To say the Washington Bach Consort was sent reeling with the June 2016 death of its founder J. Reilly Lewis is an understatement.
Lewis founded the Consort in 1977 dedicated to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach — arguably the most towering figure in the history of western music — and his contemporaries. Its board opted to use its 2017-2018 40th season as a lengthy audition process for a new artistic director. Dana Marsh, an Eastman-trained singer/conductor/organist, has secured the position and will open the 41st season on Sunday, Sept. 16 with “Handel & Bach: Sing a New Song” at National Presbyterian Church (4101 Nebraska Ave., N.W.; details at bachconsort.org).
Marsh received “very enthusiastic support” from Consort musicians, Charles Reifel, head of the group’s artistic committee and a Consort board member, said in a press release. “We feel very fortunate to have found him.”
He holds a master’s and doctoral degree in historical musicology from the University of Oxford and has been hailed by the Los Angeles Times as an “energetic and persuasive conductor” and dubbed a “powerful and expressive countertenor” by the New York Times. He taught early music history at Oxford and Cambridge universities.
Marsh, 53 and gay, is starting his fifth year as associate professor of music and director of the Historical Performance Institute at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music. He’ll continue there and commute to Washington to lead the Consort. Marsh spoke to the Blade by phone last week from his Indiana office. His comments have been slightly edited for length.
WASHINGTON BLADE: It sounds like your work at the Historical Performance Institute will dovetail with the Consort’s mission. True?
DANA MARSH: Yes, there’s a great deal of overlap. What I do at Indiana University is considered historical performance where we use period instruments that are different from the versions used in modern orchestras that have been updated hugely. We try to do a bit of period drama and I direct at department at Indiana University that deals with that and the Washington Bach Consort also performs with period instruments.
BLADE: I was reading some liner notes recently that said something to the effect of what was actually likely heard in Bach’s churches at the time is not something we would find pleasant today. Is that true?
MARSH: There may be some truth to that speculation, that it would have sounded very out of tune to our ears. That could be the case but probably isn’t at least as far as the tuning goes. The performance practice itself, the way they made music and expressed text, some of that might have come as a shock to us, but when we start from the first temperament that we know of, they were very strict temperaments and they were probably more in tune than modern equal temperament because there weren’t as many key areas emphasized so it actually means it was very, very in tune.
BLADE: What is the appeal of period instrumentation for you?
MARSH: The idea of all this isn’t to tell people not to play Bach on modern instruments. There are lots of people who play on modern instruments who understand the detail and nuances (of early music) quite well. You can on modern instruments come extremely close to creating the same types of historical effects musically speaking that you can on earlier instruments. … One thing you certainly wouldn’t want to do is play lots of late 18th or 19th century music on tunings that were devised for the early 17th century. We’d think everyone was playing out of tune or incompetent. It has to fit the music it goes with.
BLADE: How did you develop an affinity for historically informed performance?
MARSH: I think it has to do with my really early musical training. Early on in life, when I was a choir boy both in New York and in England, first at the St. Thomas Choir School then at Salisbury Cathedral in England, a lot of the music (we performed) tended to be from the 15th and 16th centuries, so I felt a super strong affinity for those styles. I had a passion to find out in much more detail all I could about early music.
BLADE: Since you encountered it at a young age, is there a nostalgia factor for you with that music the way the Beatles and Motown and stuff like that has for the more general population?
MARSH: Yes, I would say so. I think whatever music we listen to, we tend to associate it with particular times in our lives, an experience, a smell or any sensory type of thing and you know, that automatically speaks to us from the inside in a certain way but there’s an intellectual fascination as well and that can be a great part of it too.
BLADE: Was your family musical?
MARSH: Yes, my dad was first violinist at the time for a well-known string quartet and he was on the road doing 50-60 concerts a year. My mom was an elementary school music teacher so there was no escape. … It was in my blood stream from a very early age.
BLADE: What’s life like in Bloomington, Indiana?
