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Op-ed: Oscars 2014 Broke Ground Sans Controversy

Op-ed: Oscars 2014 Broke Ground Sans Controversy

Op-ed: Oscars 2014 Broke Ground Sans Controversy

It was a pretty staid Oscar ceremony that still managed to break a lot of necessary ground!

It was a night when people of color won big, women won little and Old Hollywood was on display in the form of film montages and two aging film greats, Kim Novak and the incomparable Sidney Poitier, who made frail and painfully out-of-it appearances. Liza Minelli and her sister Lorna Luft were on hand for a 75-year tribute to The Wizard of Oz and P!nk gave a strong and evocative rendition of Judy Garland’s signature song, "Over the Rainbow" as a montage ran behind her in the night’s gayest moment.


There were a few flubs–John Travolta failed to get Idina Menzel’s name even remotely right as he introduced her to sing "Let It Go" from Frozen. The song won Best Original Song and the film Best Animated Feature.

Angelina Jolie received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award for her work with women and children worldwide. Bette Midler came out to sing her own signature song, "Wind Beneath My Wings" following the In Memoriam segment, a moving tribute to all those who had died in 2013, ending with Phillip Seymour Hoffman.

It was pure, old-time Hollywood when stars were stars. There were gorgeous gowns with only a few major missteps (we’re looking at you Whoopi Goldberg in that black and white Hefty sack and as we tweeted about Glenn Close "She said give me a gown that looks like a prison matron’s uniform but add some sequins and a flounce for, you know, fun!"). This Oscars hearkened back to the days when the likes of Bob Hope and Johnny Carson hosted. It was smooth sailing with no rough edges.

Or anything edgy.

The most controversial moment of the entire 2014 Oscars ceremony was when host Ellen DeGeneres crashed Twitter by asking viewers to retweet a selfie of her with some of the evening’s front-row heavyweights–Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Meryl Streep (who, giggling, proclaimed "My first tweet!"), Lupita Nyong’o and Brad Pitt. The twit pic was favorited a million and a half times and retweeted nearly two and a half million times in an hour.

The RT record was a first for Twitter and made news feeds all over–especially on Twitter. But that was it for controversy. #Oscars2014 was no reprise of last year’s bawdy, raucous burlesque hosted by Seth MacFarlane. That was a show I loved, most women uniformly hated and deemed sexist, which was in part why my article on it for The Advocate was one of the most "liked" of all the Oscars reviews.

This year, Ellen, America’s lesbian sweetheart, was guaranteed to be a safe, solid choice as host. There were few hiccups in her performance. A little too much commentary on veteran character actress June Squibb being "old," Barkhad Abdhi being Somali and Jonah Hill’s penis scene in The Wolf of Wall Street, ("You showed us something in that film that I haven’t seen in a very, very long time.").

Ellen was, as ever, Miss Congeniality. Popping up in this or that seat behind this or that star, Ellen was like Peter Pan and she was just what the audience needed. Nothing fancy, nothing outrageous, nothing to shock or stun or distract from the films and actors.

She even managed a tasteful joke about 12 Years a Slave, which went on to make history by winning Best Picture. "We should get started. It’s going to be an exciting night. Anything can happen, so many different possibilities. Possibility number one: 12 Years a Slave wins Best Picture. Possibility number two: You’re all racists. And now please welcome our first white presenter, Anne Hathaway."

The wins for 12 Years a Slave made the night a groundbreaking one, most notably the win for Best Picture. British director Steve McQueen became the first black producer to win an Oscar.

There were more people of color nominated for Oscars this year than in any other–the only one of the top awards without a black nominee was the Best Actress category. In addition to McQueen in both the Best Picture and Best Director category, there were also Chiwetel Ejiofor for Best Actor, Barkhad Abdhi for Best Supporting Actor and Nupita Nyong’o who won for Best Supporting Actress.

20 Feet from Stardom, which won for Best Documentary Feature, was a vehicle for black women vocalists and one of its stars, the legendary Darlene Love, appeared on-stage with the producers when the film won, giving a fabulous, impromptu a capella performance.

