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Oscars so safe

Fraser wins for playing gay in ‘Whale,’ but night belonged to ‘Everything’

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Oscar winners celebrate on Sunday night. (Photo courtesy of ABC)

It must be said that the 95th Annual Academy Awards were doomed to be a letdown before they ever started. After all, last year’s ceremony included a physical assault on a presenter by an A-lister – who then proceeded to win the Best Actor award! Even by rewarding an indie underdog for becoming a populist hit by giving it a record-setting sweep of the major categories, how could this year’s Oscar broadcast hope to top that?

Snarky digs aside, the Academy had already squandered a lot of its good will by announcing a slate of nominees that seemed a step backward in its recent efforts toward diversity. While 2022’s honors included overdue recognition for Asian American talent, the notable shortage of people of color or LGBTQ individuals among the nominees had already led many observers to write off this year’s Oscars as just another backsliding return to the all-too-familiar status quo; and when the broadcast itself finally happened, the Jimmy Kimmel-led ceremony played it so safe that the proceedings seemed dull even in comparison to other Oscar shows – and as anyone who’s ever watched one will certainly attest, that’s saying a lot. It’s almost as if, after a few years of pushing the boundaries, controversy, and conservative backlash over a perceived capitulation to “woke” sensibilities had pressured the Academy into a return to business as usual.

In fairness, that assessment feels a little unreasonable, considering that “Everything Everywhere All at Once” – a movie in which the survival of multiple universes hinges in no small part on a mother’s acknowledgment and acceptance of her child’s queer sexuality – had enough critical and popular momentum going into the ceremony to make its claiming of the top prize all but inevitable. The popular surprise indie sci-fi hit claimed that prize and more – including Best Actress for cinema icon Michelle Yeoh and supporting honors for co-stars Ke Huy Quan and Jamie Lee Curtis, as well as wins in the Direction and Original Screenplay categories for filmmakers Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan – to take home an impressive seven of the 11 awards for which it was nominated; child-actress-turned-celebrated-filmmaker Sarah Polley, while shut out of the Best Director category for “Women Talking” in favor of an all-male roster of nominees, took the prize for Best Adapted Screenplay nevertheless; Best Actor winner Brendan Fraser, while himself not gay, earned his victory for a deeply humanizing portrayal of a gay man and is a very public survivor of alleged same-gender sexual harassment in the workplace – a reminder that #MeToo is not just a “women’s issue” but a cause encompassing even those in positions most seemingly insulated from such abuses.

All these winning films – as well as numerous others among their fellow winners and nominees –are queer-inclusive, if not directly queer-focused. Though other queer nominees – like Belgian director Lukas Dhont’s “Close” for Best International Feature and Laura Poitras’ Nan Goldin profile “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” for Best Documentary Feature – failed to take their respective categories, the overall queer presence represented in this year’s nominated films is too widespread and deeply integrated to be ignored.

Still, in today’s very divided cultural atmosphere, such equivocating overtures toward a more equitable Oscar playing field can undeniably feel like hollow, insincere tokens, convenient to bestow on their non-LGBTQ recipients thanks to the more universal appeal of the movies that earned them a place at the table; and while the wins for Yeoh and nostalgic Gen X fan favorite Quan represented historic firsts for Asian American inclusion, nominations for Viola Davis in “The Woman King” and “Till” star Danielle Deadwyler as Best Actress, or for Jeremy Pope and Gabrielle Union of “The Inspection” as Best Actor and Supporting Actress, respectively, would have gone a lot further toward proving the Academy’s commitment to true diversity than its loading of the stage with an ostentatiously multi-ethnic roster of presenters – an overcompensation tactic that becomes increasingly obvious every time they deploy it.