MARSH: Bloomington is an awesome town, right here in the middle of Indiana, this bastion of redness that’s very conservative but Bloomington has always been more liberal even going back to the 1950s. … It’s also aesthetically beautiful and there’s lots going on in the arts. There are over a thousand concerts a year associated with the school of music and seven operas done on a professional scale each year. It’s a surprisingly progressive and culturally rich town.
BLADE: How are you going to manage flying back and forth logistically?
MARSH: I checked into those concerns before I applied. The flights from Indiana to Reagan are incredibly efficient. I can leave my house by 6 a.m. and be on the Metro by 9:30. I’ll be in D.C. about half of September and more throughout the fall of course. Many of my colleagues have very full performing careers and are on the road so as long as one can shuffle everything around, the students and the school are totally behind it. It helps maintain their reputation.
BLADE: It sounds like a lot. Are you concerned you might spread yourself too thin?
MARSH: That’s always a possibility but for me things like that are sometimes almost counterintuitive. I find the more I’m in one situation, the more likely I am to get in a rut. If there’s something stimulating happening in the other situation, it helps me stay engaged (in my main work). It energizes me.
BLADE: What do you do at I.U.?
MARSH: I conduct and teach. I sort of have to wear a lot of hats from administrative functions to teaching to performance and then I also coach individual vocalists on performance style and conduct our early music ensembles. We have a bit of a rotation among faculty and with my administrative job, there are two entities. At the Historical Performance Institute is the musical research side of things and then the Historical Performance Department, which is the educational institute, that’s where the school of music deals with the students and faculty and everything that involves.
BLADE: I imagine you had been familiar with the Washington Bach Consort prior to hearing of the position?
MARSH: Absolutely. In fact, a few friends of mine who are professional singers had sung solos for Reilly in the past.
BLADE: Would you say the Consort has an international reputation?
MARSH: I would definitely say national, maybe not so much international and that’s one of the things we want to work on and will be an essential part of our new strategic plan.
BLADE: What is the Consort’s annual operating budget?
MARSH: I believe it’s about $1 million.
BLADE: Bach’s music is so heavily steeped in Christianity. Are you a Christian and do you feel Christians, people of other faiths and atheists can savor Bach equally or does his music tend to have added resonance for Christians?
MARSH: I was brought up in the church and Christianity though from a spiritual standpoint, I would say my horizons have broadened a bit and I would categorize my beliefs in that way now. There’s a lot of great art that came out of Christianity. When you think of all the people designing stained glass or building cathedrals, there had to have been skeptics among them and yet anyone can look at that art and be entirely struck by it. … I don’t think you have to be a believer to fully grasp what the composer means. … There are atheists who write about theology and are fascinated by it. … You can be an atheist and be absolutely struck by, say Bach’s “Mass in B Minor.”
BLADE: How religious does the elite classical music performance world tend to be in your experience?
MARSH: Certainly that community is well represented but I wouldn’t say it’s a majority. I would say it’s more like a long continuum and you have people whose beliefs would overlap with some of the places we perform like the National Cathedral or other outstanding church programs in the D.C. area, but also go exceptionally far beyond that as well.
BLADE: Is Bach really considered early music?
MARSH: The term early music has been something of a moving target. It used to be considered anything before 1750 with the emphasis on medieval and renaissance music but it kept moving forward and now it can be anything up to the end of the 19th century but it’s more about understanding the instruments they had at their disposal and how musical values have changed over time.
BLADE: When did you find out you got the job?
MARSH: I got the news in the middle of May but it wasn’t announced ’til August. I think the board wanted to get as much mileage out of the announcement as they could.
BLADE: What do you have planned for the opening concert?
MARSH: It will be very celebratory. We’re doing one of the Bach cantatas (BWV 190). The translation is “Sing Unto the Lord a New Song.” The second piece is by Handel and it’s his ode to St. Cecilia, the patron saint of musicians, a wonderfully rich piece. Then the final piece will be the Bach “Magnificat,” which is probably the best known of the three.
