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In diverse slate of winners, Oscar is the biggest loser

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Best Actor winner Anthony Hopkins (center) with co-star Olivia Colman in “The Father” (image courtesy Sony Pictures Classics)

We knew the Academy Awards were going to be different this year.

Forced by Covid to reimagine its traditional presentation format, the movie industry’s most prestigious awards show convened not at Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre — at least, not for most of it — and opted instead to broadcast the ceremony from the relative intimacy of Los Angeles’ historic Union Station, where a small audience of nominees, presenters and guests gathered under “live set” safety protocols while other participants connected from various remote hook-ups across the world. Instead of auditorium seating, tables; instead of an orchestra, Questlove. In addition, show producers Steven Soderbergh, Jesse Collins, and Stacy Sher chose to shoot the event cinematically, employing the tricks and techniques of film to transform the evening from the stodgy affair so many of us love to hate into something resembling a movie. As promised during the week ahead of the broadcast, the show was going to tell a “story.”

It was a gamble that didn’t pay off.

Things started out promisingly enough, it must be said, with an opening tracking shot that followed host Regina King from the bright L.A. sunshine into the cool darkness of Union Station. The motion, the music, and most of all King’s commanding presence, gave us the sense that something big was about to happen. Then, early in her opening comments to the audience, King brought substance to the weight by commenting that “if things had gone differently in Minneapolis this week, I might’ve traded in my heels for marching boots” — reminding us (as if it were needed) of the national focus on Black justice that hung alongside Oscar’s long-lamented struggle with diversity like a shadow over the evening. The central theme of this Oscar “movie,” it seemed, had been firmly established.

For awhile, it seemed to be working. The evening’s first winners were Emerald Fennell for Best Original Screenplay, for “Promising Young Woman,” and Florian Zeller for Best Adapted Screenplay, for “The Father,” appearing to set a tone for the ceremony in which recognition would be spread around to all — something very much in tune with the presumed subplot of the “story” we were being told, in which Oscar would redeem itself from the #OscarsSoWhite associations of its past and prove itself to be a champion for fair and equal diversity, after all.

Soon after, Daniel Kaluuya took the award for Best Supporting Actor – no surprise there, as his performance as slain Black Panther leader Fred Hampton in “Judas and the Black Messiah” had won the equivalent prize from every other major film awards so far — firmly establishing the “redemption” theme by celebrating the powerful work of a Black actor in a true-life story that addressed the corruption and tragedy of systemic racism in America. A pair of awards for “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (Best Makeup and Styling, Best Costume Design), as well as a win for the police-violence-themed “Two Distant Strangers” as Best Live-Action Short, reinforced it even further. Better still, a shout-out to trans acceptance from “Ma Rainey” stylist Mia Neal in her speech, and a plea from “Strangers” writer/director Travon Free for audiences not to be “indifferent to our pain” in his, lent a powerful sense of earnestness that made the whole thing feel authentic. Maybe this year, Oscar was finally getting it right.

Unfortunately, the Oscar “story,” in its effort to be inclusive, allowed all the winners to talk until they were done. In other words, Questlove did not start playing anyone off when they had used up their time, and the ambitious “movie” of the Oscars soon began lose any momentum it had built. This is not to say that the winners don’t deserve their time in the spotlight, or that some of the things that were said were not worthy of being heard; but anyone in show business should know the importance of keeping your audience interested, and the Academy Awards have such a long history of running ponderously overtime that it seems some kind of middle ground might have been reached.

There were other familiar complaints, too. The annual “in memoriam” segment inevitably left out some important names (Ann Reinking, Jessica Walter, “Glee” star Naya Rivera, and former Oscar nominee songwriter Adam Schlesinger, to name just a few), and there was an awkward segment in which Questlove played “Oscar trivia” with audience members, who were asked to identify movie songs that did NOT win the Academy Award. The latter situation was almost saved by nominee Glenn Close, who did an “impromptu” rendition of “Da Butt” that was as goofily charming as it was obviously pre-planned.

As the show wore on, the cinematic conceit chosen to revitalize the proceedings became mostly irrelevant in the face of Oscar’s usual baggage. Further, the absence of any performances of the year’s nominated songs, typically a favorite feature of fans at home, meant there was little respite from the dullness, which was made all the more apparent by the increasingly bored faces of the onscreen audience. The omission may have been due to the difficult logistics of additional Covid protocols, but surely pre-taped performances might have helped to perk things up. For the record, Best Original Song went to “Fight For You,” from “Judas and the Black Messiah.”