As for the ceremony itself, there were some highlights, such as Lady Gaga, with a face freshly scrubbed of her red carpet makeup, passionately delivering a performance of nominated song “Hold My Hand” from “Top Gun: Maverick,” or fellow pop diva Rihanna’s rendition of “Lift Me Up” from “Wakanda Forever” – not to mention the wildly entertaining production number staged to the eventual Best Song winner, “Naatu Naatu” from the Indian blockbuster “RRR.” So, too, were there memorable moments from among the presentations, like the infectious wave of authentic joy that met Quan’s and Curtis’ early wins or Fraser’s genuinely choked-up, self-effacing acceptance speech, as well as a few polite-but-pointed barbs and zingers aimed at various low-hanging political targets – and, of course, at Will Smith – along the way. Even so, the atmosphere of the evening was decidedly contained, marked by a frankly uncharacteristic effort from Hollywood’s elite to remain on their best behavior and avoid ruffling too many feathers – and while that may have made for an evening relatively free of controversy, it also resulted in an Academy Awards show arguably far less entertaining than some of the notoriously embarrassing debacles they’ve produced in past years.

With all that in mind, it’s easy to see Sunday night’s Oscar ceremony as just another validation for people who loathe the Oscars. Yet while the Academy might seem to be some monolithic organization handing out decrees, its awards are bestowed by a voting body made up of individual film professionals, each with their own opinions about who the winners should be, and many of whom likely feel no obligation toward following whatever cultural or political agendas the organization itself may be hoping to advance. That means that whatever good intentions it proclaims itself to have, the Academy will always be little more than a barometer – and, perhaps, a convenient scapegoat – for an industry that perpetually drags its feet. After all, can we really blame the Academy for failing to recognize queer-centric and queer-friendly content – or content centered on any demographic that isn’t white, male, and heterosexual – when there is still so little of it to choose from among the award-worthy movies the mainstream continues to offer us?

There’s no right answer to that question, perhaps, only food for thought as we continue to press Hollywood to do better; that’s the only way we’ll ever see wider inclusion on the big screen. In the meantime, it’s important to remember that deciding the “best” of anything is always an entirely subjective exercise, which means that the Oscars are ultimately less about gauging quality than they are about measuring cultural attitudes toward the content – and the way that content is presented – that the movie industry produces. That makes awards like the Oscars an invaluable tool, perhaps, but does that mean it’s worth putting up with all the shallow, facile, tribalistic conversation that inevitably happens around them?

In a year like this one, when the Academy honors films that uplift and celebrate outsiders, underdogs, and ordinary people, that emphasize kindness and compassion, that allow for resolution and redemption without destructive conflict or violence, then it feels like the answer is yes.

The complete list of winners is below:

Best Picture: “Everything Everywhere All at Once”

Best Actress in a Leading Role: Michelle Yeoh, “Everything Everywhere All at Once”

Best Actor in a Leading Role: Brendan Fraser, “The Whale”

Best Director: Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert,“Everything Everywhere All at Once”

Actress in a Supporting Role: Jamie Lee Curtis, Everything Everywhere All at Once”

Actor in a Supporting Role: Ke Huy Quan, “Everything Everywhere All at Once”

Best Animated Feature Film: “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio”

Best Original Song: M.M. Keeravani and Chandrabose,“Naatu Naatu,” “RRR”

Best Original Screenplay: Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert,“Everything Everywhere All at Once”

Best Adapted Screenplay: Sarah Polley, “Women Talking”

Best International Feature Film: “All Quiet on the Western Front”

Best Documentary Feature Film: “Navalny”

Best Cinematography: James Friend, “All Quiet on the Western Front”

Best Visual Effects: “Avatar: The Way of Water”

Best Costume Design: Ruth E. Carter, “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever”

Best Makeup and Hairstyling: Adrian Morot, Judy Chin, and Annemarie Bradley, “The Whale”

Best Production Design: Christian M. Goldbeck and Ernestine Hipper,“All Quiet on the Western Front”

Best Film Editing: Paul Rogers, “Everything Everywhere All at Once”

Best Original Score: Volker Bertelmann,“All Quiet on the Western Front”

Best Live Action Short: “An Irish Goodbye”

Best Animated Short: “The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse”

Best Documentary Short: “The Elephant Whisperers”

Best Sound: “Top Gun: Maverick”

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Theater

Celebrating the 2024 Helen Hayes Awards nominees

38th annual event returns next week ‘building on last year’s success’

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Justin Weaks as Belize and Nick Westrate as Prior in ‘Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches’ at Arena Stage. (Photo by Margot Schulman)

2024 Helen Hayes Award
May 20, 2024
For tickets go to theatrewashington.org

It’s that time of year again when the DMV’s theater pros and those who love them getdolled up and show up to celebrate the best of last year’s work. 