BLADE: How many singers and players are in the Consort?
MARSH: There are three formats: the subscription series at the National Presbyterian; the cantata series (six per year) at Church of the Epiphany and St Peter’s Capitol Hill; and the chamber series is held at the First Congregational FCC at 10th and G Streets. For the subscription series, where we do the larger-scale performances, there’s a choir of 16 and an orchestra of maybe 30 players. For the chamber series, it’s much smaller.
BLADE: So Bach wasn’t working with huge choirs and orchestras then in his day?
MARSH: No. He was always complaining to the town council about it. Sometimes he had just eight singers and proportional orchestras with single instruments except for the two violin parts.
BLADE: Did you ever meet Dr. Lewis?
MARSH: No, I never did but … I feel I met him in a way through his incredible legacy. (The Consort members) are really very nice and care about each other and that’s not always the case in organizations such as these.
BLADE: Do you still play the organ? (Marsh’s undergraduate major was organ performance)
MARSH: I do but not as much as I did. The first four years I was back in the U.S., I played at the Episcopal Cathedral in Indianapolis but since I’ve been at I.U. I haven’t been playing as much. I have some recitals scheduled next year. I’ll be doing one in New York in March and I’ll be playing on some noon recitals as well. There’s always an organ prelude with the cantatas so I’ll be doing a few of those. I’m definitely keeping the fingers moving.
BLADE: Would you say you’re a conductor first and foremost?
MARSH: At the moment, I’m doing more conducting than singing or playing. I’m doing the least amount of singing but sometimes, truth be told, I miss it.
BLADE: What’s it like conducting a choir of professional singers? Do you have to remind them of cutoffs and do they go flat and all the stuff that comes up in church volunteer choir or not so much?
MARSH: A lot of the same issues come up but in a different way. … You end up going more deeply into the details metaphorically of how you want to achieve certain effects but in a way that everyone can relate to. It’s important to identify as quickly as possible some common principles that can apply to as many people as possible that require the least amount of adjustment as possible for the biggest possible change or results.
BLADE: (Concert organist) Cameron Carpenter said at a recital I was at a few months ago that Bach was not someone anybody today would want to be around. I’m paraphrasing, but he basically said Bach was someone you’d avoid if you saw him on the Metro, a fundamentalist religious zealot. Do you agree?
MARSH: By today’s standards he probably would be considered a religious zealot but those kinds of things change over time. For his day, he might have been very middle of the road. I wouldn’t argue with what Cameron said and yeah, there’s definitely documentary evidence that he could be extremely cantankerous but it tended to be with the authorities because he felt he was under supported. The guy had a family of nearly two dozen kids and was responsible for all the music in the town so I’m sure there was a lot of pressure. … I’m sure he had a gentler side as well but only a time machine would tell us that.
BLADE: LGBT issues seem kind of murky in classical music. On one hand, it’s treated as a non-issue as long as your performance is solid. On the other hand it can be so staid that the downplaying of one’s sexuality on the stage can feel disingenuous in its own right. What’s your take on all that?
MARSH: There does tend to be a way of casting aside certain social issues in deference to the music. There’s been a great deal more written in the last 40 years about how some of the great composers might have been gay. There has been a whole branch of musicology devoted to this. Philip Brett, one of the founders of that scholarship, was a mentor of mine. His edited book of 25 years ago, “Queering the Pitch: the new Gay and Lesbian Musicology,” made the first strides in this area. Handel, Schubert and Tchaikovsky, among others, are figures for whom a good deal of scholarly research has been undertaken with consensus pointing toward their being gay. A great deal more ground has been covered since. And now the whole idea of non-binary gender issues opens wider horizons as well so it’s not an either-or thing, it’s one of those long continuums that people can be situated at many different places along it. We’re seeing more trans singers now and one I know, a student at I.U., is absolutely one of the best I’ve ever heard and has an incredibly bright future ahead. I think we can all be kind of surprised by the discoveries we’ll continue to make in this area and how relevant they truly can be.
