Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Whitewash and short-term memory

VH-1 had one of its compilation-quip shows, "TV's Illest Minority Moments", where they show clips from various episodes of TV shows, and then get people (usually comics, but not always) to comment. (Jeff Yang was one of their "Asian" commentators, that's what i mean by "not always" unless Jeff's gone into a new line of work; maybe he has, after all, "publisher/editor" isn't really so lucrative. But the last time i saw Jeff, he was trying to branch out into something else, but i don't think stand-up was it.)

It's one of those situations of (perhaps) trying to have it both ways: am i reading "race" into things? (In other words, is Lee Siegel right in stating, unequivocally, that the "race" has nothing to do with the situation of Shani Davis in the Olympics? Or is Harvey Araton correct?) In the latest issue of Premiere, Anne Thompson and Glenn Kenny go into one of those "handicapping the Oscars" dialogues, and when it comes to "Best Director", they both agree that Ang Lee is the obvious choice. I don't understand. In what alternative universe are all these people living in? When has a nonwhite person ever won in that category? In fact, when have nonwhite people ever been nominated as director? (I happen to know the answer to that.) Not only that, by in Hollywood, if you're not white, you get hounded out. (The notorious incident of Akira Kurosawa getting fired as director of "Tora! Tora! Tora!"; after the first week, the crew went to the producers and expressed their "discomfort" at being yelled at - which was Kurosawa's style, very dictatorial - by ... shall we say a person of Japanese descent? What did they expect? And when Kurosawa was just being Kurosawa, well, he was supposed to modulate his behavior and be more of a studio wimp, and when he wasn't, get his yellow ass out of there!)

Statistically, there have only been five directors of color ever nominated: Hiroshi Teshigahara for "Woman in the Dunes" in 1965 (the 60s were a great period, even Pontecorvo and Antonioni were nominated!), Akira Kurosawa for "Ran" in 1984, John Singleton for "Boyz N the Hood" (so far, the only African-American) in 1991, M. Night Shyamalan for "The Sixth Sense" in 1999, and Ang Lee for "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" in 2000. Since Ang Lee has won so many awards this season, including the DGA Award, people are acting like it's a foregone conclusion. But Ang won the DGA Award in 2000, and still lost the Academy Award. The Motion Picture Academy's 5,800 voters haven't changed THAT much since 2000, and the same people who couldn't see the award going to a Chinaman then are still the same people voting. The only thing that Ang has going for him is if there really is "liberal guilt" that affects Hollywood. (Which might be true, which would explain the nominations for Paul Haggis's "Crash".) Also: statistically, when a movie star is nominated as Best Director, said "director" wins. The only times this hasn't worked are: 1) when the movie star shares credit for directing (Warren Beatty and Buck Henry for "Heaven Can Wait"); 2) when the movie star has already won in this category (Clint Eastwood for "Mystic River"; but then the Academy made up for it with "Million Dollar Baby").

Statistically, i'd give the category of Best Director a 50-50: Ang Lee on the one hand, George Clooney on the other. If the liberal guilt factor weren't working (the Academy might be embarrassed to do it AGAIN to the same guy, i.e., not give him the award), there'd be no contest: it would be a clear victory for George Clooney.

But people are acting as if the fact that Ang isn't white is no longer an issue. (The other thing Ang has going for him is that he rarely raises his voice while directing; he can be infuriating in that William Wyler way of insisting on multiple takes, but he never yells, he's always calm and tries to stay very tempered; he epitomizes one side of Hollywood's view of the Asian man, the passive "zen" side.)

This year, Andrew Sarris has announced that he won't be predicting the Academy Awards. (It used to be a joke: decades ago, Andrew Sarris was the only member of the National Society of Film Critics who took the Academy Awards seriously.) Just as the weekend box office numbers have become a general topic of interest, so too the speculations about the Academy Awards have become a cottage industry. But in all of this, i wonder: all the pundits who talk about the Academy Awards - do you actually know people who are members of the Academy? If so, do you actually respect those people's opinions? Having sat through innumerable post-performance discussions with actors, most actors don't view things "critically". They usually react "emotionally" and it's difficult to try to discuss things rationally. And actors make up the biggest block of the Academy. (Why would anyone in their right mind vote for Mel Gibson as Best Director for "Braveheart"? Or Kevin Costner as Best Director for "Dances With Wolves"?) I refuse to take the Academy Awards seriously, because i'm not in Hollywood, and i don't think there's a chance that i'll ever be in Hollywood.

(I can't remember the name of the woman who was working at Anthology Film Archives, who was Anne Thompson's friend; they rented a house on Fire Island for the summer, and i visited them when i was on Fire Island, staying with my friend Elizabeth Streb. Elizabeth was staying on a houseboat that was docked in Cherry Grove, and i remember walking about a mile on the beach to where Anne and that person from Anthology were. I remember that my friend and i went shopping for groceries, because we decided to cook dinner... it was supposed to rain that evening, and Anne spent a lot of time on the phone with her then-boyfriend, who was in LA. Anne was working at Film Comment, and she was angling for a job in LA so she could be in the same city with her boyfriend.)

But it was also Anne who once told me (in all seriousness) that there was no way that anyone "Asian" would ever be given the chance to direct a big-budget (or even a small-budget) Hollywood film.

Yet there she is, stating that Ang Lee will be the winner, as if she never made such a statement (in 1980).

How quickly they forget.


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