On Monday (May 20), Theatre Washington’s Helen Hayes Awards marks its 38th year with a splashy ceremony at The Anthem on the District Wharf. With two parts, a non-rushed intermission, and a lively after party, the program is long but the format allows time to celebrate award recipients, enjoy the entertainment, and talk about some serious issues without racing to the end.

Co-directed by Will Gartshore and Raymond O. Caldwell, the show features four terrific hosts — out actor Tom Story, Felicia Curry, Maria Rizzo, and Rayanne Gonzales along with an ensemble of five singer/dancers (dubbed the Fab Five) peppering the show with some fun numbers. 

“We’re building on last year’s success,” says Amy Austin, Theatre Washington’s out president and CEO. “Again, dinner will be served during the show à la Golden Globes on the first floor for mostly nominees and their guests, and the second floor offers lots more affordable stadium seating.” 

Austin’s approach harks back to the sumptuous Helen Hayes Awards of yesteryear, which she cleverly remembers as the “ice sculpture age.” Ultimately, the goal is to create something fun, memorable, and meaningful: “It’s such a collaborative community and that’s why the Helen Hayes Awards are special; it’s a reunion of people who’ve worked together.” 

Still, the doling out of awards remains the focus of the long evening. And that leaves a lot of nominees waiting on tenterhooks to see just who will go home with prizes named for the legendary first lady of American theater, Miss Helen Hayes. 

The awards selection process is no simple task, she adds. Recognizing work from 151 eligible productions presented in the 2023 calendar year, nominations were made in 41 categories and grouped in “Helen” or “Hayes” cohorts, depending on the number of Equity members involved in the production with Hayes counting more. 

The nods are the result of 49 carefully vetted judges considering 2005 individual pieces of work, such as design, direction, choreography, performances, and more. Productions under consideration in 2023 included 44 musicals, 107 plays, and 36 world premieres.

As one of this year’s nominees, out actor Justin Weaks says he isn’t about beating the competition. He concedes it may sound cliché, but it’s a privilege simply to be nominated, especially with all the work done in the DMV. And certainly, with three wins and multiple nominations under his belt, he’s in a position to know. 

And now, he’s nominated for Outstanding Supporting Performer in a Play, for his notable turn as Belize/Mr. Lies in Arena Stage’s production of Tony Kushner’s seminal masterwork “Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches.”

For Weaks, a longtime D.C. actor who relocated to New York in 2021, the “Angels” experience was singular: “It’s one of those great, very American plays that remains relevant, and that it’s centered on the gay experience and HIV/ AIDS makes it especially impactful for the queer community.”

Often noted for creating roles in new plays, Weaks enjoyed being part of a piece that so many hands have touched since its premiere more than 30 years ago. He was thrilled to work with the production’s Hungarian director János Szász who, Weak says, approached the piece as a new work, treating it like fresh text.

And does Weaks have a speech prepared? 

“The morning of the awards, I’ll journal about my experience with ‘Angels,’ and if my name is called, I’ll get up and give an abbreviated version of what I wrote. But mostly for me, it’s a reunion, a chance to be cute, get dressed up and celebrate the work.” 

In the Outstanding Lighting Design category, Brooklyn-based Venus Gulbranson is nominated for Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company & The Wilma Theater’s “My Mama and the Full-scale Invasion”. It’s the proud and out Filipino designer’s second nomination (last year she received a nod for Monumental Theatre’s “tick, tick… BOOM!”). 

“Lighting design is underrated in the eye of theatergoers,” explains Gulbranson who earned her lighting stripes as an Arena Stage fellow. “Scenic and costume design are somehow more tangible to them; they don’t often realize that it’s lighting designers who navigate the mood of the story. 

“It’s a very empathetic skill, and a good designer can take you there emotionally.  When you’re tearing up watching a scene, the lighting has a lot to do with it. We also spend a lot of time making scenes transition smoothly,” she adds. 