BLADE: How does it help us today to know that?
MARSH: Although attitudes toward sexuality have changed substantially over time during different centuries, same-sex attraction is something that can’t be whitewashed away from history. Of course, most of the evidence that survives has to be documentary, or iconographic, and can only capture so much of a layer of social behavior that is ultimately ephemeral.
BLADE: How long have you been out professionally?
MARSH: I was kind of late. I didn’t come out ’til I was in my 30s. I had been open to some friends sooner. I almost got married to a woman once … and I identified as a little more bisexual at the time I guess. I don’t really know how to put that. But now that I look back, I think things worked out as they should have.
BLADE: Did coming out have any impact on your musical career?
MARSH: Not in the least. Nobody batted an eyelash really.
BLADE: Are you in a relationship now?
MARSH: Yes, he moved in with me last December. He’s in an entirely different field and I find that refreshing. He’s the most special person I’ve ever met and I just feel lucky every day.
BLADE: How long have you been together?
MARSH: We first started hanging out four years ago.
BLADE: What’s your vision for the Consort?
MARSH: Kind of circling back to what we were saying about raising its profile on an international basis but also continuing, through recordings and tours, to do outreach work. We see about 3,000 students a year in a project called Bach to School. That is important since music education has been so heavily written out of schools. We have a real job to do in helping expose these kids to music.
BLADE: Sometimes it feels like society is getting overall kind of dumbed down. I could point to many challenges various classical music organizations are facing. Does finding an audience and continuing to perform feel like an uphill battle?
MARSH: No, not at all. I think performing musicians have always had to balance these forces of creative autonomy with economic reality. That’s been a challenge going back 300 years. Being able to balance those and find ways to deal with them entrepreneurally betters the art for everyone.
BLADE: But is there a danger in spending time thinking like an entrepreneur and spending time doing outreach in schools and so on, that the music itself may suffer?
MARSH: Not at all. I think over the long haul it has the opposite effect. A lot of the obstacles we’re facing now deal with perspectives that have already had their time so maybe now it’s time to create new ones. This whole idea that you go to a concert and have a very passive audience that is shushed … these are conventions we’ve created in the last century that weren’t around before and we’ve clung to them and they’ve created some of our biggest challenges today. But there are organizations that manage to keep tradition and overcome these challenges like the L.A. Philharmonic or the Handel and Haydn Society or the Bach Consort. … There are opportunities there when you start thinking far outside the box.
Final season of ‘Pose’ is must-see TV that matters
Groundbreaking FX drama has left its mark
When the COVID pandemic hit in the early months of 2020, there were certainly more pressing and essential worries for us to grapple with than how it would impact the next season of a TV show. Yet it’s a testament to the power of “Pose” that many among its legion of fans were at least as concerned about the show’s disruption as they were about the possibility of running out of toilet paper.
The powerhouse FX drama — which spotlights the legends, icons and ferocious house mothers of New York’s underground ball culture in the late 1980s — had already made history. Not only did it feature the largest cast of transgender actors in regular roles, it boasted the largest recurring cast of LGBTQ actors ever included in a scripted series. In its first two seasons, the show racked up accolades and honors (including a Primetime Emmy for Billy Porter as Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series) while breaking new ground for the inclusion and representation of queer people — and especially transgender people of color — in television, both in front of the camera, and behind it. With the end of its second season in August 2019, fans were hungry for a third — but thanks to COVID, its future was suddenly in question.
So, when word came that the show’s third season would have its debut on May 2, it was the best news since finding out the vaccines were finally going to start rolling out. But it was bittersweet: Along with confirmation of the series’ imminent return came the sad revelation that the new season would also be the last. “Pose” would be coming to an end with a final, seven-episode arc.
As any viewer of show can attest, there were a lot of threads left hanging when last we saw its characters. That means there’s a lot of ground to cover in these last chapters in order to give everyone — characters and audience alike — the closure they deserve.
