It does bother me some, I’ll admit, that many of the women cannot move their mouths properly. I think of all my years of diction classes, and struggling to enunciate in various languages. My “Red Leather, Yellow Leather”, my “Round and around the rugged rock, the ragged rascal ran”. And I can’t fathom how sad it must make these women feel that they can no longer fully express themselves as actors because their faces are full of poison. I once saw a mother-daughter scene played by two actresses who had had so much work done that it became a totally abstract exercise. It was like a play you might’ve seen in the east village in the 80’s, where the text was passionate, furious, disturbing, but the faces remained calm, impassive, detached. “You hurt me!” the middle aged woman shouted, with no sign of pain. “Well you hurt me!” her mother replied, the resonance in both voices halted by an unnatural immobility just under their nostrils. Wait, I thought, who is hurting? Where has all the grief gone? Watching this and the cavalcade of beauties on Oscar night, my upper lip begins to buzz, as it sometimes does when I’ve eaten something I’m allergic to. And I do a few lip trills and raspberries, just to give thanks that I still can.
Year after year, I’ve watched this ceremony and I’ve put up with it all. I’ve waded through the wealth and glamour, endured the high percentage of narcissistic grandiosity, overlooked the gaffs and drunkenness and the always insufficient presence of minorities, and many years, the deplorable lack of any depth of content whatsoever. Mostly I do this because I’m a performer, and by some ridiculously attenuated stretch, these are my people. If you consider that singing Carmen in Modesto, or teaching karaoke singers, or being utterly unemployed, to be in some way the same profession as, say, George Clooney. But it is. Players upon a stage, and so forth. And there’s always one moment of the Oscars, or Tonys, or whatever, that grabs me. A person who rises completely above the noise to celebrate with humility and grace a rather miraculous event. The component parts of such a moment is a devotion to and reverence for the life of an artist. I love those moments. It’s like watching a gratitude bomb go off. It’s organic, and joyous, and meaningful, and it puts some kind of deposit in my bank as a performer, so the next day I can go back to my rural semi-professional gig, or my karaoke singer, or my wrestling match with too much nothing, while feeling a bit more connected to life on earth. To the struggle and the triumph of breathing life as a creative person.
And now comes the part where I say that this year, that didn’t happen. It didn’t do it for me. Am I a killjoy? Am I dead inside? Do I not know how to have fun anymore? Maybe. And what was I hoping for anyway?
There’s a saying people have about dealing with dysfunctional relationships: Don’t go to the hardware store for milk. Meaning, if someone is unable to give you love, or understanding, or kindness, you don’t go to that person for love, or understanding, or kindness. So, Lisa, maybe don’t go to the narcissistic, self-absorbed entertainment industry for selflessness. Fair enough. Also in fairness, there were moments. A Mexican American saying he wanted no walls between us. A filmmaker reaching out to those being oppressed that he “had their backs.” And the moment of the night for me, which belonged to a man who wasn’t there. An Iranian filmmaker who, in solidarity with the millions of people of the seven nations targeted by a ban on travel to the U.S., had stayed home. As a woman read his acceptance speech in his absence, this was the act of true courage I was hoping for. But it was also the missed moment. It happened early in the ceremony, and while it received enthusiastic applause, it should have gotten more. It should have gotten a standing ovation that went on and on and on and on, to show the world we give a shit. That we know this is wrong. That it’s worth getting up our bejeweled asses for. Later, the audience stood up to show this solidarity when explicitly asked to do so, but they shouldn’t have needed this permission. It was their job to stand at that earlier moment, and to stand long and loud. Because this man sacrificed to make this point. Imagine being nominated for an academy award. To have your life’s work acknowledged and celebrated, and then you don’t go to the ceremony. You stay away. Not for yourself, because you’re Woody Allen and you don’t like that sort of thing, but for the nameless, voiceless others, who are being discriminated against unfairly. That’s what protest is. It is objection by proxy. You protest not for yourself, but those who cannot protest for themselves.
And that’s what I think the vast majority of those at last night’s ceremony didn’t do, and what collectively, as a body of humanity, they failed utterly to do. I can imagine all the conversations, the careful planning and strategizing about what to say, what not to say, how much to say, whose job is it to say something? Will we playing into “their” hands if we get angry. Every time somebody got up and plodded on as per usual, I could see these contingent contemplations tugging at the hems of their gowns and tuxedo pants. It made me sad for them, and sad for us as a nation, and sad mostly for those who did not find a reflection of themselves as they watched, for that is the essence of a performer, to give voice to the human experience. Were they scared of the angry tweets to come? That’s the predictable effect of a bully. Or did they want to have a night off from the horror show of the past month?
What it comes down to for me is a reading of the moment. What kind of moment are we in right now? And who do we look to get us out of it?
When the ceremony ended, I felt a bit ashamed of myself. Not because I read this as a dire moment in human history, which I do. I see this as a time of accelerated evil that is not only normalizing bigotry, it is elevating it to a kind of prestigious courage. It’s a time for action, and courage, and sacrifice, and I’m not ashamed to say so. But I was ashamed because I’d been hoping for more from this event. I had. And when it was done, it was almost to the point where I slapped myself on the forehead like, what was I thinking? Clue-phone ringing: Celebrity culture is part of what got us into this mess!
As an artist, a creative person, I and others will persevere. That’s what artists do. But the artists, or performers, or the rich and famous on the walk of fame, won’t be the ones to get us out of this pickle. This movement, if there is a movement against this tide of hate, will be a people’s movement, not a star-studded affair. It is like what Buddhist monk and peace activist Thích Nhát Hạnh means when he says that the next savior will not be an individual, but a community.
For some reason my conclusion to all these thoughts is coming to me in a southern accent, which is something I welcome at times like these. It’s the accent of my maternal grandmother, born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama. The warmth of the tone sooths me, and the melodious lilt of the voice is slightly entertaining in a way that makes me smile. I can hear her now. She’s looking around, seeing things as they truly are, and she’s saying, “Well, I guess we’ll have to clean up this mess our own selves.”
Cinderella’s gone home. The ball is over.
OK everybody, let’s go get a broom.