Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Halle’s Comet: Affirmative Action Comes to the Oscars

By Nicholas Stix

March 31, 2002
Toogood Reports/A Different Drummer

Oh my God. I’m sorry. This moment is so much bigger than me.

This moment is for Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll. It’s for the women that stand beside me—Jada Pinkett, Angela Bassett, and it’s for every nameless, faceless woman of color that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened.

Halle Berry, in her acceptance speech upon winning the Academy Award as Best Actress.

With the birthdays of Halle Berry and Denzel Washington about to be declared national holidays, at the risk of being called a bad American and a few other choice names, I’ll forgo the celebrations, thank you.

Watching endless replays of Berry’s Oscar acceptance speech, and analyses by racist black professors and obsequious white movie critics, I feel like a foreigner at a comedy show. I got “A”s in English class, and the words all seem familiar, but I don’t get any of the punch lines that have everyone else rolling in the aisles. One of the most celebrated actors (Sidney Poitier) of his day receives yet another award. One of the most celebrated actors (Denzel Washington) of his day receives yet another award. An attractive starlet with an undistinguished career gets the highest award in her profession, and gives an overwrought speech that misrepresents not only history, but herself, as well.

I can’t fault the choice of Denzel Washington, though I have no doubt that many voters chose him for the wrong reason: Because he’s black. Washington’s selection was set up by the commentators before the Oscars who kept repeating that he might win “for being passed over so many times” before. Those commentators were careful to omit the fact that Washington had already won the Oscar for best supporting actor in 1989’s Glory (over Danny Aiello, who was better that year, in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing), and that he had only been passed over twice, for X in 1992, and The Hurricane, in 1999. These tough-minded commentators conveniently forgot that Peter O’Toole and Richard Burton, neither of whom ever won, were each passed over seven times, and that Al Pacino didn’t win until he was nominated for the seventh and eighth times, for best supporting actor (Glengarry Glen Ross) and best actor (which he won, for Scent of a Woman) respectively, in 1993. Composer Alex North (1910-1991), was nominated 15 times, but never won. (The Academy gave him an honorary award in 1986.) Indeed, the most refreshingly honest remark of the night came from Washington himself, who, according to E!’s Joal Ryan, “invoked the name of tunesmith Randy Newman more than once (as when he asked whether Newman lost 16 [sic] times in a row before winning tonight, was that racism?)”

It’s no knock on Washington, to note that had Russell Crowe not assaulted a producer during the balloting period, Crowe likely would have won his second consecutive Oscar.

I can’t judge whether Halle Berry gave the best female performance of 2001. Like the overwhelming majority of Academy members who voted for her, and the moviegoing public, white and black alike, I did not see Monster’s Ball, which had grossed barely $15 million by the end of the balloting.

In Berry’s acceptance speech, she named Dorothy Dandridge (1923-1965) and Diahann Carroll (1935- ). Dandridge and Carroll were both nominated for the best actress Academy Award, in 1955 and 1975, respectively. Dandridge gave an excellent half-performance in a folk opera—the black, Broadway-style version of Bizet’s Carmen, Carmen Jones—in which she did not sing (the white opera singer, Marilyn Horne, did a splendid job). And Carroll did fine work in Claudine, a black working-class, domestic drama. However, neither woman came close to deserving an Academy Award.

Since Dandridge played only the non-singing part of a role defined by song, it is absurd to suggest she was gyped out of anything. But Halle Berry insisted on this. In the same year, Audrey Hepburn (1929-1993), in Sabrina, and Judy Garland (1922-1969), who did her own singing in A Star is Born, both did work superior to Dandridge’s. The injustice of the year was not Dandridge’s loss, but Grace Kelly’s (1929-1982) win for The Country Girl, even though Garland had given a performance for the ages. Had racism been a factor in 1955, Dorothy Dandridge would not have been nominated. The real story that year was that Grace Kelly was much more popular in Hollywood than Judy Garland.

Apparently unbeknownst to Halle Berry, award-winning performer Diahann Carroll has made a fortune in movies, on Broadway and TV, and touring as a musical performer. Carroll co-starred on Broadway in the 1961-1962 season with Richard Kiley, in the most eagerly awaited show of the year, No Strings. No Strings was produced by Richard Rodgers (1902-1979), the king of Broadway, who composed the show’s music, and wrote its lyrics. Carroll and Rodgers’ efforts won both Tony awards, Broadway’s equivalent to the Oscar. In 1968, Diahann Carroll was the first solo black star of a primetime network show, Julia. Indeed, when singer Vic Damone was married to Carroll, in spite of Damone’s reputation for having the best voice of any popular male singer, the busy performer confessed to suffering an identity crisis at being the husband of Diahann Carroll, who was then more famous.

Lena Horne (1917-) was truly a victim of racism, but Halle Berry won nothing for her. Horne was initially chosen to play Julie in the second film version (1951) of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s musical, Show Boat, but MGM chickened out, and cast Horne’s friend, Ava Gardner, in her stead. However, since we’ll never know if Horne had the “chops” to shine in dramatic roles, while it is regrettable that she never had the chance to fail, there is no point in speculating on her possible triumphs. Horne has enjoyed a long career as one of the most beloved performers of the Great American Songbook penned by composers and lyricists such as Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer, George & Ira Gershwin, Kern, Rodgers, Lorenz Hart and Hammerstein.

As with most prominent black performers, Diahann Carroll and Lena Horne’s fame and success have been due largely to the support of white fans.

As for the other women Berry mentioned, Jada Pinkett Smith is a somewhat talented actress whose in-your-face racism has not in the least hurt her with white-owned movie studios. During the mid-1990s, Newsweek quoted Smith as saying that she looked better than “any white woman.” Angela Bassett, who is a great talent, needs no favors from the likes of Halle Berry. If anything, should Bassett win an Oscar, it will be tainted by association with Berry. White folks will whisper, “She won a ‘Halle Berry’ Oscar.” As for the “nameless, faceless” women of color Berry prides herself on having helped, Berry’s patronizing attitude aside, the only women she will have helped, will be the sort of upper-middle-class black mediocrities who are already awash in work. Great talents succeed in spite of affirmative action, not because of it. Halle Berry would do well to study a little history, before giving lectures on the topic.

Halle Berry was given an Academy Award for being a black man’s daughter, and in spite of her having been born and raised by a white woman. This is progress?

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