The show’s official synopsis goes like this: It’s now 1994 and ballroom feels like a distant memory for Blanca, who struggles to balance being a mother with being a present partner to her new love, as well as her latest role as a nurse’s aide. Meanwhile, as AIDS becomes the leading cause of death for Americans ages 25 to 44, Pray Tell contends with unexpected health burdens. Meanwhile, a vicious new upstart house is emerging in the ballroom world, and the members of the House of Evangelista are forced to contend their legacy.
Obviously, there are a lot of details left hidden in that broad overview, and fans are undoubtedly full of questions about what they can expect to see.
Fortunately, the bulk of the show’s main cast convened on Zoom last week (along with show co-creator and Executive Producer Steven Canals and Executive Producer Janet Mock) for a press conference to discuss their “Pose” experience, and while they didn’t exactly give away any spoilers, they definitely dropped some tantalizing hints about what’s in store for audiences in the farewell season.
In truth, most of the discussion was dominated by reminiscences and expressions of mutual appreciation, sure signs that the feeling of family we see onscreen is something that has taken hold off screen, as well. But in between the affectionate banter, the cast and creatives addressed several questions that might be most on viewers’ minds.
Perhaps the most pressing of these — why, after only three seasons, is the critic-and-audience-acclaimed show calling it quits? — was taken on by Canals, who explained:
“I always knew what the beginning and what the end of the narrative would be. And when Ryan Murphy and I first met in September of 2016, we felt really strongly that that particular narrative made sense. And so, while we certainly could have continued to create narrative around these characters and in this world, and we certainly had a conversation in the writers’ room about it … I think we all agreed that it just made sense for us to ‘land the plane,’ if you will, comfortably — as opposed to continuing to give an audience story that just simply didn’t have any real core intention or a real thrust towards specificity.”
Also of interest was the obvious subject of how the parallels between the current pandemic and the AIDS crisis that looms over the show’s narrative might be reflected in the new episodes. While he didn’t hint at any direct connections in “Pose,” Porter used the subject to underscore a theme that has always been one of the show’s most important elements:
“I think the parallels are quite profound. I know that as a Black gay man who lived through the AIDS crisis, I have been dealing with a lot of PTSD during this COVID time. It’s very reminiscent of what it was like then. The best news about that is that I survived. We got through it, and there is another side to it. We can get to the other side.
“I feel like that’s what ‘Pose’ really accomplishes this season, reminding the public that it’s when we come together and when we lead with love [that] we get to the other side.”
Mock elaborated on the theme of resilience by discussing the importance of showing the strength of House mothers like Blanca and Electra (Dominique Jackson), who hold together — and lift up — their entire community:
“It’s that matriarchal power and lineage that I think the ballroom is, and what trans women are to one another, that then feeds everyone else and enables them to shine and have all the things that they want in the world. For me, it is [about] that celebration […] of Black trans women — that they’ve created this space, that they brought everyone else in with them, and that, at the end of the day, they are often the ones most often forgotten.
“I think with this season, I want everyone across the industry, the audience, to realize that. I think it’s essential, and it’s important.”
Mock also talked about the way “Pose” focuses on the small, day-to-day lives of its characters as much as it does the larger-than-life splendor of the ballroom culture in which they participate:
“We wanted to ensure that we show the everyday, mundane moments, as well as the great, grand celebrations. The ballroom is are presentation of what it means to congregate and share testimony and to love on each other, and our show is a celebration of the everyday intimacies. So, for us, while we were plotting these big, grand moments […] we wanted to bring in traditions — weddings, matrimony, all this stuff — that our characters get to engage in. We wanted to be a part of the tradition of that, and all the moments that a family shares together. We wanted to make sure that all of those things were celebrated in this.”
