Whoopi's win stands out
The Oscars are now over a week old, and it seems to me that nobody picked up on the true excitement of this year's awards.
No, it wasn't Dances with Wolves, although that movie took best picture and best director. Dances was a nifty film in a lot of ways, and it was very natural for the Academy to vote for it for many reasons. It was a "message" film, for one thing. It also brought back a genre, the western, which many older Academy voters remember fondly from their youths. It was an epic, three-hour-long film, the kind Hollywood isn't supposed to make anymore. And finally, it had a handsome young star who put his neck on the line by directing and producing the film as well.
And no, the excitement of the awards ceremony wasn't when Kathy Bates won for her star turn in Misery, although it was nice to finally see that award being given to someone who couldn't exchange bodies with a Barbie doll without anyone noticing. Bates deserved that award every step of the way.
No, it wasn't the Oscar Joe Pesci won for his supporting role in GoodFellas. It was good to see the usually overlooked Pesci win for a brilliant performance as the unstable mobster. And let's hear it for his one-sentence acceptance speech, the best one of the evening. After paying his dues in Lethal Weapon 2 and Home Alone, Pesci will now be able to demand better roles.
The most exciting moment was when Whoopi Goldberg won the Oscar for best supporting actress for her role in Ghost.
It was a deserved award, there can be no doubt. Whoopi was the foothold in reality for an otherwise sappy and overdone love story. Her performance is hysterical and yet still believable. She was, at least for me, the highlight of the film. Her film career so far has been one of dizzying highs (The Color Purple) and crashing lows (Jumpin' Jack Flash), but this Oscar is sure to improve her standing in the eyes of many casting agents.
Much has been made of Whoopi being the second black woman to win best supporting actress since the first, Hattie McDaniel, won for Gone With The Wind back in 1939. But the people who play this up are missing the point. The Oscar Whoopi received is much more special than that.
If you think about the role Whoopi had in Ghost, something sets it apart from the grand majority of black roles available in Hollywood today. This is not a role in which the character's color had any effect on the story. Think about that for a second.
Denzel Washington's award-winning role in Glory last year was in a movie about black soldiers in the Civil War. Hattie McDaniel's Mammie was a black slave on a plantation in the Old South. Both were terrific tour de force roles, and the actors' work in them was incredible. Still, the fact that these characters were black was crucial to the plots of the films. Only black actors could've taken those roles.
Whoopi Goldberg herself has created some of the most brilliant portrayals of black women in film. However, the interesting thing about Ghost is that the role is, to my memory, completely devoid of self-conscious references to her character's sex or color. In other words, this is a role that could've gone to any comedian, of any sex or color. And it went to a black woman, a rarity in Hollywood cinema. And she did so well with the role, a role that relied solely on her talents as an actor, that she took home a well deserved Oscar.
This was not a portrayal of a "black woman" per se, although Whoopi can and has handled such roles very nicely in the past. This was a portrayal of a human being. The gender and race of that human being were unimportant. Viewers did not sit in the theater thinking "Wow, look at the black woman with the white couple." (At least, not outside of David Duke.) And Whoopi did not turn the part into just another stock Hollywood black character. The traits of the psychic in Ghost were decidedly Whoopi.
Now I'm not saying that it isn't important that Hollywood create more race-specific roles for minorities, or that women shouldn't be given more strong leads or roles of importance. Of course they should; the film industry has been behind the rest of the world in employment equality for a few decades now. However, there is something grand about a role written without gender-specificity going to a black female, and there is something even grander about the Oscar being given to that actress. Way to go, Whoopi. Next time, I hope it's best actress in a leading role.
In the future, maybe, just maybe, studio executives and casting directors will start giving more of these "genderless," "raceless" roles to minorities and women. For this reason, Whoopi Goldberg's Oscar may have been a major milestone in Hollywood history.
Bill Jackson '93 couldn't think of anything to put here. So stop reading.
Viewers did not sit in the theater thinking "Wow, look at the black woman with the white couple."
there is something grand about a role written without gender-specificity going to a black female, and there is something even grander about the Oscar being given to that actress.