Other black nominees were John Ridley, who won for Best Adapted Screenplay for 12 Years a Slave and the amazing Pharrell Williams, whose song "Happy" from Despicable Me 2 was up for Best Original Song. Ridley’s speech was eloquent as it was poignant and he stopped briefly as emotion took over. He had, after all, adapted his screenplay from a book by a former slave.

This was the real news of the night–the breadth of black visibility at the notoriously white-on-white Oscars. As one young black woman tweeted at me as I live-tweeted the event, "This is who won tonight: Black people. Black people won."

There had been much grumbling when the nominees were announced Jan. 16 that African Americans had been shut out. Early favorites had been Oprah for her role in black gay director Lee Daniel’s film, The Butler. Oscar-winner Forest Whitaker had also been a favorite for his role as the title character in that film. Ryan Coogler’s docudrama FruitvaleStation with newcomer star Michael B. Jordan had also been a rumored favorite. But neither film, both of which came out early in 2013, made the cut, nor did their directors or casts.

And yet it was still a night of black history at the Oscars. There was no more moving speech than that of Lupita Nyong’o. The Kenyan actress who had just turned 31 the day before, has been omnipresent during awards’ season, dressed impeccably and glamorously throughout, garnering deserved attention for her amazing style among style-setting actresses like Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett who have been on the red carpet for years. Last week Jezebel did a photo array of her appearances in the color spectrum and she was, as they captioned it, her own united colors of Nyong’o.

Nyong’o seared the screen with her gut-wrenching performance of the young slave, Patsey. It was, unquestionably, in a year of truly incomparable performances by actors, one of the most memorable in not just this year’s panoply, but in film history.

And yet it was, incredibly, her first film.

In her speech, Nyong’o said, "It doesn’t escape me for one moment that so much joy in my life is thanks to so much pain in someone else’s. And so I want to salute the spirit of Patsey for her guidance. And for Solomon, thank you for telling her story and your own."

In thanking her director, McQueen, who sat in the audience, his hands to his face as he listened to her, Nyong’o said, "Steve McQueen, you charge everything you fashion with a breath of your own spirit....I’m certain that the dead are standing about you and watching and they are grateful and so am I."

In ending, she said, "When I look down at this golden statue, may it remind me and every little child that no matter where you’re from, your dreams are valid. Thank you."

Nyong’o’s speech may have been the most moving, but hers was situated within a night of moving speeches.
The first award of the evening went to Best Supporting Actor, Jared Leto, for his lyric performance as the HIV+ trans woman, Rayon, in the AIDS drama,  Dallas Buyers Club.

Leto is a long-time supporter of LGBT causes and was one of many straight celebrities who worked to overturn Prop 8 in California. Leto raised money for the campaign against Prop 8, spoke out in support of LGBT rights group Freedom Action Inclusion Rights (FAIR) and engaged in other anti-Prop 8 activism.

In his speech, Leto thanked his mother, who sat in the audience, who had been a "high school dropout" and a "teenaged single mom." He invoked the struggles in Venezuela and Ukraine and urged people to "live their dreams." In closing he said, holding his Oscar aloft, "This is for the 36 million people who have lost the battle to AIDS and to those of you out there who have ever felt injustice because of who you are or who you love, tonight I stand here in front of the world with you and for you."

It was an emotional beginning that set the tone for the highly emotional night. Later in the evening Matthew McConaughey delivered another emo speech when he won Best Actor for his role as the dying AIDS patient Ron Woodroof in the biopic Dallas Buyers Club.

In addition to 12 Years a Slave, the night’s big winner was Gravity. The tour de force for Best Actress nominee Sandra Bullock took home many of the night’s key tech awards, like cinematography, film editing and also music.

The film–which was a singular work, revolving as it did solely around the female protagonist–provided another one of the evening’s firsts. Alfonso Cuaron won the award for Best Director, becoming the first Latino and only the second person of color to win that award. (The first was Ang Lee, who won twice, including for Brokeback Mountain.)

