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Growing up with movie-buff parents, the Academy Awards were required viewing, even when I was too young to watch any of the nominated films. The ceremony had an alluring sense of self-importance: All those beautiful people in their beautiful clothes, talking about the power of art, as millions of people around the world watched. I still vividly remember the year my parents shooed me off to bed when the show ran late (as it usually does), then hearing the muffled soundtrack of a movie I’d actually seen. Had it just won Best Picture? I tiptoed back to the living room to check, and my father beckoned me over to watch the acceptance speeches. Some milestones, it turns out, are more important than a good night’s sleep.
When I was older, I started hosting low-key Oscar parties for friends, having spent the preceding months catching up on as many nominated movies as I could. The show became less Hollywood spectacle and more highly contested sports playoff: We placed bets, cheered on our favorites, and groaned over what we saw as bad calls. No matter the results, we always had plenty to argue about, because there were always more losers than winners — people unjustly robbed of an honor they deserved.
But was it simply a matter of supply and demand? The Academy Awards stir up controversy because there’s too much talent fighting over too little recognition. The indignant coverage of each year’s Oscar “snubs” glosses over a humbling reality: Most professional actors, directors, and screenwriters will never be nominated for an Oscar, let alone win one. It’s a ruthless numbers game.
The Academy Awards are also a magnet for contentious social issues, the movies being a reflection of the society in which they’re made. The debate over whether the Oscars should be less “political” has gone on for more than 50 years (and has been mostly lost by the “non-political” side). When April Reign created the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite in 2015, she set off a discussion about representation that continues to this day. In 2017, there were calls to cancel the ceremony when some nominees couldn’t enter the country due to Donald Trump’s executive order banning immigration from certain —majority Muslim — countries. After Harvey Weinstein was finally called to account for his treatment of women, a group of actresses who’d gone public with their accusations introduced a #MeToo segment at the 2018 ceremony. It was a powerful statement that the movie industry, if (very) belatedly, was taking women’s concerns seriously.
The winners at this year’s Oscars will inevitably say something polarizing, odd, semi-incoherent, inspiring, and/or heartwarming in their acceptance speeches. And that’s why I keep watching. There’s a vulnerability in those moments that cuts through the Hollywood illusion, reminding me that everyone who makes it onto that stage is a person who has finally — improbably — had a dream come true. The Academy Awards have always been both inspiring and controversial, as the stories on this list make clear.
Mammy and the Femme Fatale: Hattie McDaniel, Dorothy Dandridge and the Black Female Standard (Lynda Cowell, Girls on Tops, July 2020)
Hattie McDaniel made history by being the first Black performer to win an Academy Award in 1940. Unfortunately, that honor was complicated by the role she played: Scarlett O’Hara’s servant, the sassy but loving “Mammy,” in Gone with the Wind. The film was a hugely popular hit and won a then-record eight Oscars, including Best Picture. But even in the pre-Civil Rights era, McDaniel was criticized by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples (NAACP) for degrading her race, as cultural critic Lynda Cowell makes clear in this commentary about Black female stereotypes.
McDaniel’s response that she’d rather be “paid $700 a week playing a maid than $7 working as one” was tart and to the point. Sadly, the night of her greatest triumph was marred by the casual racism that was endemic even in supposedly open-minded California. At the dinner ceremony, McDaniel was forced to sit at a remote table, separate from her co-stars, and she wasn’t invited to the celebration party afterward, which was held at a “no Blacks allowed” nightclub.
Cowell used to dismiss McDaniel as “a funny Black woman who provided the light relief in a three-hour long film,” while the petite Dorothy Dandridge was “the kind of light-skinned lovely every Black girl should aspire to be.” In this enlightening piece, she explains how she eventually realized that both were subject to the same racist limitations in their careers.
Mammy, cartoon or otherwise, was a character that had been a part of America’s collective imagination for a while. After appearing in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Mammy started to get around. Despite the fact that slaves were given very little to eat and were often worked into early graves, the notion of the large, middle-aged, dark-skinned Black woman who loved her owners more than life itself became cherished. And why wouldn’t it? With no husband, children or family to ever speak of, this loyal, motherly, sexless husk of a human being posed little threat to white society. It was McDaniel’s portrayal of Mammy that came to embody a character that still sets the standard for Black actresses today.
Sacheen Littlefeather and Ethnic Fraud (Dina Gilio Whitaker, The Conversation, October 2022)
One of the first — and most controversial — political statements delivered at the Oscars was made in 1973 by a young woman named Sacheen Littlefeather. When Marlon Brando was announced as the winner for Best Actor in The Godfather, she strode onto the stage in a buckskin dress and announced that Brando had asked her to reject the award on his behalf, as a protest against Hollywood’s treatment of Native Americans. She identified herself as being of Apache heritage, and though she was booed that evening, she soon became an inspirational figure in the Indian rights movement.
But what if all her years of activism were based on a lie? Whitaker, a lecturer on American Indian Studies at California State University, met with Littlefeather for a possible book project and ultimately came to doubt the woman’s claim of Native heritage, a doubt she kept to herself for fear of “outing” someone who’d become a role model for so many. After Littlefeather’s death in late 2022, two of her sisters confirmed Whitaker’s suspicions. Whitaker’s account is on the shorter side, but her personal experience with Littlefeather gives it particular resonance. Rather than shaming Littlefeather for lying, Whitaker explores the reasons why she did, and what she gained from it.
