That Old Feeling: The Oscar Race

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KEVORK DJANSEZIAN/AP

Halle Berry accepts her Oscar for best actress

One of the perks of writing for TIME.com is the stacks and stacks of letters that pile up in my e-mail box. Granted, a lot is spam: offers for Ponzi schemes, marital aids and airline insurance; that's what happens when your byline is also an e-mail link. But the rest is correspondence from readers of the columns I've written. Depending on the subject, I may get ten to 20 messages, virtually all of them engaged and articulate. I try to answer each one.

Lately, answering my e-mail has been a full-time job, because of the response to a critique I wrote of last week's Academy Awards telecast. I'm overwhelmed, one way or another, not just by the bulk of the mail — more than 50 messages — but by their length and passion. So far, the comments and my responses total 12,000 words. Most of the mail was severely critical, and most of it relating to my remarks about Halle Berry's emotional speech on receiving the award for Best Actress. The exchanges generated heat and, at least for me, some light. The negative observations (there were only four complimentary ones) fell into three main attitudes.

1. The Race Card: if I criticized a black actress, I must be a bigot. From Two Eagle Eyes: "You have displayed the very kind of racist, cheap and petty response to her efforts that she and other African-American actors have been faced with for decades." From Motuffsuga: "Is there an underlying reason why you're so critical of African-Americans?" From Angelette Williams: "It shows you to be a closet racist, or you could outright be a racist." From h12r10: "The Civil war continues and we know which side you're on. How you say it, ?Now you Nigras need to stay in your place' ... In the 19th and 20th century human flesh was burned. The 21st century will be different, instead of burning flesh you'll just minimize our accomplishments and destroy our opportunities of gaining true equality."

2. Fight sarcasm with sarcasm: some readers peppered their anger with rhetorical questions and sprightly digs. From C. Brenda Davis: "What jobs have you applied for that were denied because of race, not qualifications? What ship did your ancestors cross the ocean on against their will? You are a cynical, [un]sympathetic, not-living-in-reality white boy." From GDBAL: "For a brief moment, it felt like I was in a place where being black and white meant equality. Thanks for bringing me back to the real America. I appreciate the slap. Now as a black person in American I can put my guard back up." From A. Stott: "Originally, I wanted to send an e-mail calling you everything but the son of Satan, which you may be. But I will save that language for another day" — before adding, "You should be ashamed for yourself" and calling me "a dumb ass."

3. Advice to the Wordlorn: A few others — apparently believing that no soul, however malignant, was beyond saving — offered impish counsel. From Rick: "Why don't you hold your convoluted comments to the 45-second time limit?" From D. Rochelle: "You really need to lighten up. Life is too short. Go have sex or something. It looks like you need it." From wbiz2000: "I encourage you to keep on doing what you're doing (even though I question how culturally open-minded you are), or else I wouldn't have anyone to be pissed off at." And here's some advice, from Inspector Gigi, that made my LMAO (laugh my ass off): "When in doubt, pick from the list below: 1. RLH (run like hell); 2. Turn up your hearing-aid; 3. Change the subject to one you understand; 4. LYAO/CYAO, very loudly; 5. Ask Regis to phone a friend; or 6. Simply say, ?I'm in doubt.'"

I'll get to my Halle Berry remarks and some other responses to them a bit further on. But first let's look at Oscar's record with people of color: Hispanic-Americans, Arabs and Arab-Americans, Asians and Asian-Americans, African-Americans and Anglo-Americans. The data, which may be incomplete, holds some surprises.