“We half-jokingly say ‘a compliment to set design is a compliment to us.’ We are the reason there are beautiful colors on stage. Scenery is our canvas.” 

Other queer nominees include Bobby Smith (Studio Theatre’s “Fun House”), Billie Krishawn (Arena’s “Angels in America”), Miss Kitty (Spooky Action Theatre’s “Agreste”), Michael Urie (The Kennedy Center’s “Monty Python’s Spamalot”), costume designer Frank Labovitz (Constellation Theatre Company’s “The School for Lies”), director Jason Loewith and set designer Tony Cisek (Round House Theatre & Olney Theatre Center’s “Ink”), and most likely more.  

Both the Helen Hayes Awards’ choreographer and a nominee, David Singleton is up for Outstanding Choreography in a Musical for NextStop Theatre Company’s “Ride the Cyclone,” a wildly entertaining dark comedy.

“The show’s score is eclectic, so I could do a little bit of everything. I had to find anchor points for each number where I draw most inspiration, and go with it. I have a strong jazz background, both street and musical theater jazz, but I’m also really into tap and some ballet.”  

Singleton began performing professionally in “Dreamgirls” at Toby’s Dinner Theatre in 2017, but he hit his stride with “really fierce” choreography post pandemic. 

A dancer first, Singleton says his energies are divided into thirds: performer, choreographer, and drag queen (Tiara Missou, an “incredibly vain but kind queen” who’s regularly featured at D.C. bars Pitchers and Shakers). When Singleton was 18, he volunteered to work the Helen Hayes Awards. He recalls thinking “I’ll be part of this one day, for what exactly I’m not sure” and now he says, “I’m here and I feel honored.”  

And what about a prepared speech? “Oh, definitely. I’m a rambler.”  

Break legs nominees! 

A full list of award recipients will be available at theatrewashington.org on Tuesday, May 23.

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Television

‘Interview with the Vampire’ returns in triumph

Long-awaited season 2 continues to get story exactly right

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Assad Zaman and Jacob Anderson star in 'Interview with the Vampire.' (Photo courtesy of AMC)

When AMC debuted its long-awaited series adaptation of “Interview With the Vampire” – Anne Rice’s seminal proto-postmodern horror novel that set the stage and paved the way for a decades-long literary franchise that has kept millions of readers, queer and straight alike, passionately engaged since first reading its thinly veiled allegorical document of life as a being with heightened awareness on the edge of human existence – in 2022, we were among the first to sing its praises as a triumph of narrative storytelling,

We were not the last. The series, created by Rolin Jones in collaboration with Christopher Rice – the original author’s son and a successful horror novelist in his own right – and the late Anne Rice herself, was one of its season’s best-reviewed shows, earning particular praise for its writing, in which the queer “subtext” of Rice’s original works was given the kind of unequivocal full weight denied to it in the Brad Pitt/Tom Cruise-starring Neil Jordan-helmed film adaptation from 1994. 

Though purist fans of the original boom series took occasional umbrage to some of the show’s leaps – changing the historical period of the story to illuminate themes of racism and deepen its resonance for those living as “others” on the fringe of society, and making the book’s protagonist, Louis Pointe du Lac (Jacob Anderson), a closeted Black Creole man in early 20th-century New Orleans – the series won most of its naysayers over by its season finale. It delivered a deliciously subversive, unapologetically queer interpretation that remained true to Rice’s original gothic re-imaginings while expanding the scope to encompass social and cultural factors that have become central to the moral and ideological conflicts that plague us in the first quarter of the 21st century.

To put it bluntly, the show’s willingness to embrace the story’s countercultural queer eroticism and place its transgressively amoral “moral compass” front and center was more than enough to smooth over any nitpicking over faithfulness to narrative detail or tone that might otherwise have kept Rice’s legion of acolytes from signing on to the new-and-contemporized vision of the book that Rollins built as the foundation for his daunting project.

Now, after a buzz-tempering delay borne of last year’s actor’s strike, the series has returned for its second season. And we’re happy to assure you that its feet hit the ground running, keeping up both passion and narrative momentum to pick up the story with electrifying energy after leaving off (at the end of season one) with the shocking murder and seeming elimination of Lestat (Sam Reid), the exquisitely amoral “rock star” vampire who served as both protector and lover of Louis, and the departure of the latter and his perpetually juvenile “daughter,” Claudia (Bailey Bass) on s quest to find others like themselves.

