Monday, February 26, 2007

Marty, Oscar, Oscar, Marty

It's true: You really do see everything if you live long enough. In the past five years, we've seen African American actors nail down the best actor Oscars in three of the past five competitions, we've seen black actresses win awards for best actress and supporting actress, and we've witnessed the true internationalization of the Academy Award phenomenon, with Asian and Latino talents in front of and behind the camera making the Oscars the world party the Oscars always purported to be.

But last night, one event truly stood out as a validation of the idea that fair play is more than a good idea, equality more than a polite notion -- even in Hollywood.

When the trio of old friends Francis Coppola, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg stood at the podium in the Kodak Theater, and Spielberg announced Martin Scorsese was the winner for Best Director, it was -- finally! -- the academy's validation of what moviegoers have known for a long time, possibly since the death of Stanley Kubrick, certainly since the passing of Robert Altman: Martin Scorsese is our greatest living American director, a man at the top of his game.

The Calvin Kleined, Christian Lacroixed crowd at the Kodak knew it too. The Oscars are all about glitter and ceremony, but when Steven Spielberg said his name, the audience broke into spontaneous whistles and shouts, breaking with a 79-year history of decorum. You'da thought this was the Golden Globes, for Christsake.

The man who was fast becoming the Susan Lucci of the Academy Awards, cracked wise -- “Could you double-check the envelope?” -- but his characteristic good humor was leavened with graciousness.

“I’m so moved,” he said. “So many people over the years have been wishing this for me. Strangers — I go into doctors’ offices, elevators, I go for an X-ray — they say, ‘You should win one.’ ”

More than twenty-five years after his first nomination – for “Raging Bull,” which should have won him an Oscar, but let’s not go there yet – and six after that, Scorsese finally brought home a Golden Dude.

Viewers of the Oscar ceremony should have known something was up even before Scorsese won. In the runup to the Best Director award, Jack Nicholson stood at the edge of the stage, head smooth as a billiard ball, the actor looking like a raffish version of Daddy Warbucks. Nicholson, who played the Boston crime boss Frank Costello in “The Departed,” was one of the first to embrace Scorsese as he walked off.

It was proof that Oscar plays by rules all his own. It’s generally accepted that Scorsese should have won for “Raging Bull,” or certainly for “Goodfellas,” as good a multigenerational crime story as any American director has ever produced, or surely for “Gangs of New York,” a sweeping epic of the Irish experience in America that powerfully explains one of the ways modern America became modern America.

Some in the entertainment press have already said that “The Departed” isn’t Scorsese’s strongest work, even as they conceded that, by some acclimation, Scorsese should have won precisely because he’d been rejected so often in the past.

But Oscar’s pulled this kind of thing before. Russell Crowe was widely considered a lock for “A Beautiful Mind,” the story of the brilliant but tormented Nobel Prize-winning mathematician John Nash. It was his in a walk. But in the months and weeks before the 2003 Oscars, Crowe, a man of volcanic temper, was the principal in some highly-publicized dustups with ordinary people. A fight here, a scuffle there … when the smoke cleared and the Oscar for Best Actor was awarded, it went to Denzel Washington, whose portrayal of an erratic undercover cop in “Training Day” was a solid performance but generally considered not Washington’s best. But some wags felt that Washington was overlooked for his role in “Crimson Tide” or his riveting star turn in “Malcolm X.”

Al Pacino, snubbed by Oscar for his roles in all of the classic “Godfather” films, finally won for his role as a blind ex-Army officer in “Scene of a Woman.”

And so it goes. Scorsese’s late victory confirms how unpredictable Oscar can be sometimes, but also how, in the wider calculus of Hollywood karma, what goes around comes around (eventually).

Cheers, then, to Marty, a gracious and good fella – maybe the very best we have working behind the camera.
Image credit: Martin Scorsese by David Shankbone, (permission to use granted under GNU Free Documentation License, v1.2)

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Barack Obama and the E-word

Americans are nothing if not creatures of habit. From the choices we make in everything from our personal associations to our politics, we're reluctant to get beyond the comfort zone we keep in the back of our minds, the safe harbors of past experience that keeps us from looking anywhere else for anything else. It's maybe nowhere more obvious than in how we react to the national reflex on race matters.

In earlier, frankly quixotic campaigns for the presidency -- Shirley Chisholm, Jesse Jackson, Alan Keyes -- that reflex was always addressed (mostly by journalists) in that tireless but tiresome question, "Is America ready for a black president?" -- a question that says as much about the timid souls who ask it as it does about the object of their curiosity.

A new report from the Pew Research Center suggest that Americans may be tiring of exercising this reflex. In the face of a nation whose demographic profile is changing ... well, in pretty much the time it takes to read these words, Pew researchers say that Senator Barack Obama of Illinois has perhaps the best chance of being the beneficiary of the single, powerful dynamic in American life: a willingness of the broad body politic to break with the bitter, cynical, racialist habits of the past.

