My own personal history with the Oscar stretches back to the early 80s but there's so much self-mythologizing about it that I sometimes get confused about when I finally figured out What It Was. I know with certainty that the first ceremony I was aware of was in Spring 1983 because I had seen Gandhi, Tootsie and E.T. with my parents. But if I watched I remember nothing from that ceremony. My first sure Oscar ceremony memory was watching Shirley Maclaine win Best Actress for Terms of Endearment (which I hadn't seen). I remember being excited for Maclaine who I already loved but I don't remember why (probably TV airings of musicals?) and I remember being super excited by Meryl's Silkwood clip. Before I ever knew Meryl Streep as an actress -- her movies were always rated R and I wasn't allowed to see them -- I knew her as The Great Oscar Winning Actress. I think my first Meryl movie in the theater was Out of Africa (1985) and I desperately wanted her to win her third Oscar now that we were well acquainted.
When they called my name I had this feeling I could hear half of America going 'OH nooooo, oh come on. why Her? Again?' You know? But whatever.
First, I'm going to thank Don because when you thank your husband at the end of the speech they play him out with the music and I want him to know that everything I value most in our lives you've given me. And now secondly, my other partner, 37 years ago my first play in NYC i met the great hairstylist and makeup artist Roy Helland and we worked together pretty continuously since the day we clapped eyes on each other. His first film with me was Sophie's Choice and all the way up to tonight when he won for his beautiful work on The Iron Lady thirty years later EVERY SINGLE MOVIE IN BETWEEN. And I just want to thank Roy but also I want to thank -- because I really understand I'll never be up here again -- I really want to thank all my colleagues, all my friends. I look out here and I see my life before my eyes. My old friends. My new friends.
Really this is such a great honor but the thing that counts the most with me is the friendship and the love and the sheer joy we have shared making movies together. My friends thank you, all of you, departed and here for this, you know, inexplicably wonderful career. Thank you so much. Thank you.
I waited and waited and waited and waited and waited. I waited through backlashes, box office poison, comebacks, astounding technical biopic work (Cry in the Dark), and mysteriously moving original creations (The Hours), through thrilling musical/comedy (Postcards from the Edge), improbable rebirth as box office mega-sensation (Devil Wears Prada), less thrilling musical/comedy (Mamma Mia!). I wasn't always rooting for her but I was always rooting for her if you know what I mean.
My heart danced a bit when she spoke, just a bit since I was upset. And I laughed at her psychic opening (you know that's true!) and teared up at what sounded like a lifetime achievement speech which is what it essentially was. Meryl finally won her third.
Be careful what you wish for.
Though I've desperately wanted Meryl Streep to have a third Oscar -- who deserved a third more? -- it became suddenly tied up with my single biggest Oscar pet peeve (the Academy's relentless all-devouring soul-crushing belief that biopic mimicry is the highest form of acting) and tied up with the defeat of a new(ish) actress who I genuinely think is one of the greats... just without the roles to continue proving it.
Though I find roughly half of the regular charges of racism levelled at the Academy tiresome and ill thought out (it has to be about the movies that are released and the performances inside of them or it holds no water -- that's all Oscar has to choose from!) it's hard not to look at Viola's loss and bemoan Oscar's (and Hollywood's) resistance to women of color.
Here we had a great actress headlining a major blockbuster hit, giving an astoundingly deep, moving performance and singlehandedly elevating her movie into the substantive kind that gets nominated for Best Picture (we can argue all we like about how "substantive" The Help is and how much other actresses contributed but it's Viola that gave the movie its only sharp edges and its soul and made it however substantive that it is). She also managed to win a few key awards and stay in the press for months and months and months on end.
It's hard to imagine all those plusses and still coming up empty-handed on Oscar night, especially in favor of a previous winner in a movie that no one likes. It's also hard to imagine a year like Viola had not being followed by major offers for major roles but so far... crickets. And this last is more anger-making than an Oscar loss, and something we'd all hoped an Oscar win might've helped to overcome... though this is perhaps wishful thinking; Hollywood is as resistant to great black actresses as the Oscars which reflect them.
In some ways you can argue that it's just the luck of the draw. Meryl was always going to win a third. It was just a question of when. But it's hard to look at the way Meryl's third was shoved aside for a Movie Star Queen doing her best but hardly statue-worthy work just two years ago, and it's hard to look at other performers who've sailed to Oscars with ease that aren't anything like Viola Davis's caliber.
In Halle Berry's Monster's Ball Oscar-winning speech she spoke movingly of her historic moment as the first Best Actress of color.
This moment is for Dorothy Dandrige, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll. It's for the women who stand beside me Jada Pinkett, Angela Bassett, Vivica Fox, and it's for every nameless faceless woman of color that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened."
Did the door quietly swing closed again?