Along the way, there were noteworthy wins. The much-loved Pixar-Disney film “Soul” took the award for Best Animated Feature, as well as winning Best Original Score for composers Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross, and Jon Batiste; the virally popular “My Octopus Teacher” won for Best Documentary Feature; David Fincher’s black-and-white old-Hollywood homage “Mank” took the prizes for Best Production Design and Best Cinematography, continuing the trend of spreading out the wealth among the front-running contenders; in presenting Best Film Editing to “The Sound of Metal,” still-hunky Hollywood curmudgeon Harrison Ford gave an amusing nod to “Blade Runner,” the revered 1982 sci-fi film in which he starred, by reading the scathingly negative studio notes from a pre-release screening; and Best Supporting Actress went to veteran performer Yuh-Jung Youn for her work in “Minari,” making her only the second woman of Asian heritage to win the award (the first was Miyoshi Umeki for 1957’s “Sayanora”) — and making Close, who was nominated for her role in “Hillbilly Elegy,” tied with Peter O’Toole as the actor with the most nods without a single win.

By the time we reached the presentation of the four top prizes, there was little left of whatever enthusiasm had been drummed up by the opening segment of the show. Chloe Zhao’s expected win as Best Director, for “Nomadland,” making her the first Asian-American woman (and only the second woman, period) to receive the award, was an appreciated high point for her enthusiastic gratitude alone, but at this point, things had become pretty much business as usual, despite the grand designs and cinematic flourishes of the producers.

Then, the big twist came. Best Picture, always the final award of the evening, was being announced before the Lead Acting awards. What was happening? Was the Oscar “movie” about to give us a surprise ending?

The winner, “Nomadland,” had been favored, and star Frances McDormand helped to make the moment a highlight with a “wolf” howl (dedicated to sound mixer Michael “Wolf” Snyder, who passed away last month) when she joined the film’s other producers at the podium, but surely neither of those things warranted switching the order. Perhaps a clue to what was really happening could be found in the choice of presenter – Hollywood icon Rita Moreno, still fabulous at 89, whose Best Supporting Actress win for 1961’s “West Side Story” happened to have made her the first Hispanic woman to win an Oscar. Was this reminder of diversity from the Academy’s past a sign that the “redemption” theme was about to pay off?

It suddenly became obvious. The Oscar “movie” was leading up to an emotional finale, a big and uplifting triumph that would not only be a celebration of diversity, but a tribute to a gifted young man whose talents had been taken away from us too soon. The story of Oscar’s redemption would culminate in the posthumous awarding of the Best Actor prize to Chadwick Boseman, whose nominated performance in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” was the last work he completed before losing his private battle with colon cancer and passing away at 43 last August. That would definitely be a “wow” finish.

Best Actress came first, accompanied by some suspense due to being one of the few categories without a clear front-runner. McDormand took the statue for “Nomadland,” joining a small handful of other performers as a three-time-winner and preventing “Ma Rainey” star Viola Davis from becoming the first Black actress to win twice. Her speech was refreshingly short and humble, a tribute to the joy of “the work” which included a quote from Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” (“My voice is in my sword”) – a play considered by actors worldwide to be “cursed,” which in retrospect casts an interesting light on what happened next.

To present the final award, last year’s Best Actor winner Joaquin Phoenix (looking exceptionally uncomfortable) came to the mike and, after a feeble joke about his reputation for method acting, read off the five nominees before opening the envelope to bring about the now much-anticipated denouement.

“And the Oscar goes to… Anthony Hopkins, ‘The Father.’”

It wasn’t quite “fade to black, roll credits” after that, but it might as well have been.

There was no uplifting finale, no redemption of the Academy as a reward for its show of diversity. There was only another in a long-running series of gaffes (remember the “La La Land” vs. “Moonlight” debacle from just a few years back?) that have made the Oscar show’s tendency to mess things up a running joke.

This one, however, was possibly the worst. In an arrogant attempt to shape a narrative out of real life events that hadn’t even happened yet, the Academy seems to have chosen to manipulate its audience into an emotional reaction — one that would have bolstered its own reputation and perhaps made up for some of its former perceived missteps — while exhibiting a cynical overconfidence in its own ability to predict the sentiments of its voters. As a result, its “wow” finish turned into an abrupt and uncomfortable faux pas, diminishing both Hopkins’ victory for a career-topping performance (which, at 83, makes him the oldest acting winner in Oscar history) and Boseman’s searingly powerful work by obscuring their accomplishments behind a colossal f*ck-up born of its own hubris.

