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Oscar-winning racism in Hollywood's mixed bag

Tim Kroenert |  27 February 2013

Now that the 85th Academy Awards have come and gone, Eureka Street's assistant editor and resident film buff Tim Kroenert takes a moment to reflect on the slights and successes of Hollywood's night of nights.

 

Scene from Life of Pi, tiger and boy on a boatNice surprises:

Best Director — Ang Lee (Life of Pi)

It was pleasing to see Lee named Best Director for Life of Pi (pictured). (No doubt the outcome was also surprising to many commentators who had thought Stephen Spielberg would win for his impressive yet elegiac Lincoln.) Lee turned Canadian writer Yann Martel's popular 2001 novel about a religiously voracious Indian teenager who becomes lost at sea with a Bengal tiger into a luscious piece of visual art that (especially in 3-D on the big screen) immerses the viewer in the mystical dimensions of this gruelling, transcendent survival tale.

Read full review of Life of Pi

Best Picture — Argo

It was also gratifying to see the 'people's choice', Argo, named Best Picture, especially after its director Ben Affleck missed out on a Best Director nod (despite winning a Golden Globe and a BAFTA for his work). This film about an eccentric CIA rescue mission during the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis is a highly entertaining and finely honed thriller (the work done by its editors was rightly acknowledged with an Oscar). The fact that it largely sidelines the cause and character of the Iranians is a significant shortcoming of an otherwise excellent film.

Best Actress in a Supporting Role — Anne Hathaway (Les Miserables)

Many favoured Sally Field, who played the emotionally fractured Mary Todd Lincoln in Lincoln, to win in this category, despite a rather overwrought performance. For my part, I had high hopes for Hathaway, and was not disappointed. Despite her too-brief screen time, she was devastating as Fantine, the fallen heroine of Les Miserables, who suffers a series of injustices that erode her hope and humanity and destroy her dignity. Her rendition of 'I Dreamed a Dream' it is not a wistful lament but a gut wrenching howl of despair.

Read full review of Les Miserables

 

Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln. Sits on a porch looking pensiveNo surprises:

Best Actor in a Lead Role — Daniel Day-Lewis (Lincoln)

That Daniel Day Lewis (pictured) would be awarded Best Actor honours for his portrayal of the 16th president of the United States was the closest you could get to an Oscars night certainty. The film was almost universally praised and his performance is the main reason. Day-Lewis deserved to win; this was the kind of portrayal of a historical figure that transcends skillful impersonation to capture the character's emotional, psychological and moral intricacies.

Read full review of Lincoln

Best Actor in a Supporting Role — Christoph Waltz (Django Unchained)

The next surest thing after Day-Lewis was Christoph Waltz. In Quentin Tarrantino's bloody revenge film Django Unchained Waltz plays a German bounty hunter who teams up with ex-slave Django (Jamie Foxx) to free Django's wife (Kerry Washington) from a sadistic plantation owner (Leonardo DiCaprio). The film has been fairly criticised for its portrayal of African Americans (more on this below), but still there is no doubting that Waltz makes the most of every single line of golden Tarrantino dialogue.

 

Samuel L. Jackson stares menacingly at Kerry Washington in Django UnchainedTarrantino's 'Gone With the Wind' treatment

Best Original Screenplay — Django Unchained

When I originally reviewed Django Unchained (in a post-script to my review of Lincoln), I described it as 'an irreverent up-yours to the idiocy of white supremacy'. I thought it was a dead-cert to win Best Original Screenplay which it did due in no small part to the sharp and subversive dialogue cooked up for Waltz and DiCaprio's verbal dualling. Indeed, the film does sparkle whenever these two are on screen together.

However I've tempered my enthusiasm after considering several commentaries on Django Unchained's treatment of race, notably this persuasive blog by American actor Jesse Williams. After cataloguing the ways in which the film, in his view, belittles and marginalises the experiences of black slaves, Williams laments the fact that such marginalisation continues to exist seemingly unnoticed in mainstream popular culture. In this regard, the Oscar awarded to Django Unchained is the epitome of popular culture 'not noticing'.

 

John Hawkes on a stretcher in a church in The SessionsBest of the no-shows

Zero Dark Thirty

That Zero Dark Thirty didn't win a single Oscar is less astounding than the fact that its director Kathryn Bigelow was not even nominated. The film has come under fire for condoning (or, at least, for not explicitly condemning) the use of torture in the hunt for Osama bin Laden. In fact, the sense of ethical detachment that Bigelow achieves is a great strength, causing the viewer to engage ethically, very deeply, as they are constantly made to question the characters' actions. This is a mark of a highly skilled and assured filmmaker.

Read full review of Zero Dark Thirty

John Hawkes — The Sessions

That Jessica Chastain (as Zero Dark Thirty's staunch and increasingly obsessed CIA agent heroine) was beaten in the Best Actress in a Lead Role category by Jennifer Lawrence (who was fine as an emotionally disturbed young widow in the offbeat rom-com Silver Linings Playbook) could be forgiven as a matter of taste.

On the other hand it is bewildering that John Hawkes was overlooked for his role as an intimacy-starved quadriplegic in one of last year's best films, The Sessions (pictured). That film was commendable for its affirmation of the dignity of those who experience disability, and its frank and humane treatment of their sexuality. Hawkes (Deadwood, Winter's Bone) proved once again that he is a character actor of chameleonesque quality, inhabiting the character's immobile but not insensitive limbs completely. He deserved a nomination.

Read full review of The Sessions


Tim Kroenert headshotTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. Hear more of his reflections on Life of Pi, Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty and other films with religious or ethical themes in this interview with John Cleary, broadcast on the ABC last Sunday.

 



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