When discussion turned to the unprecedented level of support and collaborative inclusion with which the show’s queer cast were bestowed by Ryan Murphy and the rest of the creative staff — from the presence of trans women like Mock and Co-producer Our Lady J in the writers’ room to the extensive reliance on the insights and talents of real-life members of the ballroom community — Jackson was quick to add that besides giving the show its ferocious authenticity, it gave her an increased recognition of her own worth:
“I will never, ever, ever walk into a space thinking that I need to impress them […] I will never walk into a space being fearful of my identity stopping me from anything. Because of this journey, when I walk into spaces now, my identity is not because I’m an abomination. My identity is a plus. My identity is my value. So, when I walk into spaces now,they need to impress me. You can be the biggest Hollywood director, producer, whatever, but you’re not going to take my story or relay stories that are reflective of my life or my existence and make them into anything you want, because of ‘Pose,’ because of Ryan, because of Steven, because of Janet and Brad [co-creator/executive producer Falchuk), because of Our Lady J, because of my cast members.
“I will never walk into spaces or live a life or an existence thinking that I need to impress anyone.”
Porter concurred, adding:
“There was never, ever a space in my brain to dream what‘Pose’ is, what Pray Tell is. I spent the first 25-plusyears of my career trying to fit into a masculinity construct that society placed on us so I could eat.‘Pose,’ and Pray Tell in particular, really taught me to dream the impossible […] the idea that the little, Black church sissy from Pittsburgh is now in a position of power in Hollywood in a way that never existed before. You can damn sure believe that I will be wielding that power and there will be a difference and a change in how things go from here on out.”
If the cast members themselves have found themselves feeling more empowered thanks to “Pose,” so too have the millions of LGBTQ people — and allies — who have tuned into it since its premiere in 2018. The show is one of those rare entries into the cultural lexicon that simply allows its queer and trans people to live authentic lives, giving long-withheld representation to countless viewers who were able to see themselves reflected back from the screen for perhaps the very first time. It’s that powerful sense of validation provided by “Pose” that keeps it standing tall in an entertainment market now providing so much LGBTQ inclusion that it’s becoming dangerously easy to take it for granted.
Whatever moments of heartbreak, joy, and celebration “Pose” brings us as it plays out its final act — and there are sure to be many — we can all be sure it will leave us with a message expressed through an oft-heard line of dialogue that Mock says she found herself writing “over and over again” during the series’ run:
“You are everything, and you deserve everything this world has to offer.” It’s that nurturing sentiment the “Pose” has been instilling in us from the beginning, like a mother to us all.
And that’s why so many of us can’t wait until the first two episodes of its final season air at 10 p.m. (both Eastern and Pacific), Sunday, May 2, on FX.
At 75, John Waters has no plans to retire
‘I’d go nuts if I didn’t work’
When writer and filmmaker John Waters turned 70 five years ago, he said he took six friends on a first-class trip to Paris for his birthday and “we had the best time.”
This year, for his 75th birthday on April 22, he was going to take his friends to Rome but the COVID-19 pandemic got in the way and they couldn’t all travel.
Instead, a friend is having a small dinner party for him in New York City, and he’s going with a friend. “Everybody has had their shots, and that’s what I’m going to do…It will be low-key this year.”
The older he gets, he said, the less he cares about making a big fuss out of every birthday anyway.
“What difference does it make? Old means old. It doesn’t matter which one.”
Though he’s taking some time to celebrate his 75th birthday, Waters has no plans to retire.
“No, God no,” he said last weekend while on a Zoom call with fans from London. “I jump out of bed every morning. It hurts to jump out of bed. I have aches and pains. But no, I’d go nuts if I didn’t work.”
That’s probably just as well because he has a lot going on. Between shooting episodes of “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit” and “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” getting ready for film festivals in several cities, planning a guided tour in Provincetown, and preparing for an exhibit of his private art collection at the Baltimore Museum of Art, he’s staying busy.
The ultimate multitasker, he didn’t even stop working when he went for a COVID vaccination recently.
“I signed an autograph when I was getting the shot,” he said. “Well, not at the moment, but right before.”