It’s worth noting that a plan was (reportedly) in place in the supposedly “unlikely” event that Hopkins would win, in which “Father” co-star Colman – known for her disarming grace and humor in awards situations – would have accepted the award in his absence. As reported by The Guardian, Phoenix forgot to call her to the stage, resulting in the dull thud that was the end of the 93rd Academy Awards. Regardless, the Academy has only itself to blame. In its eagerness to tell the story it wanted to tell about itself, it appears to have forgotten that you have to know the ending first.

Ironically, when removed from all the drama, the list of winners does represent one of the most diverse and inclusive slates in Oscar history. It’s not enough, but it’s a start.

On that note, as a final observation, the LGBTQ community, despite recent strides in being acknowledged by Oscar, went largely unacknowledged at this year’s ceremony, with queer front-runners like “Two of Us” (a French contender for Best International Feature) and David France’s devastating “Welcome to Chechnya” (shortlisted for Best Documentary Feature) having been shut out of the nominations and no significant queer content among most of the nominated films. Apart from Neal’s aforementioned invocation of trans acceptance as part of a possible future in which the recognition of all women for their achievements would be “normal,” the only other time we came up was during Tyler Perry’s acceptance speech for the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.

Perry, whose highly popular films are frequently criticized for embracing borderline homophobic and transphobic humor and perpetuating problematic tropes about gender and sexuality, gave a speech calling for people to “refuse to hate” anyone “because they are Mexican, or because they are Black or White, or LBGTQ” or “because they are a police officer” or “because they are Asian.” Apart from the conflation of being a police officer (a choice) with being an LGBTQ person or a person of color (not a choice), the fact that he mixed up the “B” and the “G” is a clear indicator that, while he may refuse to hate us, he’s not exactly a committed ally, either.

If the LGBTQ angle seems like a footnote to the story, that’s because it is. Once more, the queer community is left feeling like an uninvited guest by the Academy.

If Oscar wants its story to be about diversity, it’s clear that next year’s “story” needs some better writers.

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At 15, restored ‘Shortbus’ is still a movie ahead of its time

Depictions of real sex among actors raised eyebrows

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Paul Dawson and PJ DeBoy in ‘Shortbus.’ (Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories)

When it debuted in 2006, John Cameron Mitchell’s “Shortbus” – which this month receives a special 15th anniversary re-release in the form of a sumptuous new 4K restoration – was described by Variety as being “unquestionably the most sexually graphic American narrative feature ever made outside the realm of the porn industry.”

That description arguably still holds true, and it was not hyperbole. Mitchell, fresh off the success of both the stage and film versions of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” had deliberately set out to make a film exploring “the language of sex as a metaphor for other aspects of the characters’ lives.” He solicited videotaped submissions from would-be cast members – whether they were trained actors or not – who were open to the experience of performing in sexually explicit material, then collaborated with the chosen players over a two-and-a-half-year process of improvisational workshops to create the story and script. When the cameras finally started rolling, the cast had already developed a level of emotional and physical intimacy that allowed them to deliver unprecedented authenticity. Almost all the sex scenes were un-simulated – and indeed, according to Mitchell, all but one of the many orgasms that take place in the film are real.

It’s not surprising that “Shortbus” would garner a lot of attention 15 years ago for its bold approach to onscreen sex, considering that real sex on film is still largely considered a taboo in the mainstream. What’s surprising is that it generated relatively little outrage or backlash from the conservative crowd. There were detractors, of course, whose pearl-clutching reaction to the idea of such a film was simply to decry it as “pornography,” and it was banned in some foreign markets with draconian censorship laws regarding sexual content; nevertheless, thanks to Mitchell’s established reputation as an artist and the enthusiastic response it received at the Cannes Film Festival, the movie managed a reasonably widespread release across major markets in the United States without raising too many eyebrows, meeting with a mostly favorable response from both critics and audiences – at least the audiences who weren’t too squeamish to go and see it.

