Mi Edad del Union

 

 

by John Tyler Connoley

 

March 9, 2005

 

 

Each year, I watch the Oscars with great anticipation. I'm not sitting on pins and needles waiting to see who will win Best Actor, because that's rarely a surprise. I'm interested to see what I can learn about American culture. Where does our culture stand and where is it heading? The Oscars are my State of the Union, a much more useful cultural barometer than anything the President could say.

 

This year's Oscars were quite mainstream, middle-of-the-road, boring. The two most extreme films of the year, Fahrenheit 9/11 and The Passion of the Christ, were snubbed completely (though Passion received three nominations in artistic categories). Even less extreme partisan films, such as Vera Drake and Kinsey, received token Best Actress nominations but no awards. This year, it was all very middle-America . . . but how far the middle has moved.

 

The most striking thing about the 77th Annual Academy Awards Ceremony was the casualness of the diversity. This came into clearest focus when watching the clips of Johnny Carson, during his memorial tribute. The clips were startlingly whitebread. Johnny represented an everyman archetype during a bygone era when people assumed every man was a white Midwesterner. Johnny, with his awe-shucks, corn-fed grin seemed out of place among this year's multi-cultural presenters and nominees.

 

This year demonstrated the mainstreaming of black Americans into the culture of Hollywood, and therefore the country. Chris Rock's selection as emcee was notable not because he's black and proud (Whoopi crossed that barrier a few years ago), but because he's willing to bite the hand that feeds him. As he peppered his opening monologue with political jokes and rude jabs at Colin Farrell and Jude Law, I wondered if he'd taken lessons from David Letterman -- remember Uma/Oprah? Jamie Foxx didn't have to talk about his skin color in his acceptance speech, because it wasn't an issue -- everyone knew it was a toss-up between him and Don Cheadle, because of their stellar performances. It was quite different from 2002, when commentators seemed to think Denzel Washington and Halle Berry won only because the Academy wanted to honor black actors. Even Chris Rock's racial jabs at the motion picture industry (including his hilarious interviews at the Magic Johnson theater in South Central Los Angeles, where White Chicks was voted Best Picture) demonstrated a level of comfort surrounding issues of race.

 

The most obvious multi-cultural category was Best Original Song, in which the Spanish-language "Al Otro Lado Del R’o" won. The songwriter, Jorge Drexler, sang his acceptance speech in Spanish and no one bothered to translate. In fact, he's received more press for not being asked to sing his own song (and for how badly Antonio Banderas botched it), than for his acceptance speech. Beyoncˇ Knowles added her own kind of multiculturalism to the Original Song category, singing "Look To Your Path (Vois Sur Ton Chemin)" with an impeccable French accent. She also joined Josh Groban in singing "Believe," and sang Andrew Lloyd Weber's "Learn to be Lonely," dressed as the romantic lead, Christine, and accompanied onstage by a dashing white Phantom. This latter performance would have caused quite a stir back in the days when Johnny Carson hosted the Oscars.

 

At this year's Oscars no one gave the black presence a second thought, because they were busy being inclusive of Latinos. Of course, there was the aforementioned Banderas debacle and the lovely presence of Penelope Cruz and Selma Hayek, but Latin flavor peppered the entire Oscar night. Catalina Sandino Moreno attended as the first woman ever to be nominated for Best Actress for a Spanish-language role. The winner of Best Foreign Film, The Sea Inside, was a Spanish-language film, as was the winner of Best Original Song. In all, an unprecedented six Latinos were nominated at the 77th Annual Oscars. This might seem like a small number considering there are twenty-eight categories, but it demonstrates a growing parity in the representation of Latinos in the media.

 

Another place where Latinos demonstrated their growing influence was in the dresses the women wore. One silhouette dominated the night: a friend called it the "mermaid look," I call it the Flamenco Flair; tight dresses with big, flouncy ruffles spreading out from the knees. Of course this traditional Spanish look was toned down for the Oscars -- two colors prevailed, basic black and pale pink -- but the silhouette was Carmen Miranda all the way. Charo herself would have felt completely comfortable in Renˇe Zellweger's red Flamenco train (though Renˇe didn't look very comfortable walking across the stage).

 

Shortly after an election when both candidates went out of their way to court Hispanic and Latino voters, it makes sense that the Oscars would show some Latin flavor. And, though the press pilloried Kerry for speaking French fluently, we all recognize the need to be multilingual in today's world. Gwyneth Paltrow seemed to be joking when she said she'd hoped to present the Best Foreign Language nominees in their native languages, but it was only a half-joke. If she hadn't been busy with newborn daughter, Apple, she might actually have done it.

 

This year's Oscars represented the new face of mainstream America. The extremists were banished, and the middle prevailed, but the middle no longer looks like Johnny Carson. We're now represented best by Beyoncˇ, dressed like Jennifer Lopez and singing French like Celine Dion.

 

 

 

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