Scarlett!” I can hear Hattie yelling.
Of course, some bougie Negroes and liberal White folks cringe at not only this role but this win. To them I say something I haven’t said since Black History Mumf 2008: SIT YO’ ASS DOWN!!!! As Ms. McDaniel once said: “I’d rather get paid $7,000 for playing a maid than $70 to be somebody’s maid. Lest I forget, it’s a damn good performance too, with several winks to us, the Black folks in the audience. My score: A.
James Baskett, Song of the South (1945): I’ve already said everything I wanted to say about Song of the South; I’m just putting Baskett here because, technically, he was the first Black man to receive an Oscar, honorary or not. Sure, he couldn’t go pick it up at the ceremony (McDaniel got hers at the Oscars, and read a speech written for her by the studio), but he received the Oscar nonetheless. My score: B- for Uncle Remus, A- for Brer Fox.
Sidney Poitier, Lillies of The Field (1963): Y’all know I love Sidney. He’s been a constant here at Black History Mumf, both as actor and director. But honestly, what did he do here that warranted an Oscar? This is Sidney at his most asexual—he’s with NUNS for God’s sake—and though he has several good scenes with the Mother Superior (Lilia Skala), it’s nothing worth worrying Price Waterhouse. He’s been so much better in so many different pictures. This was pure charity. My score: C.
Louis Gossett, Jr, An Officer and A Gentleman (1982): Gossett’s drill sergeant was up against a gay man, a transsexual, Mandingo’s Warren Maxwell (did James Mason attempt to use Gossett’s head to drain his rheumatiz’?) and George W. Bush. W is played here by my personal favorite in this year’s category, Charles Durning, who remains the only person who deserved an Oscar nomination just for singing a song. My Pops said that Gossett was “pretty soft for a drill sergeant,” and he’d know: he was in Vietnam. Gossett feels a bit soft, especially when you compare him to Adolph Caesar, R. Lee Ermey or hell, even Lynn Whitfield in that dreadful Pauly Shore movie. Still, he turns in a good B-plus worthy performance here, calling Richard Gere “Mayo,” and singing one of the more entertaining march songs. Gossett was the third Black Supporting Actor nomination and that category’s first win. Which leads us to:
Den-ZELLLL, Glory (1989): Denzel Washington was here two year before, for Cry Freedom, and in Glory, he manages to steal the spotlight from his fellow nominee in 1987, Morgan Freeman. Private Trip is the PERFECT STORM of Denzel mannerisms. This is the role you go to if you want to perfect your Den-ZELLLL imitation. His vocal “heh-heh’s,” his righteous indignation, his puffed up pride, his brooding and his “so you’re tellin’ me” verbal sarcasm—they are ALL HERE. Unlike some of his later performances, where the Denzel-ness borders on parody, here it’s perfect. Pauline Kael, who disliked Washington’s performance and called it overly telegraphed, was absolutely wrong here. But I can’t help think of her complaint when I watch Denzel slum his way through movies he shouldn’t have taken in the first place. But Glory is a must-see, and this may be Washington’s best performance. My score: A.
Whoopi Goldberg, Ghost (1990): Here’s a performance that divides people. Some saw it as coonery. The Academy saw it as a great performance. I think what Goldberg is doing here is intriguing: She knows this role’s potential for Willie Best-style coonery (She’s seein’ ghosts, y’all!) and she both acknowledges it and subverts it. She knows how far she can go, and unlike Best, there is genuine emotion and craft in her performance. Her role is strong enough that, had the makers of Ghost not pussied out and kept Goldberg onscreen with Moore at the end rather than go all Swayze on us, I would have believed her as Swayze. Most critics don’t respect comedic performances. I do. My score: A-. If you think I’ve gone soft in my militancy, the next paragraph will be my downfall.
Me, Jerry Maguire (1996): My doppelganger, Cuba Gooding, Jr., is remembered more for his Oscar speech than his performance. If you happen to watch Jerry Maguire again—and I did a few nights ago when it was on cable—you’ll see that Gooding’s speech is foreshadowed in that movie. Cuba G’s shouting down of the Oscar orchestra is pure Rod Tidwell, his Jerry Maguire character. As I wrote in my Regina King piece at BHM 2008, Jerry Maguire does an Imitation of Life style switcheroo: We think it’s about the White love story, but it’s really about the Black one. Gooding and Regina King are both excellent here, a fact that is overshadowed by all the terrible choices Gooding has made since he won this thing. (Boat Trip, Cuba? Why hast though forsaken me?!) No matter. Bitch at me if you want, and I’ll send you an autographed picture of me; Gooding deserves an A.
Den-ZELLLL, again, Training Day (2001): Had Pauline Kael gone after Washington for this performance, I would be in her corner. Washington is quite convincing as corrupt cop Alonzo during his early “mentoring” scenes with Ethan Hawke, but as the film progresses, he slowly starts going off the rails until his big “KING KONG AIN’T GOT SHIT ON ME!” freakout, which is NOT convincing AT ALL. This is three-quarters of a great performance, helped along both by the joy you get watching Washington have a good time as the bad guy AND how close to Denzel parody this gets. Just listen to the way Alonzo says “heh-heh (pause) MY nigga!” Like the last Black actor to sink his teeth into blatant villainy (the far superior Morgan Freeman in Street Smart), Alonzo is not given an exit worthy of his character. And sorry, Denzel, this should have been Wesley’s role and his Oscar. My score: B.
