I dare you to come up with the name of an American woman in politics who’s more admirable or more impressive than Barbara Jordan — that leader of civil rights and feminism. So how good is this news: Viola Davis has announced that her new production company will adapt Jordan’s biography in a new film, starring Davis herself.

Due to Jim Crow laws in Texas, Jordan could not attend the University of Texas, so instead graduated from Texas Southern — where she became a champion debater of the first rank. After developing a law career in Houston, she became the first African American to be elected to the Texas State Senate, and the first Black woman to be elected to the US House of Representatives from the South. Her speeches remain masterpieces of American literature.

I can’t imagine what she must have experienced as a Black woman in Texas and national politics during an era when most white men had no problem expressing their racism and sexism openly.

One time I met a professor in Texas who had known Jordan. They were close in age had something else in common: they were both gay. Jordan never came out publicly about her sexual orientation — according to this guy she believed it was too soon, even in the 1990s, for gay rights to gain traction in the public eye. Yet some of her eulogies in 1996 made mention of her life partner, Nancy Earl, such that it has become common to speak of her as a gay woman in the intervening years.

Now that’s what I’m talking about: Viola Davis uses her newly rising Hollywood star to make a film about a groundbreaking Black gay woman. Am I dreaming?

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I’m sorry she didn’t win, but I have to pause for a moment to gaze at her approvingly — because watching her on the red carpet at the Academy Awards last night was one of those “one of these things is not like the others” moments.

The Help was dogged by controversy, spearheaded by a number of academics and intellectuals who decried the fact that black actresses were still appearing onscreen as maids. One academic wrote recently, “Really?” and pointed out the following:

  • 1940: Hattie McDaniel Best Supporting Actress, as “Mammy” in Gone with the Wind
  • 1950, Ethel Waters, nominee, Best Supporting Actress category as Granny, a washer woman and domestic in Pinky.
  • 1960, Juanita Moore, nominee Best Supporting Actress as maid Annie, in Imitation of Life 
  • 2012: Octavia Spencer wins BAFTA Best Supporting Actress as maid Minnie, in The Help, Academy Award nominee Best Supporting Actress
  • 2012: Viola Davis, nominee Best Actress as maid Abileen in The Help.

Davis got an earful of these complaints about her acting choice from the radio host Tavis Smiley; the wonderful Melissa Harris-Perry also held forth on the topic of how bad the film was.

So when Davis appeared at the Awards last night with red hair and this green dress that shows off her gorgeous dark skin so brilliantly, I did a double take. As I should have. As I hope everyone did. With this look she sang out not only that she is not a fucking maid, but that she’s going to make her own decisions about her career and her self.

In that sea of skinny white girls all wearing whites or reds or blacks, Davis wore kelly green. She looks like the actress she is, hitting her mid-40s and possibly a terrifically productive period of her career; this look ignores the doubters who questioned her decision to take this role. This look screams, I am my own actress, and I have my own beauty; when I played a maid that one time I hit that role out of the park. I can hardly wait to see her again on both screens and red carpets.

My eccentric Oscar ballot

26 February 2012

Here’s why I always lose Oscar betting pools with my friends: I try to make the Oscars about something bigger.

For example: I truly don’t understand why The Descendants gets so much love. It’s the story of a rich guy who’s selling off thousands of acres of pristine land so he and his family can phenomenally richer — and all of this when unemployment was still at 9% or whatever … well, you can appreciate why I get cranky about things.

I was also nonplussed by last year’s Up in the Air. We’re in the midst of a financial crisis and I’m supposed to emote on behalf of the dude who goes around firing people? It’s gonna have to be a goddamn fantastic film to get me over that obstacle.

Don’t worry: this post has its eyes on the actual nominees, not the films that didn’t get noticed (but how did Take Shelter not get a single nomination?).

Best Actor and Actress: in which I apply the “99% rule,” aka “redistribute the wealth.”

Critics seem to be guessing that George Clooney will win this, according to some kind of logic that we all like the guy and he’s been doing good work. I say that sounds like an old boys’ club if I ever heard one; this is why that “good guy” at work gets promoted and you don’t.

Don’t get me wrong: I love Clooney. I love love him. But I don’t think he’s the best actor of the year, and certainly not for this film. The award should probably go to Jean Dujardin, who was effervescent in a lovely (and better) film. I’ll be delighted if Dujardin wins.

But because I’m feeling contrarian, I’m rooting for Demián Bichir — the stellar Mexican actor who’s so unknown in the U.S. he’s not even a dark horse in this category; the guy who appears as an undocumented worker just trying to make a better life for his kid in L.A. Bichir’s character is so much a member of the 99% that he’s practically off the map — and that’s why he should win Best Actor.

Look, A Better Life wasn’t great. Neither was The Help or The Iron Lady, for that matter. C’mon, members of the Academy — look beyond your white, male, privileged bubbles to the world around you, even just that guy who cuts your grass, and vote for something beyond yourselves.

Using the same logic, my Best Actress choice is Viola Davis, who gives a stellar performance in a pretty crappy film. It’s impossible to compare her role to Meryl Streep’s — Streep dominates virtually every scene in The Iron Lady and shows off so many virtuoso chops that Streep almost looks like a little rich kid surrounded by presents at Christmas. Davis, meanwhile, is so much a part of an ensemble production that she might well have been relegated to the Supporting Actress category.

But you know what? No matter how disappointing was The Help, we’ll remember Davis. She’s just so good — so transcendent in a sea of embarrassing writing and directing — and her kind of goodness is important to the field of acting in 2012. 99%, bitchez!

Supporting Actress and Actor: in which I cast my all-LGBTQ vote.