Those who did quickly found themselves drawn into the lives of a collection of young New Yorkers, all struggling to find meaning, connection, and gratification in a city still reeling from the tragedy of 9/11 and the frustrations of Bush-era politics. There’s Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee), a sex therapist who has never had an orgasm, and her attentive but increasingly bewildered husband Rob (Raphael Barker), whose own sexual needs are not being met, either; there’s Jamie (PJ DeBoy) and James (Paul Dawson), a former child TV star and his ex-hustler boyfriend who are looking to open up their relationship to others, and Caleb (Peter Stickles), a voyeuristic neighbor who lives vicariously through stalking them and obsessively following their lives; and finally, there’s Severin (Lindsay Beamish), a professional dominatrix frustrated over her inability to make emotional connections. Along with other sexual pilgrims of the New York underground scene, they come together at Shortbus, a weekly “salon” dedicated to art, music, politics, and polysexual carnality.

At the time of its initial release, “Shortbus” felt for many – perhaps even most – like a glimpse into another world, an erotic utopia where sexual freedom and experimentation were not only “normal” but incorporated into a holistic view of life and used as a valid avenue for achieving personal growth. Seen today, what strikes the viewer most is just how far ahead of its time Mitchell’s purposefully transgressive movie really was. Though we haven’t quite reached a cultural place where the freewheeling and permissive sexuality it depicts has been fully embraced by all, many of the then-arcane sexual concepts it presents – polyamory, BDSM, “pegging” – no longer carry the same sense of transgressive danger they once did in the mainstream cultural imagination. More importantly, the attitude of sex-positivity it champions has become far more widespread in our modern world, thanks in no small part to the increased visibility and acceptance of “non-traditional” sexual practices in popular media.

There’s also an unexpected – indeed, almost eerie – resonance to be found in the underlying zeitgeist of the film’s post-9/11 New York, as reflected in the existential crises with which its characters resignedly grapple. This is particularly notable in the secretly depressed James (Dawson’s sensitive portrayal of his mental health struggles provides the emotional heart of the movie), but any of the characters could easily be transplanted into the COVID-exhausted world of 2022 and seem just as much at home.

For all that looming heaviness in the air, though, “Shortbus” remains as refreshingly upbeat and unexpectedly joyful as it was 15 years ago – and that’s not just because of the sex. Mitchell, in talking about making the film, says he did not “necessarily seek to be erotic.”

“In the years I was making ‘Hedwig,’ he says, “I welcomed the fact that movies were exploring sexual frankness again, as some had in the ‘60s and ‘70s, but I regretted the fact that most of the new ones were so grim and humorless. Sex seemed just as connected to negativity as it was for, say, Christian conservatives. I guess it’s understandable. I was brought up in a strict Catholic/military environment where sex was the scariest thing imaginable, which, of course, made it fascinating. I decided to make a New York-style, emotionally challenging comedy that would be sexually frank, thought-provoking, and, if possible, funny.”

True to that goal, “Shortbus” feels for most of its running time like a light-hearted romp. Justin Vivian Bond, playing themself as the host of the film’s titular salon, brings a buoyant sense of humor to the movie that pervades even when they’re not onscreen, and the colorful community of background characters – including an Ed Koch lookalike who confides in a young potential hook-up that he was “once the mayor of New York City” – provide a constant stream of memorable comedic moments throughout. There’s even an overtly farcical sequence involving a remote-control orgasmic egg, which would not seem at all out of place in a 1960s screwball comedy from Blake Edwards.

Still, to downplay the sexiness of “Shortbus” would be to ignore its most enduring legacy. After all, it’s a film that features graphic sex between various combinations of gender, including extended scenes of three-ways, orgies, rimming, cunnilingus, fellatio, self-sucking, and full-on penetration of multiple orifices. Yes, some of it may arouse you – but the real power of sex in this film has to do with the fact that, unlike porn or even most “tasteful” Hollywood sex scenes, the intention is not so much to turn us on but to help us get over it.

As Mitchell puts it, “In the current and important campaign to correct social wrongs, sometimes sex itself gets a bad name. To some today, any kind of sex on screen is exploitation… Let’s not let our need for safety and justice boomerang us back to our default American Puritanism. Sex between consenting respectful adults is one of the great joys and mysteries of our lives. No need to panic. 

“Let’s just lie back and think of each other.”

The new 4K restoration of “Shortbus” opens theatrically in New York City on January 26, followed by an expansion to other cities across the US. You can find information about theatres and dates at the Oscilloscope Laboratories Website.

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Arts & Entertainment

Amy Schneider’s Jeopardy! winning streak ends at 40 games

Transgender contestant is the highest-earning woman in competition’s history

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(Photo Courtesy Casey Durkin/ Jeopardy Productions, Inc.)

