Wednesday, January 27, 2016

This Meryl-less awards season

It's funny looking back to a little over a year ago when, shortly after it was announced that Meryl would being starring in a biopic about Florence Foster Jenkins, I thought that 2016 might be one of the most dense awards seasons Meryl will ever experience.  Fast forward to today, and not only was Meryl not nominated for a single award in any screen performance this year, but many people are relieved that she's not at all involved with the shit storm that has ensued following the Academy's failure to nominate a single actor who is not white.

Before Mike Nichols's passing in November 2014, I had envisioned a possible scenario in which Meryl could feasibly be nominated for three Golden Globe awards in three different categories this year:  Actress in a Television Movie or Miniseries for Master Class, Actress in a Comedy/Musical for Ricki and the Flash and Actress in a Drama for Florence Foster Jenkins.  It seemed possible, if not probable, that they'd release Florence before year's end since it wrapped in July last year.  I now also doubt it'll go drama, but I suppose it wouldn't have been completely unrealistic to hope for two nods in Musical/Comedy, as it's happened for Meryl before with Julie & Julia and It's Complicated in 2009.  Despite having high hopes for the success of Suffragette, I never expected Meryl's role to garner any awards traction.

Alas, zip. And that's OK.  Master Class was obviously never made so we can't be upset about her not being nominated for that, and Florence Foster Jenkins will have its chance next year.  I maintain that Meryl should've made the top five at the Golden Globes for Ricki, but will be the first to admit that the film fell far short of expectations.

Now to the shit storm.  The lack of inclusion of any actor of color among this year's Academy Award nominees is tragic.  Perhaps I'm in the minority opinion however in believing that the issue is not necessarily with the Academy.  The films have to be there.  How are non-whites going to be nominated when there is a dearth of roles and stories that get green-lit for black actors?  The great Viola Davis had similar thoughts when she was quoted recently as saying:

"The problem is not with the Oscars. The problem is with the Hollywood movie-making system. How many black films are being produced every year? How are they being distributed? The films that are being made, are the big-time producers thinking outside of the box in terms of how to cast the role? Can you cast a black woman in that role? Can you cast a black man in that role?"

Agreed.  If there were a huge variety of high-quality films involving black actors with great performances from which to choose, and the Academy still overlooked them, then I'd be singing a different tune.  We can debate whether Idris Elba should've been nominated based on the quality of his performance (I say yes), but I think there's no persuasive argument that suggests the playing field is level in regard to actually getting performances like his on the screen in the first place.  Recent comments by both Charlotte Rampling and Michael Caine don't exactly bolster confidence in people's ability to understand the bigger issue. 

As far as Meryl staying clear of the controversy, many point to the backlash she and others experienced during the promotion of Suffragette for wearing shirts that said "I'd rather be a rebel than a slave."  I think it's nonsense.  I can appreciate how in the context of race relations in the United States it seemed like a poor choice.  I also realize that I approach these topics through the gaze of a white male.  But I have to believe that we're smart enough to think critically about categorical differences.  Although slavery and its ongoing pervasive negative effects on African Americans in the United States is a repugnant stain on our nation's history, there exist other populations globally who have historically been equally as oppressed.  And it's not exclusive to a specific skin color.  We know that slavery is much older than racism.  So, appreciating that it's OK to acknowledge that oppression of any group of individuals, women in the case of Suffragette, is abhorrent and should be spoken out against, perhaps it's a bit more palatable seeing Meryl or any white woman wearing such a shirt.  It also just happened to be a direct quote from Emmeline Pankhurst, Streep's character in the film. 

How fitting that only yesterday it was announced that Joseph Fiennes (a white man) will be portraying Michael Jackson (born a black man) in a U.K. television show.  Is this bad timing or perfect timing?  It opens a huge can of worms, and hopefully a thoughtful discussion about what this means.  Of course many people are outraged, while I imagine there are almost as many asking "how could a black man portray Michael Jackson circa 2001?"  The questions are important and demand a conversation about what it means to act, or what acting should be. 

I've exhibited few qualms about my interest in seeing Meryl portray former Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi.  It's a purely selfish desire for me to be excited about seeing my favorite actress as a character few would ever expect her to inhabit.  No doubt Meryl could do it in a way that wouldn't be a caricature.  But it won't happen.  Maybe it can't or shouldn't happen.  But the reason it can't or shouldn't happen isn't about acting.  It's about the fact that certain groups of people have been oppressed for centuries in our nation, and giving a job to a white actor who would be portraying a person of color takes us a step back.  It would be great it we didn't have to think that way.  Imagine non-traditional, race-blind casting in all genres.  I'm not sure we'll get there in my lifetime, but before it can even be a consideration, the steps I've outlined above have to happen first.    

I'll leave you with what has been a favorite video of mine.  In 2012 Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer appeared on the Tavis Smiley show to discuss their performances in The Help.  The actresses' comments, particularly Davis's, have and continue to be educational and a great perspective for me on the topic of race in the film industry.  Enjoy.  


  1. Jeff, thanks for the write-up. Insightful and balanced. By the way, are you aware that there's a French movie called Marguerite that depicts the life of Florence Jenkins? Wonder if that may have any impact on Meryl's film.

    1. Thank you. Yup, I've known about the Marguerite film for some time. I expect zero impact on Florence Foster Jenkins. I'm a Meryl fan, film fan, and if its BARELY on the radar, I foresee no issues.

  2. Jeff, thank you for the link to Viola and Octavia. They stated intelligently what I've felt about this entire "oscarssowhite" fiasco but have been unwilling to attempt to put into words. I wish those rich actors who complain about the lack of diversity would establish their own distributing agencies and provide some of their own millions to produce more films for non-whites. It is much easier to complain rather than to be proactive and attempt to remedy the situation. As much as I don't really care for Oprah, she at least has produced movies which provide meaty roles for minorities. The lack of nominations for Selma last year cannot be blamed on the Academy but rather on a late distribution. Instead of boycotting the Oscars, some people should step up and produce, form distribution companies, etc. Thanks again. Viola and Octavia voiced everything I've thought, but in a far more articulate manner than I.

    1. I imgaine it's not as simple as just "make your own movies and distribute them." But yeah, get them made somehow. I suppose it would be more accurate for me to have said the problem is "less" about the Academy than the film-making industry. The Academy is predominantly white, male, many seniors. Even if more films with minorities were made, it likely still wouldn't be an even chance for recognition.