What a year for the ladies! I’m so delighted with this field that I’m not sure where to go. Should I stick with my 99% rule and root for the magnificent Octavia Spencer? Should I stick with my Foreigners Deserve to Win Oscars rule and root for Bejo? (Well, that probably wasn’t going to happen, honestly.) Should I assert my Women Of All Sizes rule and root for McCarthy, who practically stole Bridesmaids out from under all those top-billed/ skinny women?

I’m going with my heart on this one, as well as with my own insight that 2011 was the Year of the Trans Ladies. Janet McTeer made Albert Nobbs — she was the real heart and soul of this film, raised the whole thing to a higher level, and was ridiculously hot as a man, to boot. This film has received less love than it should have; yeah, it felt a little bit more like something that would have been profound in 1982 but in 2011 feels like yeah, already. Like Bichir in A Better Life, you don’t get more marginalized than trans persons. But honestly, I’ll be happy with any one of these choices. Even better: they should give three Oscars — to Spencer, McCarthy, and McTeer.

Meanwhile, the men’s category seems less competitive to me. Christopher Plummer will — and should — win Best Supporting Actor for his work in Beginners as the father who comes out as an 80-year-old. ‘Nuff said.

Best Picture and Director: In which I wrestle with my own “degree of difficulty” rule.

I’m rooting for two titles: The Artist and Tree of Life. The former is the film I’ll want to see again and again. It’s a crystalline, lovely piece of romantic comedy and melodrama; I found it especially sweet for the way it earnestly wants to teach viewers how to fall in love with classic cinema. I vote for The Artist to take Best Picture.

On the other hand, The Tree of Life attempted a much higher degree of difficulty; like a great diver or ice skater, it took wild risks and didn’t succeed all the time, but what it did accomplish was remarkable: a tale of childhood and early pubescence more real than any I can remember seeing onscreen. If notions like “degree of difficulty” mattered to the Academy, that’s the film that should win.

So I’m splitting the difference: The Artist for Best Picture, and Terrence Malick to take Best Director (or vice versa) — and for these two categories to be split apart. 

Best Screenplay, Original and Adapted: in which I root for the foreigners and commit fully to losing the pool.

A Separation and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. 

The latter is just a beautiful film production — I can’t even imagine how hard it was to come up with a screenplay for this twisting novel that has already received a 7-part miniseries by the BBC in 1979. Starring Alec Guinness, no less. How do you get that down to a bankable 2 hours or so?

Don’t ask me, but Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan did it. Nailed it. (Bonus: an actual woman nominated for an Oscar behind the scenes!)

So if I’m so pro-lady, why am I not rooting for Wiig and Mumolo for Bridesmaids? Because A Separation is so spectacular that the former just seems slight in comparison. Also: Leila Hatami:

From all accounts, I’m going to lose on both scores; I’ve heard people guess that Midnight in Paris and The Descendants will take these categories. That’s too bad. The best I can say is that at least I’m prepared for disappointment.

Best Original Score: how can this go to anyone else?

Listen to this medley of nominations for Best Original Score and tell me if the one for The Artist doesn’t leap out as so memorable that it actually recalls specific scenes. Also: because I found the Kim Novak reaction to be absurd.

It’s not that the other scores aren’t nice and emotional; it’s just that the one for The Artist means more to the film. (Runner-up: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. I loved its 1970s derivative, jazzy ambivalence, just like the film. The one for Hugo was okay too, but like the rest of that film, it felt over-cooked to me.)

Best Cinematography and Film Editing: 

Is it even possible for something other than The Tree of Life to win for Best Cinematography? I will throw an absolute fit if it doesn’t.

But in Film Editing, I’m more ambivalent. I think the truly Oscar-worthy editing jobs were overlooked in the nominations process — Martha Marcy May Marlene, Take Shelter, and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy — so I’m left to wrangle with a disappointing list. Stuck between the rock of my frustration about how these nominations work, on the one hand, and the hard place of a group of films whose editing I didn’t notice as being tight and evocative, I choose The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

Like Tinker Tailor, it took the tightest of editing to shape an expansive story to cram this into a watchable 2-hour film; it also demanded cuts and segues that forwarded the tale, evoked emotions with absolute efficiency. A couple of months later and I want to see David Fincher’s Girl With the Dragon Tattoo again so I can pay even closer attention to what its editors, Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall, did to propel us through that story at such a clip.

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There are other categories I’m not commenting on, obviously — a series of documentaries that are so lackluster in comparison to the ones that didn’t get nominated that I can barely breathe, categories I don’t really understand:

  • Why does costume design only get applied to period pieces? As Dana Stevens of Slate put it last year, the clothes worn by Julianne Moore and Annette Bening in The Kids are All Right were so absolutely perfect; why isn’t that costume designer nominated for anything?

  • What does “Art Direction” mean — does this mean, for lack of a better term, some kind of unholy combination of “Stage Design” and “Location Specialist”? Or does it mean something else?
  • And while we’re on the subject: is there some kind of connection between Cinematographer and “Art Director”?
  • Why are there different categories for “Sound Editing” and “Sound Mixing”? Why isn’t this all just “Sound Editing”? Do I sound like an idiot for asking this question?
  • Why can’t I watch all the nominated short films on iTunes or some other service? (Here I go again with my complaints about access.)

Meanwhile, there’s the all-important issue of gowns. Please tell me that Leila Hatami will appear in something stunning, that Jessica Chastain wears something that shows off that strawberry hair, and that Janet McTeer wears a tuxedo.

Here’s hoping! and here’s hoping, too, that I don’t throw anything at the screen when Hugo wins everything in sight.