Scott Keeler and Nilanthi Samaranayake, the Pew researchers, say that Obama's solid early showing in the early polls for the 2008 race points to "two significant shifts" on the idea of the political viability of an African American president.

"The first is that an ever larger majority of the public indeed says that they are willing to vote for an African American for the nation's highest office. The second is that polls conducted in campaigns pitting white and black candidates against each other are doing a better job of accurately predicting the outcome of the election now than in the past, suggesting that hidden biases that confounded polling in biracial elections in the 1980s and early 1990s are no longer a serious problem."

Obama's campaign, the researchers find, is no lightning-in-a-thimble effort, the kind of thing that led a surprised Time magazine, in 1988, to put on its cover Jesse Jackson, who'd just won the Michigan primary with carfare for organizational money, behind the words of his name punctuated with exclamation and question marks. "[R]ecent national polling finds that, although he trails Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, he does nearly as well as Clinton in general election matchups against the frontrunning Republicans, narrowly leading John McCain and running roughly even with Rudy Giuliani."

Drilling down, the Pew report found that kernel of a willingness to embrace a new idea. "More generally, the vast majority of Americans tell pollsters that they are willing to vote for a qualified African American candidate for president."

"The experience of the 2006 elections indicates that racism may be less of a factor in public judgments about African American candidates than it was 10 or 20 years ago," Pew says.

"[T]his review of exit polls and electoral outcomes in several recent elections suggests that fewer people are making judgments about candidates based solely, or even mostly, on race itself, and that relatively few people are now unwilling to tell pollsters how they honestly feel about particular candidates. In such an environment, the high standing of Barack Obama in presidential polling -- or, for that matter, of Colin Powell prior to the 1996 presidential election -- represents a significant change in American politics."

Don't everybody jump up singing "Kum Ba Yah" just yet. In all fairness, this shift in American attitudes about race and authority has been underway for years. With Powell and Condoleezza Rice as serial secretaries of state; numerous mayors and congressmen and women in power throughout the country; and as of last November, the choice of Deval Patrick as the first elected black governor of Massachusetts, the ground's been well laid for the acceptance of black Americans in positions of true leverage.

The presidency, though, is a different matter entirely. For many of those same presumably egalitarian Americans, the question about Obama is, can this hothouse flower of the moment stand the chill of traveling in Iowa and New Hampshire, and the chilly reception he's likely to receive as he works his way south? Will his platform stand the test of time? For that matter, has he got a platform at all? Do I like him? Do I trust him?

In any number of ways, these come down to being applications of the E-word -- electability, that ineffable quality that, in his case, isn't a matter of "would you let your daughter marry one?" as much as "Would you let your son [or daughter] go to war on his say-so?"

The hard sell for Barack Obama will be in countering the corrosive effects of the E-word, a word that, rightly or wrongly, has given the more closed-minded people who skulk among us the license to invoke race without actually doing it.

There were naysayers who held youth and relative inexperience against John F. Kennedy, none of which stopped him from becoming President of the United States at the age of forty-three, very close to the age Obama is today. And while it’s true that America loves a war hero – which Jack Kennedy apparently was, in the classic American way – the arc of contemporary global politics today has made Obama another kind of war hero: one with the stones to stand up and say going to war is not always a good idea.

Whether people say it or not, whether they tell Pew researchers or not, race plays its shadowy, insidious role in our every interaction, real or imagined. It speaks volumes that Barack Obama has advanced this far having performed his own American brand of levitation, rising (for now, anyway) above the reflex reactions of race.

And at his coming-out party, on the steps of the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Illinois, where Abraham Lincoln got his start, Barack Obama formally threw his hat in the ring earlier today, announcing his candidacy with an address that aimed for the centerfield fence, a speech that hit the higher themes of Kennedy-era oratory.

It was a laundry list of possibles Obama spoke of: better schools, full implementation of ethics reform on Capitol Hill, environmental sensitivities, universal health care, improvements in fighting the war on terrorism, building a resurgent image of America around the world, ending American participation in the war in Iraq.

“We’ve done this before,” Obama said. “It is time for our generation to answer that call.”

The senator from Illinois spoke of the thing that need changing: “the failure of leadership, the smallness of our politics, the ease with which we’re distracted by the petty and the trivial, our chronic avoidance of tough decisions, our preference for scoring cheap political points instead of rolling up our sleeves and building a working consensus to tackle the big problems of America.”

“It’s time to turn the page, right here and right now.”

Whether you thought it was a ground-rule double or a blast safely parked on the apartment roof outside the stadium, Obama’s address to the burghers of Springfield, his own state of the union speech, was the kind of political oratory we’ve had precious little of for the past six years. If Pew is right -- if the American wind’s just right – shit, who knows? Maybe the kid fresh out of the farm club has the Roy Hobbs-at-the-plate attitude we need to turn this thing around.

Maybe the country’s ready -- finally -- to believe in the unbelievable.
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