In 2005, then 4-time Oscar-nominee memorably appeared as a tongue-in-cheek version of herself on ’ BBC television series, Extras. Cast in the episode as a nun in a fictional film about the Holocaust, Winslet frankly confesses to only taking on the role because she is desperate to win an Academy Award, further elaborating that if one really wants to win an Oscar in Hollywood, the two best bets are to play someone mentally challenged or appear in a film with a holocaust theme.
So what happens? Three years later, in real-life, with her 6th nomination, Kate Winslet wins the Best Actress Oscar for starring in The Reader…a film about the Holocaust.
The very definition of satire is exaggerated reality, but when it comes to Hollywood, is it really possible to exaggerate anything?
We all know that if you’re a beautiful actress making the supreme sacrifice of appearing onscreen appreciably deglamorized (, The Hours; , Monster), the Academy is apt to award your extreme bravery with a nomination. Likewise, if you are a strapping physical specimen of a leading man playing someone with a mental or physical handicap (, Born on the 4th of July; Forrest Gump, , Rain Man), you might as well go out and buy that Oscar Night tuxedo as soon as the film is in the can.
All this occurred to me when reading about the critical and boxoffice success of Lee Daniels' The Butler. The film has generated considerable early Oscar talk, and in reading the critic’s praises, I was reminded of one not-so-satirical observation about Oscar trends made a year ago by an organization called the RISE project (Racism Still Exists).
Last year, following ’s 2012 Best Supporting Actress Academy Award win for her portrayal of a maid in The Help, posters began to crop up online (and on bus shelters here in Los Angeles) with the headline: Representations of Black People in Film, followed by the words “Rewarding Black Women for Playing Servants for 73 years.” The copy was accompanied by a graphic of 1939 Oscar- winner as Mammy in Gone With the Wind standing alongside Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer in her maid uniform as Minny in The Help.
With the press deservedly heralding ’s performance as White House butler Cecil Gaines (who served Presidential administrations through the racially tumultuous years of 1952 -1986), and the film itself exceeding all boxoffice expectations (serious dramas don’t usually perform well during the genre-driven summer months); my mind can’t help but go to ’s 1989 Oscar nod for playing the chauffeur in Driving Miss Daisy. Leaving me to ponder several questions as to what kind of representation Lee Daniels’ The Butler signifies.
Are there certain kinds of screen representations of African-American life that are particularly appealing to American viewers and Academy voters?
I recall back in 1997 screenwriter/director made the poetic, Eve’s Bayou, a film about a wealthy black family in the south that was almost unanimously praised by the critics (Roger Ebert gave it four stars and called it “One of the very best films of the year.”) but audiences ignored. And not only audiences. For although the film (which is one of my lasting favorites) is visually rich and abounds in marvelous performances from its amazing cast, which included , , and a truly Oscar-worthy turn by , the beautiful film but difficult-to-market film saw Oscar Season come and go with nary a mention.
While this happens every year to many deserving films, one can’t help but take note that Eve’s Bayou had an all-black cast, and that its narrative focused exclusively on the character interactions of a well-to-do family in the early 1960s (the father, a magnificent , was a physician). There was no racial tension; no civil-rights battles; no slums, drug use or prostitution; no depictions of downtrodden African-Americans nobly struggling; and, perhaps most importantly, no guilt-appeasing scenes of redemption and forgiveness between blacks and whites. It was just a lovely, character-driven drama about a side of African-American life rarely depicted onscreen.
An isolated example to be sure, but it begs the question: what images in Lee Daniels’ The Butler are audiences responding to? Are they images that challenge us, comfort us, or are they merely stereotypes we’ve grown accustomed to? And, come Oscar time, will Lee Daniels’ The Butler prove itself the African-American correlative of Kate Winslet’s prophetic Holocaust film axiom: —– that the Academy always rewards African-Americans for playing servants, slaves, and participants in civil-rights struggles?