Fans of the book might, in fact, find new reasons to take exception to the show’s adaptation, which, as in season one, makes significant departures from the original narrative. After moving the story’s setting forward by roughly half a century, Louis and Claudia’s secretive sojourn now takes place in the traumatized landscape of post-WWII Europe, and spins a scenario in which the two ex-pat vampires, navigating their way through the perils of Soviet-occupied Central Europe after the fall of the Nazi regime, spend time in a refugee shelter while investigating rumors of old-world vampires who might provide a link to their “family history.”

When we rejoin this pair of relative fledgling vampires, their undead existence is a far cry from the decadent elegance they enjoyed in the New Orleans setting of season one. Enduring a near-feral existence as they make their way through a war-ravaged landscape, they find no shortage of prey in the aftermath of the Third Reich, but the “creature comforts” of their former “afterlives” are now only a memory. Louis is devoted, as always, to Claudia (now portrayed by Delainey Hayles, presumably due to scheduling conflicts for original actor Bass, who is set to reprise her role from “Avatar: The Way of Water” in the next installment of filmmaker James Cameron’s high-dollar sci-fi franchise), but remains haunted by his vampire maker and former lover Lestat, whose undead corpse remains buried on another continent but whose charismatic presence manifests itself in his private moments, nonetheless. In the first episode, the pair have used their supernatural wiles to journey into the “old country” long associated with their kind, tracking human tales of monstrous terrors in the night in hope of connecting with more of their kind. Louis, as always, struggles with his compassion for the mortal beings around him, while the more savage Claudia simply sees them as prey, and holds little hope of finding other vampires, if they even exist. For her part, Claudia has forgiven – but not forgotten – his refusal to ensure Lestat’s demise by burning his body, and is now solely focused on finding others like her.

Of course, the adventures of these two undead companions are only half the equation in “Interview With the Vampire.” The past is, as always, merely a flashback, as Louis relates the story of his afterlife experiences to mortal journalist Daniel Molloy (Eric Bogosian). In the present, the skeptical Molloy casts doubt on the truth of his memories, forcing the vampire to re-examine them as he goes. Perhaps more interestingly, in the long game of a series which, if it comes to full fruition, will eventually encompass the entire Rice vampire saga, these contemporary scenes give us a look at the relationship between Louis and Armand (Assad Zaman), revealed in the season one finale to be not a mere servant in Louis’ household but a centuries-old fellow vampire who is now Louis’ lover and companion.

Fans of the books, of course, know that Armand plays a significant role in the story of the past, too, and while we won’t spoil anything, we can say that history begins to unspool as season two progresses – but that’s getting ahead of ourselves. For now, what we can say is that season two’s first episode, while it may veer away from the familiarity of Rice’s original tale in service of reimagining it for 21st-century audiences, continues the first season’s dedication to breathing thrilling new life into this now-iconic, deeply queer saga; superb performances all around, an elegantly cinematic presentation and literate writing, and a lush musical score by Daniel Hart all combine to sweep us quickly and irresistibly into the story, making us not just fall in love with these vampires, but want to be one of them. 

That, of course, is the gloriously sexy and subversive point of Rice’s “Vampire Chronicles,” and this long-awaited series continues to get it exactly right.

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Out & About

Pride Run 5K nearly sold out

Front Runners annual event to be held at Congressional Cemetery

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Front Runners Pride Run 5K (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Sign up now to join the annual Front Runners Pride Run 5K. The event is 85 percent sold out. The event is Friday, June 7 at Historic Congressional Cemetery.

Join more than 1,000 runners and walkers as they kick off Pride weekend 2024. When registering please consider donating to one of the event’s charity partners. This year’s race proceeds benefit local LGBTQ and disenfranchised youth organizations, including the Team DC Student-Athlete Scholarship, Wanda Alston Foundation, Blade Foundation, Ainsley’s Angels of America (National Capital Region), Pride365 and SMYAL. Visit DCPriderun.com to register or to donate.

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