THE COLOR OF OSCAR

Some nominations for people of color fall easily into ethnic stereotypes. Consider the seven East Asians to whom Oscar has nodded: the one-quarter Mongolian Yul Brynner in "The King and I"; the Japanese performers Sessue Hayakawa in "The Bridge on the River Kwai" and Miyoshi Umeki in "Sayonara"; Mako, the Japanese actor playing a Chinese coolie in "The Sand Pebbles"; the Tahitian Jocelyne LaGarde as Queen Malama in "Hawaii" (has anyone else been in just one movie and earned a nomination for it?); the Cambodian obstetrician Haing S. Ngor, a winner as the imprisoned interpreter in "The Killing Fields"; and Noriyuki Pat Morita as the martial-arts Yoda of "The Karate Kid." These seven citations (in just four years: 1957, 1958, 1967 and 1985) were clearly in the tradition of Oscar's occasional nods to the world outside — to the mystic, ageless Other.

Other examples are cloudier. In the years 1948-58, four Hispanics — Thomas Gomez, Josť Ferrer, Anthony Quinn and Katy Jurado — amassed eight nominations and two wins; but did Hollywood consider these actors of "color"? Even after "Gandhi," was Ben Kingsley (born Krishna Bhanji) considered primarily an Indian actor? In 1963, Omar Sharif's nomination for "Lawrence of Arabia" undoubtedly had a "mideast" tinge; but can we say the same about the Best Actor Oscar given 22 years later to Arab-American F. (Fahrid) Murray Abraham for "Amadeus"?

Sometimes actors "pass" as white. Besides Brynner, the only two performers of Chinese ancestry to snag Oscar nominations are Meg and Jennifer Tilly (for, respectively, "Agnes of God" and "Bullets Over Broadway"). Were Academy members calibrating the sisters' ethnicity? No, because, at the time, most voters were not aware of it. Then there is the strange case of Peter Ustinov, nominated three times and Oscared twice (for "Spartacus" in 1961 and "Topkapi" in 1965). Though he long denied it, Ustinov is, on his mother's side, a member of the Ethiopian Royal Family. His great-grandfather, a Swiss engineer, married the daughter of Emperor Tewodros II; thus Ustinov is, literally, an octoroon. If that makes him black, then he, not Poitier, must be counted the first man of his race to win an acting Oscar.

Another question: does an Oscar given to a minority member encourage Hollywood to hire other members of the same minority? Puerto Rican-born Rita Moreno was named Best Supporting Actress for playing a Puerto Rican "West Side Story" in 1962 (ten years, by the way, after she had played the very un-ethnic Zelda in "Singin' in the Rain"). But this prize did not lead to glory days for Hispanic actors. It was 27 years before the next new U.S. Latino face, Edward James Olmos, was nominated. There have been only four since: Andy Garcia (Cuban) in 1991, Mercedes Ruehl (Cuban-Irish) in 1992, Rosie Perez (Puerto Rican) in 1994 and Benicio Del Toro (Puerto Rican) last year. The country's most populous minority is woefully underrepresented, even compared to blacks, in movie roles and Oscar nominations.

Asians, Arab-Americans and Hispanics have all suffered from the prejudice of the American majority. But they have not been the victims of centuries of sustained, systematic, legally-sanctioned racism. Blacks have. Blacks are also less apt than other minorities to fade into the majority; they wear the history of oppression on their faces. So it's sensible to consider blacks apart from other people of color in the Academy's actor nominations and awards. Here is my count of the Oscar nominations to black actors, with the year, category (N for nominated, W for Won) and film:

1940 Hattie McDaniel; Supporting Actress — W; "Gone With the Wind"
1950 Ethel Waters; Supporting Actress — N; "Pinky"
1955 Dorothy Dandridge; Actress — N; "Carmen Jones"
1959 Sidney Poitier; Actor — N; "The Defiant Ones"
1960 Juanita Moore; Supporting Actress — N; "Imitation of Life"
1964 Sidney Poitier; Actor — W; "Lilies of the Field"
1968 Beah Richards; Supporting Actress — N; "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner"
1970 Rupert Crosse; Supporting Actor — N; "The Reivers"
1971 James Earl Jones; Actor — N; "The Great White Hope"
1973 Paul Winfield; Actor — N; "Sounder"
1973 Diana Ross; Actress — N; "Lady Sings the Blues"
1973 Cicely Tyson; Actress — N; "Sounder"
1975 Diahann Carroll; Actress — N; "Claudine"
1982 Howard E. Rollins, Jr; Supporting Actor — N; "Ragtime"
1983 Louis Gossett Jr.; Supporting Actor — W; "An Officer and a Gentleman"
1984 Alfre Woodard; Supporting Actress — N; "Cross Creek"
1985 Adolph Caesar; Supporting Actor — N; "A Soldier's Story"
1986 Whoopi Goldberg; Actress — N; "The Color Purple"
1986 Margaret Avery; Supporting Actress — N; "The Color Purple"
1986 Oprah Winfrey; Supporting Actress — N; "The Color Purple"
1987 Dexter Gordon; Actor — N; "'Round Midnight"
1988 Morgan Freeman; Supporting Actor — N; "Street Smart"
1988 Denzel Washington; Supporting Actor — N; Cry Freedom
1990 Morgan Freeman; Actor — N; "Driving Miss Daisy"
1990 Denzel Washington; Supporting Actor — W; "Glory"
1991 Whoopi Goldberg; Supporting Actress — W; "Ghost"
1993 Denzel Washington; Actor — N; "Malcolm X"
1993 Jaye Davidson; Supporting Actor — N; "The Crying Game"
1994 Lawrence Fishburne; Actor — N; "What's Love Got to Do With It?"
1994 Angela Bassett; Actress — N; "What's Love Got to Do With It?"
1995 Morgan Freeman; Actor — N; "The Shawshank Redemption"
1995 Samuel L. Jackson; Supporting Actor — N; "Pulp Fiction"
1997 Cuba Gooding, Jr.; Supporting Actor — W ; "Jerry Maguire"
1997 Marianne Jean-Baptiste; Supporting Actress — N; "Secrets & Lies"
2000 Denzel Washington; Actor — N; "Hurricane"
2002 Denzel Washington; Actor — W; "Training Day"
2002 Will Smith; Actor — N; "Ali"
2002 Halle Berry; Actress — W; "Monster's Ball"


By my tabulation, that's 38 in 74 years. All right, let's play with stats. Eight of the 38 nominations have led to victories, which is approximately one in five, or the odds when five finalists vie for one prize. Seventeen nominations, nearly half the total, have come in the past 15 years; five of the eight wins have come since 1990. Washington has the most nominations (four) and wins (two), which is four and two more than the most popular black actors, Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor — but then Oscar rarely rewards comedians. Of the first 20 nominations, through 1986, actresses gleaned 12, to eight for actors; of the most recent 18 nominations, women have received only four.

That last disproportion may simply reflect phallocentric Hollywood, which makes it tough for actresses in general, and more so for blacktresses. But since the Academy nominates the same number of actors and actresses each year, we have to look deeper. Black men can play heroes, villains and several shades in between. They can also play athletes; three of the last four nominations have been for a football player and two boxers (as was Jones' for "The Great White Hope"). The equivalent for black women should be performers. Ross (Billie Holiday) and Bassett (Tina Turner) earned nominations; but Berry's fine turn as Dandridge was a TV movie, for which she won an Emmy and a Golden Globe. Oscar would have to wait.



WHO WANTS TO WIN AN OSCAR?

I say this all the time but I can't say it enough: Oscars mean nothing. They are not the Nobel Prize for movies; they are an industry giving prizes to itself. Oscar Night is a big convention that, for reasons beyond my ken, 800 million other people feel obliged to watch. It's a long, stuffy party, and the Oscars are the party favors. As for the Motion Picture Academy, it's a club: old, rich and exclusive. The Oscar balloting is a process by which the club's 5,739 eligible members — including 368 press agents, 409 sound technicians, 430 executives and 217 visual effects specialists — vote on the admission of actors (of any color) and other artists into the Oscar elite. The winner gives an acceptance speech, not just to say thanks but to mark his or her acceptance into that elite.

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