Littlefeather became a cultural icon in large part because she made a life playing to the Indian Princess stereotype, and she certainly looked the part. This was especially true during the Oscars incident, in which she adorned herself in full Native dress, for example, because it sent an unmistakable message about the image she was trying to portray. It should be noted that the outfit was not of traditional Apache or Yaqui design, nor was her hairstyle.
The stereotype Littlefeather embodied depended on non-Native people not knowing what they were looking at, or knowing what constitutes legitimate American Indian identity.
How John Schlesinger’s Homeless and Lonesome Midnight Cowboy Rode His Way to the Top and Became the First and Only X-rated Movie to Win a Best Picture Oscar (Koraljka Suton, Cinephilia & Beyond, August 2019)
When Midnight Cowboy won Best Picture in 1970, it solidified a change that had been rippling through American culture throughout the 1960s: Shiny Hollywood escapism was out, gritty realism was in. But did an X-rated movie starring two relatively unknown actors really deserve the industry’s highest honor?
In this essay, film critic Koraljka Suton argues that Midnight Cowboy should be remembered for more than its edgy rating. “Midnight Cowboy [was] the first and only X-rated movie in history to have won an Oscar for Best Picture,” she writes. “Two years later, the rating was changed back to R without a single scene having been altered or cut.”
Why? Because the initial X rating had nothing to do with explicit sex scenes (there were none), but rather, the movie industry’s distaste for anything that hinted at homosexuality. The scene where Jon Voight’s character (Buck) gets paid to receive a blowjob was mostly implied, but it was shocking enough to make people walk out of the theater and create a public outcry. His co-star Dustin Hoffman was afraid he might never work again.
But the controversy might have also attracted curious moviegoers who discovered a more moving film than they expected — which might explain that Oscar. Suton makes a convincing case that Midnight Cowboy deserves to be remembered as a poignant story of two outsiders who find support in each other, not the supposedly shocking movie an X rating implies.
Schlesinger’s film is, ultimately, not at all about sexuality, although it did break new ground in terms of its acknowledgment of various sexual preferences and practices, but rather about the importance of connection and true intimacy. In a world that gave them nothing and expected nothing from them, Rizzo and Buck were, to steal a quote from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, “each the other’s world entire”—and we were given the opportunity to take a glimpse inside and really feel what it means to survive, as opposed to thrive.
How Saving Private Ryan’s Best Picture Loss Changed the Oscars Forever (David Crow, Den of Geek, April 2021)
Saving Private Ryan entered the 1999 Academy Awards as the undisputed favorite. A huge commercial success, it also met all the expected criteria for a prestige drama: a beloved leading man (Tom Hanks), a respected director (Steven Spielberg), and a sweeping, emotional story that capitalized on nostalgia for World War II’s “Greatest Generation.”
When it lost Best Picture to the charming but relatively lightweight romantic comedy Shakespeare in Love, though, the ground beneath Hollywood shifted. This wasn’t simply a surprise upset, but proof that an Oscar could be won with the right marketing strategy. As David Crow explains in this entertaining, behind-the-scenes account, the now-notorious producer Harvey Weinstein crafted a relentless, no-holds-barred campaign to boost Shakespeare’s chances — and the fact that it worked convinced other studios to follow his lead.
Miramax started a whisper campaign saying everything good about Saving Private Ryan occurred within the first 15-20 minutes on the beaches of Normandy, and the rest was sentimental hokum. It worked. Spielberg did not campaign like it’s the Monday before election day, and Weinstein did.
While Weinstein is thankfully gone, the crude lessons learned by Shakespeare in Love’s win over Saving Private Ryan are not. Awards seasons generally begin in early September with the Venice Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival … It then continues with each film being released between October and December, mounting months-long rollouts that never really end until Oscar night. Coupled with corporate studio interests leaning ever more heavily on “four-quadrant” blockbusters that are built on franchises, this system has created an environment where Oscar movies are often little-seen limited releases, and mainstream populist films are more concerned with superpowers than prestige … The generally accepted wisdom that Oscar movies and popular movies are mutually exclusive remains intact.
For the First Time Ever, I’m Optimistic About Women in the Movie World (Manohla Dargis, The New York Times, January 2023)
Dargis, the Times’s co-chief film critic, remembers the 2010 Academy Awards as the “Bigelow Oscars,” with Kathryn Bigelow becoming the first woman to win Best Director for The Hurt Locker. “I hate the Oscars when I don’t love them,” she writes, “but that night I swooned.” Could Bigelow’s breakthrough inspire a wave of female filmmakers and producers to finally wield power behind the scenes?
It didn’t happen immediately, or all that smoothly. But as Dargis surveys the cultural landscape of the past 20 years, she sees undeniable progress. Female writers and directors who once would have been limited to romantic comedies are working on blockbuster action films, while creative powerhouses like Ava DuVernay have built their own versions of a mini-studio, directing, producing, and supporting other young creative talents.
Not all that long ago, I thought it would be best if the entire machine blew up, that the big studios just got it over with and died, making room for others to build something different and better. Certainly, the movie industry seems to be doing a fine job of self-combusting. Yet the truth is that despite the statistics and awards, the movie world looks different than it did 30, 20, even 10 years ago. The world looks different. There is, as I’ve suggested, no one reason for the shift in how we think about women and film, but it is a good and hopeful shift. Change has been slow. But change is here because women have followed their muses, honed their craft and heeded their voices no matter the hurdles before them and, in doing so, they have changed ideas about cinematic representation, about who gets to be the hero on set and onscreen.
Elizabeth Blackwell is the author of While Beauty Slept, On a Cold Dark Sea, and Red Mistress. She lives outside Chicago with her family and stacks of books she is absolutely, positively going to read one day.
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