In a Zoom session organized by London’s Viktor Wynd Museum of Curiosities — an early birthday present of sorts because it drew fans from at least three continents — Waters announced that he just last week finished the book he’s been writing for the past three years, “LIARMOUTH,” a novel about a woman who steals luggage at the airport. It’s due out next year from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
He also expressed optimism that some events that had to be cancelled in 2020 because of the pandemic will be back in 2021, including his Camp John Waters “sleepaway” weekend for superfans in Kent, Conn., and a new, renamed iteration of the Burger Boogaloo punk rock music festival that he hosts in Oakland, Calif.
There’s even a chance he’ll make another movie. Waters told his fans there’s still interest in “Fruitcake,” the children’s Christmas film that he’s been trying for years to make. “There is new possibility,” he teased. “That’s all I’ll say. I’m not going to jinx it.”
He’s waiting to hear about the several dozen spoken-word shows he performs around the country every year between Thanksgiving and Christmas. “I think a lot of those decisions are going to happen in September.”
Most of all, he said, he’s just eager to make in-person appearances after a year in lockdown. Some of his engagements that were cancelled due to COVID have been rescheduled for the coming year, including appearances in New York, California, and Pennsylvania, and he’s adding others.
“I’m dying to get back on the road,” he said last weekend. “I’m still amazed that 20-something-year-old kids know who I am. I want to see what they look like.”
He’s wondering whether Meet-N-Greets – the sessions where he signs autographs and poses for photos with fans after a performance – will be possible in a post-pandemic world.
“Even before this, when I did the Christmas tour, I had Meet-N-Greets for usually 50 people” after a show, he said. “I’d always get sick because you have to hug everybody and then get on an airplane the next day. So I think Meet-N-Greets might never come back. I don’t know how they’re ever going to do that safely.”
On a personal basis, too, he’s yearning to get out and travel more.
“I want to go to a movie theater. I want to go to a concert,” he said. “I want to be able to have even a dull day out with other people.”
This year’s Oscars might be historic — but does anyone care?
Diverse nominees lacking LGBTQ representation
It’s Oscar weekend. Are you excited?
Unless you’re actually one of the nominees, odds are pretty good that you’re not – but the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which is geared up to present its prestigious annual film awards for the 93rd time on Sunday night, really, really wants you to be. Why else, a week ahead of the Big Night, would they roll out the show’s producers for a press conference to drop hints that the upcoming broadcast would “look like a movie” and incorporate satellite hookups from “multiple locations?” It was a clear bid to drum up excitement.
More details came Monday, when a letter from that same trio – producer Steven Soderbergh (himself an Oscar winner for directing “Traffic” in 2000) and co-producers Jesse Collins and Stacey Sher – went out to the nominees. As it turns out, the ceremony will be held at LA’s historic Union Station (site of Saturday’s press conference), which will be treated “as an active movie set” in terms of COVID-related safety protocols, with “additional elements” of the show being incorporated live from Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre via satellite hook-up.
More interestingly, the letter revealed, “The first—and most obvious—point we want to get across with this year’s show is STORIES MATTER.” In keeping with that theme, nominees are requested to submit to a brief interview to “tell the story of your path to April 25,” as part of an effort to “highlight the connections between all of us who work in the movies and show that the process is uniquely intimate, collaborative, and fun.” The emphasis on “story” was further reflected by instructions about messaging in the speeches (“If you’re thanking someone, say their name, not their title… make it PERSONAL”) and a dress code described as “a fusion of Inspirational and Aspirational.” Whatever Soderbergh and crew have planned for the show, their letter leaves little doubt they intend to tightly manage the narrative it presents.
That’s not surprising, of course; Hollywood is in the business of creating narratives, and the one it takes most seriously is the one it creates about itself. Nevertheless, it’s particularly telling that the story it is working so hard to tell seems designed to brush its problem with inclusion comfortably into the background.