Amy Schneider‘s record-setting Jeopardy! winning streak came to an end on Wednesday’s show after getting tripped up on the Final Jeopardy! clue.

Schneider is the first transgender contestant to qualify for the Tournament of Champions, and she’s the highest-earning woman in the competition’s history, with a total of $1,382,800 from 40 wins.

Schneider was leading by $10,000 as the contestants headed into the all-important “Final Jeopardy!” category, she failed to answer the clue. It was, “The only nation in the world whose name in English ends in an H, it’s also one of the 10 most populous.” Contestant Rhone Talsma managed to overtake Schneider when she answered, “What is Bangladesh?” the correct response. Schneider ended up with $19,600 versus Talsma’s $29,600.

“I think that the best part for me has been being on TV as my true self, expressing myself and representing the entire community of trans people,” Schneider told Good Morning America this week. “And just kind of showing a different thing than maybe some people have seen, of just being a smart, confident woman and just doing something super normal, like being on Jeopardy!.”

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A Revolution for Women in Baseball

Last week, they announced that Rachel Balkovec will become the first woman to manage a team in minor league baseball.

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Rachel Balkovec was hired as a hitting coach in the Yankees’ system in 2019. She will now manage the Class A Tampa Tarpons.Credit. Photo Courtesy of Rachel Balkovec/Instagram.

The Yankees were late on introducing an African-American player to their roster, adding Hall of Famer Elston Howard to the team in 1955, eight years after Jackie Robinson starred for the Brooklyn Dodgers.  The Yankees seem determined not to repeat that bad history.  Last week, they announced that Rachel Balkovec will become the first woman to manage a team in minor league baseball when she takes the helm of the Tampa Tarpons this spring. 

It has been just over ten years since Justin Siegal threw batting practice to the Cleveland Guardians and five since she was the first woman to coach a MLB squad with the Oakland Athletics.  Two years ago, Kim Ng became the first female General Manager of any of the four major professional sports when the Marlins hired her to run their team.  In the two years since then, the dam has burst.  Women have been hired to important on-field positions with professional baseball at an impressive clip.  As baseball has lagged behind other professional sports in bringing women into the game, the current pace of hires indicates that baseball’s embrace of analytics and objective measures have finally penetrated the walls of one of the most enduring old boys clubs in the U.S. and given talented women opportunities they have long been denied.

Ten women will be coaching with major or minor league teams in 2022.  In 2021, Bianca Smith became the first African-American woman to coach in the minors when the Red Sox hired her. Alyssa Nakken became the first woman in uniform during a Major League Baseball game when she coached first base for the Giants in a July 2020 exhibition against the Oakland A’s.  Her jersey now belongs to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.  Cuban-American Veronica Alvarez is not only the coach of the U.S. Women’s National Baseball team, she also served as a spring training coach for the Oakland A’s.

The proliferation of women in baseball is not an accident.  More girls than ever are playing baseball.  Here, in the DC area, 160 girls participated with D.C. Girls Baseball in 2021.  Baseball for All, an organization that supports and promotes girls in baseball, held a tournament last summer that drew nearly 600 girls who play baseball.  There are more women than ever on collegiate baseball rosters.  Major League Baseball has also devoted significant resources to girls and women in baseball, running several development camps for girls in baseball.  Six of the women now coaching professional baseball participated in MLB’s Take the Field initiative, which is designed to help place women into baseball positions. To top it all off, the classic film about the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, A League of Their Own, is getting a reboot on Amazon Prime this year.

The pace of hiring is exhilarating.  Unfortunately, every report of a woman being hired is followed by predictable hateful commentary on social media.  Many cannot imagine that a woman may be hired for a baseball position on merit and resort to making sexist and derogatory comments.  As women in baseball, the coaches are used to that vitriol and have developed thick skin and sophisticated defense mechanisms.  However, also reading are thousands of girls who are inspired by the achievements of these women and they are, sadly, learning that to achieve in baseball means enduring the sexist taunts, gross come-ons, and hurtful comments.

Baseball has a long way to go.  Other leagues have women officiating games, so it should be reasonable to expect that baseball will have women umpires in the near future.  The possibility of women playing professional baseball is tantalizingly close as 17 year old Genevieve Beacom made history last week as the first women to play Australian professional baseball, when she threw a scoreless inning against the Adelaide Giants.

We are watching a revolution in baseball unfold before our eyes. 

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