One of the night’s pivotal moments–a yawn most years–was the speech by the president of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences, Cheryl Boone Isaacs. It wasn’t the speech itself so much as Ms. Isaacs herself. She is only the third woman to hold the post and she is the first African-American.

Isaacs was elected to the post in July 2013. Her election points to one of the issues that went unnamed by anyone but Cate Blanchett as she gave her acceptance speech–that women are a minority in Hollywood.

Blanchett, who gave a rousing, charming, gracious speech in which she spoke to each nominee in her category, asserted that films with "women at the center" are "not a niche"market–as Gravity certainly showed.

And yet for another year not one of the nominees for Best Picture was directed by a woman. In the history of the awards–87 years–only four women have ever been nominated for Best Director: Lina Wertmüller for Seven Beauties (1976), Jane Campion for The Piano (1993), Sofia Coppola for Lost in Translation (2003), and Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker (2009). Bigelow was the first female director to win the Oscar for Best Director.
As Blanchett noted, "The world is round, people!" Yet it’s been five years since a woman was even a Best Director nominee.

Demographically speaking, at this year’s Oscars, women came up short. Again.

Last week Variety, in advance of the Academy Awards, released a scathing report on the Celluloid Ceiling from Martha Lauzen, executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University.

The report puts women’s employment in the film industry at its lowest point in nearly two decades–lower than in 1998. Variety reported employment in the top-grossing 250 domestic films put overall employment for women in 2013 at 16%, down 2% from the previous year and down 1% from 1998 levels.

According to Variety, women accounted for 16% of the 2,938 people employed on the movies surveyed. The largest segment of jobs held by woman were as producers, editors and production designers. Women were most likely to work in drama, comedy and documentary films, and least likely to work in animation, sci-fi and horror titles.

These numbers were most disturbing: Only 6% of directors were women, down 3% from 2012 and 1998. Writers comprised only 10%, down a full 5% from 2012 and 3% from 1998. Among producers, 25% were women, flat with 2012 and up 1% from 1998, but executive producers were only 15%, down 2% from 2012 and 3% from 1998. Editors–traditionally a job where women are actually hired in the film industry was 17%, down 3% from 2012 and 1998. Cinematographers were a mere 3%. Up 1% from 2012 and down 1% from 1998.

Statistics like this should be a source of outrage. But as MSNBC’s Ronan Farrow noted in his first tweet of the Oscars evening, "Oscar voters are ‘increasingly diverse’ in the sense that they’re 94% Caucasian and 77% male at last count."

#Oscars2014 didn’t register any wardrobe malfunctions or stepping outside the lines. Graciousness was the watchword of the night. But there was a subtle shift with the overwhelming support for 12 Years a Slave that cannot be overstated. Steve McQueen jumping up and down on the Academy stage was a remarkable and joyous moment–the antithesis of the suffering of his film’s characters.

The Oscars got a lot less white Sunday night. Now if they could just get less male, Hollywood would begin to be in balance with the rest of the world. Ellen was a statement just because she’s female. Cheryl Boone Isaacs is a yet larger statement. Women speaking out as Blanchett did are still another statement.

Now it’s time for the Academy to hear. Women are not a niche market. Maybe, just maybe, things will be better next year. And if they aren’t, maybe someone will say screw old Hollywood and rock the boat until women get equal representation in Tinsel Town.
Victoria A. Brownworth is an award-winning journalist, editor and writer. She has won the NLGJA and the Society of Professional Journalists awards, the Lambda Literary Award and has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. She is a regular contributor to The Advocate and SheWired, a blogger for Huffington Post and a contributing editor for Curve magazine and Lambda Literary Review. Her book, From Where We Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth won the 2012 Moonbeam Award for Cultural/Historical Fiction. Her collection of vampire stories, Night Bites, has been published in several languages. Her novel, After It Happened will be published in fall 2014. @VABVOX

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Victoria A. Brownworth