Affirmative Oscars

Ilana Mercer, March 27, 2002

As a prelude to her pigmentally burdened Oscar acceptance speech, Halle Berry caused an embarrassing scene at the podium. For a good few minutes, we watched the glistening insides of Berry’s mouth, as she slobbered, salivated and gave The Heil Halle: a kind of catatonic, repetitive salute in the air. Indeed who can forget the March, 2002 Oscar ceremony.

Berry’s performance was incontinent exhilaration at its most undignified. I don’t intend to see “Monster’s Ball,” the film for which she won Best Actress. A snippet from her performance showed Berry frothing at the mouth yet again. This ought to have translated into a good Humphrey Bogart-type, hysteria-calming slap on the mouth—not into an Oscar award.

The guilt trip about talented black actors being denied recognition due to the inextricable racism of mainstreamers (what racism?) is inaccurate, as are all half truths. If black actors per se were in great demand among the movie-going public, movie makers would be rushing to recruit them for more roles. Cultural arousal patterns are more likely involved. As beautiful as she is, Angela Bassett didn’t quite get the juices flowing as the love object of Robert De Niro in “The Score.” Perhaps strapping electrodes to a white man’s genitals, and shocking him each time Pamela Anderson appears on the screen will turn him on to black actresses for good. Somehow I doubt it. Hormones are politically incorrect. You can take away college placements and Oscars from deserving white guys, but changing their cultural, sexual preferences is a lot harder.

Halle did what Bassett failed to do, but not due to her invisible talent. Whereas Angela Bassett is an authentic, difficult-to-market black beauty, Halle is simply an improved version of the cookie-cut Hollywood chick. She’s a sepia-tinted Charlize Theron, which is why she sells.

Making history acquires a new meaning when the historical stage is rigged by a subterfuge of Oscar racial politics. Berry and Denzel Washington were imposters in these annals. As is the case with affirmative action, Berry and Denzel’s affirmative victories almost obscured that Sidney Poitier’s life-long achievements were merit-based. Being black has not stopped Poitier from collecting awards since 1963. Then again, Poitier didn’t flog the old race horse. And he certainly rejected the fractured phrases and tortured syntax that come with racial pride.

The snub was, of course, to Russell Crowe. “A Beautiful Mind” won four Oscars, including best picture, yet remarkably, the color-coded Oscar project usurped the leading man. The nuanced and gifted Crowe was made to cede to Denzel in “Training Day.” Crowe would have delivered a fiery acceptance speech. None of the Barbara Streisand and Robert Redford grim sanctimony. Crowe is something of a purist. He talks about art for the sake of art: “long live the narrative” and all that. Unlike Streisand and Redford’s political piety, Crowe seems to recognize that he is a performer and no more. None of this “sending a message with my art” baloney.

Calling Redford, who received an honorary Oscar, an intellectual, as Streisand did, is problematic, to say the least. But then Streisand is an insoluble problem. We can argue over whether the Hollywood babes and boys are good looking (I say no, for the most), but there can be few disagreements about the cerebral agility of this crowd, Woody Allen excepted. Let’s just say that the presence of Nobel prize winning mathematician John Nash in the hall, the subject of the Oscar-nominated film, “A Beautiful Mind,” must have seriously spiked the evening’s Bell Curve distribution.

As an archetype of their female beauty, the Egyptians bequeathed us the sublime 1350 B.C. bust of Queen Nefertiti. The French have their ideal of female beauty embodied in the bust of Marianne, their national symbol. What would an American icon of beauty look like? In all likelihood it would combine the flat, coarse planes of J. Lo’s large face, with the equally expansive stretches of an Angelina Jolie visage, perhaps with Cher’s “mating abalone” phony lips.

Spare me the jealousy accusations. Only perhaps of the willowy, doleful eyed Angie Harmon, or the exquisite Julie Christie, star of “Dr. Zhivago.” What a perfect face Christie had, but, more important, a kind, warm and generous face—a sensuous face devoid of the snide, come-hither-and-do-me look that so many young American women seem to exude.

March 27, 2002

CATEGORIES: Affirmative action, Art, Culture, Feminism, Film, Hollywood, Racial issues