A Momentous Oscar Broadcast
The 86th annual Academy Awards ceremony has come and gone, and as Oscar broadcasts go it was one of the better ones. First of all, there was a host whom the audience didn't want to beat up in the parking lot. Ellen DeGeneres treated the whole event as a big party, and appropriately she introduced some party games--mass selfies with superstars, a pizza delivery in the middle of the show. She was pleasant and charming, as she always is. Even her one moderately unkind remark, to and about Liza Minnelli, was taken in stride.
There were no surprises among the winners in the major categories. "!2 Years a Slave," Alfonso Cuaron, Matthew McConaughey, Cate Blanchett, Lupita Nyong'o and Jared Leto all won as expected, and all deserved to. The nominated songs were better than usual, and the performances of them were sparkling (though how could John Travolta mangle Idina Menzel's name so badly?). The annual "In Memoriam" montage was more of a gut-punch than usual, beginning with James Gandolfini and ending with Philip Seymour Hoffman, though the others seemed fairly pointless, at least to me.
The most inexplicable set piece, if you think about it, was the 75th-anniversary tribute to "The Wizard of Oz." It doesn't seem so weird to have a tribute to a movie as beloved as "Oz," except when you remember the very famous, very successful film that beat "Oz" for Best Picture--"Gone With the Wind."
It probably wasn't politic to mention "GWTW"--a 20th-Century white Southern woman's fantasy of the Civil War, however entertaining it is--the same year as "12 Years a Slave," an unvarnished tale of slavery written by a man who experienced it firsthand. It probably isn't tactful, either, to speculate that Scarlett O'Hara probably wouldn't have been much nicer to her servants than Edwin Epps was. Or that Ashley and Melanie Wilkes, as kindhearted and high-minded as they were, would have been largely analogous to William Ford and his wife.
It has to be taken as an irony of historic proportions that "12 Years a Slave" won Best Picture exactly 75 years after "Gone With the Wind." Adding to the irony is that "12 Years a Slave" is the first film ever directed by a black director to win Best Picture. To top it all off, Lupita Nyong'o became the first black African to win an Oscar for playing a horribly mistreated slave exactly 75 years after Hattie McDaniel won for playing Mammy. McDaniel, of course, was a fine actress trapped by the prejudice of her time. (Her role in "The Great Lie," made two years after "GWTW," as written makes Mammy look positively progressive.)
"12 Years a Slave" doesn't exactly transform "Gone With the Wind" into "Birth of a Nation 2," but it does underline the comforting little (and big) lies white Americans have always told themselves about race relations. It will be interesting to see where Hollywood goes from here, and what the cinematic offspring of "12 Years a Slave" will be.