Halle Berry, Monster’s Ball (2001): I won’t waste any time. I hated hated hated this performance. Her Southern accent is shaky, her scenes with her son (which foreshadow Precious) are unconvincing, and there wasn’t a single moment her character felt real to me. Berry has been convincingly downtrodden before (she’s fantastic in Jungle Fever, good in Losing Isaiah), but not here. I remember laughing my ass off when she talks about getting “curtains on credit,” (a more knowledgeable screenwriter would have used the correct word: LAYAWAY) and rolling my eyes at hack Marc Forster’s attempts at symbolism (a little white spoon going into a big ass mound of chocolate ice cream? REALLY, Marc? That’s about right.) In my review, I said her sex scene with Billy Bob Thornton (who should have gotten the Oscar nod instead of her) sounded like “Rhett Butler screwing Mammy.” Black pussy can cure a lot of things. Racism is not one of them, and I’m insulted this movie even attempted to make that statement. The same folks who called Precious poverty porn seemed to just love Monster’s Ball. I wasn’t fooled. Angela Bassett should have broken the Black Best Actress curse instead of Berry, at least not for this role. My score: F-.
Morgan Freeman, Million Dollar Baby (2004): More charity from the Oscars. I loved Million Dollar Baby (as I’ve said before, as a former boxer I am a true sucker for boxing movies) but this was payback for former slights by the Academy. Freeman won this for his narration. Yes, he’s convincing as a former boxer and Eastwood’s right hand man, and it’s nice to see him and Eastwood together again after Unforgiven, and yes, there is that Freeman gravitas. If he could exchange this Oscar, he should send it in for the one he deserved for Street Smart or The Shawshank Redemption. As Carol Burnett said about her role in The Four Seasons: It’s fine, no gem. My score: B.
Jamie Foxx, Ray (2004): Who knew Ray Charles was such a dick?!! The general complaint about this win is that Foxx is just doing an imitation of Ray Charles, but what an imitation it is. I forgot I was watching Foxx—he became Ray Charles to me. And damn, I didn’t like Brother Ray very much. That Foxx could add that layer of complexity on Charles—with Charles’ blessing—is why I think he deserved this Oscar. Ray is ultimately too long, and does fall into the biopic trap, but Foxx is stellar throughout. I should also mention that the actress who played Charles’ mother, Sharon Warren, has one of the greatest moments in movie history. I could watch that scene 100 times. My score: A.
Jennifer Hudson, Dreamgirls (2006): Yeah, she had that damn song on her side, and yeah, I think Eddie Murphy was more worthy of the Oscar than she was, but I saw Dreamgirls on Broadway and if Jennifer Holiday could win the Tony, Hudson could win the Oscar. The role is better written, and better acted, in the movie than the musical, and Hudson’s pitching of the song is perfectly calibrated to the movie. Had she done it Holiday’s way (and Holiday’s version of the song is better), it would have come off as grotesque on the big screen. Like on stage, my love of Effie White was helped by the audience I sat with at the movie theater. They talked back to Effie, and made her one of their own. On stage, I must admit I did not hear one note of Holiday’s performance after the first line—the Broadway theater vibrated so loudly with cheers and stomps that I feared it would collapse. People went batshit at my movie theater too. That has to count for something Hudson did right. My score: B.
Forrest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland (2006): OOGA BOOGA!!! Whitaker is the Black boogeyman as Idi Amin. I’ll give him much credit for the accent, but maybe the mistake here is that the only way Idi Amin can work as a movie character is by showing real footage of him. He’s stranger than fiction, and nothing Whitaker does can make his performance work. I kept comparing him to the Amin I saw in documentaries, and he kept failing. The script also doesn’t help him very much by making the “hero” of the piece so stupid that you want Idi Amin to get him. I’m going to give Whitaker a pass. My score: C+.
Mo’Nique, Precious (2010): Mo’Nique is outrageous in Precious. This is one of the most fearless performances I have ever seen, and what made it even more compelling for me is that I knew people like this in my old neighborhood. I knew Precious, the kids at her school, and mothers who screamed at their kids the way Mary Jones screams at Precious. The movie does pour it on a bit thickly sometimes, but in comparison to the harrowing novel, viewers of Precious are getting a break. I’ve never been a big fan of Mo’Nique’s comedy, but I had newfound respect for her after this (and, from a comedic perspective, after Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins). Her big scene should have inspired envy in other actresses that they weren’t able to deliver it—and nail it—the way she does. When you read my autobiography, you’ll understand just how much I understood the 80’s ‘hood environment Precious forces you to wallow in, and you’ll get to meet my neighborhood’s Mary Jones. Mo’Nique captures not only the character’s villainy, but also the character’s victimization. That she forces you NOT to feel sorry for her earns her the Oscar. My score: A.
Enjoy your Oscars tonight. I am hoping Anne Hathaway has a wardrobe malfunction to spice up the Harvey Weinstein payola!