Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Our Oscar

I just got back from the gym where I heard an interesting post-Oscars conversation between two men. One was railing about Avatar having lost out to The Hurt Locker for best picture. “Did it make too much money,” he sniveled, “so they couldn’t give it the Oscar too?” His friend agreed, “Avatar was a great film. It lept technology so far forward things will never be the same.”

I was with them up till this point. I loved Avatar. I thought it was a wonderful adventure and a thrilling first step into the world of movies to come. I thoroughly enjoyed myself for the two plus hours it played. I whole-heartedly agree that it deserved to win all the effects and technical awards it won. But – and here is where my gym friends and I differ – while I loved the story and the environmental theme, it is a story we’ve seen before. It didn’t break new ground in that area in terms of emotional themes and character arc. As with Titanic, even though you know how it’s going to end, you still stick around because it’s a great ride to get there. As with Titanic, you have James Cameron dialog which is often heavy-handed at worst, on-the-nose at best. (Sidebar: why do successful film makers stop thinking they might have areas of weakness when they turn into film powerhouses? It’s akin to thinking that just because you own a Porche you are suddenly a great driver. No! Now you can just drive like an idiot even faster.) My point is, while wonderfully fun, entertaining and visually stunning, Avatar, due to writing issues, is not best picture and the Academy, it would seem, agrees with me.

Here is where my gym friends started to rile me. The sniveler continued “And the Hurt Locker, I mean just because it’s a war movie directed by a woman…” and here was where I couldn’t hear him anymore for the angry blood rushing in my ears. I took a deep breath and tried to concentrate on my workout. Whereas before I was considering inserting myself into their conversation, now I could not do so without inserting my wrath into their faces.

We’ve been waiting a long time for a win in the Best Director category. Eighty two years to be exact. Scores of talented women make wonderful pictures against the odds every year and repeatedly we are ignored by the Academy. Infuriating? Yes. Discrimination? Maybe. We’ve earned that award time and again and I am so proud of Kathryn Bigelow for finally winning it. The moment they said her name I jumped off the couch in exhilaration and shouted “the girls won!” to my startled cat. There is no question that director’s gender aside, the Hurt Locker is a taught, intense thriller with an amazing character journey, and deep, thoughtful dialog. That is the point of Best Picture. At long last, this was our Oscar.

But listening to these two whine about the film’s win, asserting it was just some political crap for the fact she’s a woman I was chilled. Oh no, I thought. Was this how it was out there in the world? Were there people (and by people I mean men) who thought Kathryn hadn’t deserved to win? That it was a politically motivated hand-out? Then a second thought froze me. Were there people (men) who devalued her win as a woman just the way there were whites who devalued Hallie Berry’s Best Actress win? Oh no.

I have long been one of those de-valuers. I hated Monster’s Ball. I hated Hallie Berry’s performance. I thought it was a self-conscious, shock value movie that acted like it was much deeper than it was by playing to cheap, overblown emotions. These overblown emotions, I felt, were chiefly overacted by Ms. Berry. People talked about her courage. I feel it takes more courage to hold those emotions in and underplay them. Those are the far more interesting, intelligent performances and the ones I am interested in seeing and in seeing rewarded. (See Monique’s amazing performance and well-deserved win for Precious) I too would have thrilled for the beautiful Ms. Berry and the black community if she’d turned in a deep and deserving performance. Berry’s win that the black community cheered, lots of whites including myself felt was undeserved, unearned and only given to Ms. Berry as a political, PC move. What was worse was her gloating, “it’s about time” attitude in her acceptance speech. (Kathryn and Monique’s acceptance speeches were classy and humble.) It would be too easy to write it off as a simple race issue. I cite Denzel Washington’s Oscar win that same year that no one de-valued, black or white. Then again, it was for a nuanced, well-played performance so who would dispute it? If we’re looking through the race lens, his was the true achievement of the year; earning the nod by turning in solid, good work. Yet I dismiss Berry’s Oscar nod as an Academy PC misstep. And now with the tables turning it deeply saddens me to know that there are those out there who would dismiss Bigelow’s win by the same rubric.

But again I have to look at my own judgments. Would I have reacted to Berry’s win the same way if she’d been a white actress? Probably. I’ve never been a fan of over-hyped emotions in performance. Truthfully I doubt I would have even remembered it this many years later if she’d been white as white people undeserve Oscars regularly. I remember and chafe at it for the historic significance that was conferred upon it. I would cheer a best actress win by a black actress that was riveting and real just as I cheer those won by white actresses for performances of high caliber. (Sidebar: though I adore Sandra Bullock, I agree with her – she didn’t really earn it, she just wore them down.)

Would I have been as excited by The Hurt Locker’s win if it had been directed by a man? Hmmmm. I would always have liked that it was a smaller indie winning against a media behemoth. The underdog appeals to me. To be honest, I probably wouldn’t have seen it if it were directed by a man. I’m not interested in war movies in general. But I wanted to see how a woman would handle such traditionally male ground. The answer: like a human.

I admit, though I loved The Hurt Locker, it wasn’t my favorite of 2009 (An Education, anyone?) and I was rooting for Bigelow to win out of sisterhood. And here we risk falling into the same politically dismiss-able category as women who rooted for Hillary to win just because of her gender. So starved for our chance at the reins are we that there is a mindset of “any woman in charge will be better than another man.” And yes, I wanted Hillary to win.

I didn’t just want Kathryn to win because she’s a woman (doubt it? See my thoughts on Diablo Cody’s screenplay win). At the end of the day, every oppressed group wants to see one of their own winning gold, sitting at the top desk or leading the best team. I can understand the rallying for Hallie because it is the same pride by association I feel for Kathryn. I take her win personally and knocks against that win personally too.

The dividing line for Oscar should not be race or gender. It should be deserving versus undeserving. And the pro and con reactions beyond that are emotionally-driven ones based in our pre-judging, generalizing, reductive selves both on the positive and negative sides of the argument. As a woman, I find it exciting that a woman finally won after eighty-two times not winning. But it’s important because a deserving woman and her work won. If she had been undeserving is would have been a meaningless win – not a true victory for women. It will probably always rile me to hear men who have a negative, gender-biased reaction to her win. Hopefully they’ll take a look at the film (or another look) and realize that a great director won a well-earned Oscar. And that great just happens to be a woman. Get used to it, boys.

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