This year, the organization might well feel that when it comes to diversity, the nominations speak for themselves. For a year in which tremendous social upheaval has brought Black experience in America to the forefront of the public conversation, the Oscars have chosen an impressive number of Black-led films and Black artists among an overall slate that offers the most diverse lineup of nominees in its history. Women are also represented, thanks to the inclusion of Emerald Fennell’s “Promising Young Woman” among the Best Picture contenders and the first-ever two nominations for women – Fennell and Chloé Zhao (“Nomadland”) – as Best Director. Additionally, Zhao, who is Chinese, is the first woman of color ever nominated in that category, Steven Yuen (“Minari”) became the first Asian-American to receive a Best Actor nod, and in the same category, Riz Ahmed (“The Sound of Metal”) became the first person of Pakistani descent to be nominated in any acting category.
In the midst of all this inclusion, however, the LGBTQ community – traditionally a stronghold for some of Oscar’s most ardent fans – has this year been largely left empty-handed, once again. Besides two Best Actress nods for women playing bisexual characters (Viola Davis and Andra Day, for “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” respectively), there are no major nominations for films with significant LGBTQ content – though it’s worth noting that the aforementioned “Young Woman” features trans actress Laverne Cox in a prominent supporting role. While it’s not a problem for us to stand on the sidelines and cheer for the victories achieved by representatives of other marginalized communities, it’s becoming harder to ignore the nagging feeling that our willingness to forgive an institution that continues to disappoint and diminish us is really something akin to Stockholm Syndrome.
In any case, this year’s Academy Awards have the potential for making history. Nine of the 20 acting nominees are people of color, and at least two of them are considered frontrunners in their categories. Zhao could become the first woman of Asian descent to win the Best Director prize. And while the potential for those wins lends a kind of excitement to the proceedings, an inescapable feeling of “too little, too late” – coupled with a pandemic-induced awareness of the relative unimportance of awards like these in the greater scheme of things – makes it more difficult than ever, perhaps, to care.
With that in mind, here are the currently leading “official” predictions for the winners in the top six categories, based on a combination of Oscar history, industry buzz, review consensus, and plain old-fashioned gut instinct:
BEST PICTURE: “Nomadland” and “The Trial of the Chicago 7” are considered the front-runners, thanks to previous wins in the equivalent category at the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors’ Guild Awards, respectively. “Nomadland” is favored to win.
BEST DIRECTOR: Chloé Zhao, who has taken the directing prize at both the Globes and the BAFTAs, seems a sure bet for “Nomadland.”
BEST ACTOR: Chadwick Boseman, whose death in 2020 after a secret battle with colon cancer devastated fans and co-workers alike, would seem the inevitable winner for his performance in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” even without his already-racked-up wins at the Globes, Critics’ Choice, and SAG Awards. If he takes it – and it’s almost certain he will – it would make him only the second Best Actor winner to be awarded the prize posthumously (the first was Peter Finch, for 1976’s “Network”).
BEST ACTRESS: There are no clear front-runners here. With one high-profile win each under their belt Davis (SAGs), Day (Globes), Frances McDormand (BAFTAs for “Nomadland”) and Carey Mulligan (Critics’ Choice for “Promising Young Woman”) are all positioned as possible winners. However, with Davis already making history with this performance as Oscar’s most-nominated Black actress, the appeal of also making her the first to win in both Actress categories (her performance in 2016’s “Fences” earned her the Best Supporting prize) might just give her the edge.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Having won for his performance as slain Black Panther leader Fred Hampton in “Judas and the Black Messiah” at all the other major film awards, Daniel Kaluuya is the definition of a “shoo-in.”
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: As is often the case, this category might be the most wide-open. Buzz has favored both Yuh-Jung Youn (“Minari”) and Maria Bakalova (“Borat Subsequent Moviefilm”), but her win at the BAFTA Awards puts Youn in place as the probable frontrunner. If she wins, she will be only the second Asian actress to win an Oscar, after Miyoshi Umeki (1957’s “Sayonara”).
You can find out the winners when the Oscars air on ABC, Sunday April 25 at 5 p.m. PT/8 p.m. ET. But don’t worry – if you don’t care enough to watch, you can always Google it afterward.
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