Commentary: Oscar observations

By STEVE SAILER, UPI National Correspondent
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LOS ANGELES, March 25 (UPI) -- Halle Berry's gasping and sobbing Best Actress acceptance speech, which ran four times the recommended length of 45 seconds, may become as famous as Sally Field's 1985 "You like me" meltdown. Why are so many top actresses like that?

The great detective novelist and screenwriter Raymond Chandler, himself nominated for his 1944 script for "Double Indemnity," explained in "The Little Sister," his novel about a troubled actress: "If these people didn't live intense and rather disordered lives, if their emotions didn't ride them too hard -- well, they wouldn't be able to catch those emotions in flight and imprint them on a few feet of celluloid ..."


Berry's speech included such memorably messianic lines as, "This moment is so much bigger than me. This moment is for Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll. ... It's for every nameless, faceless woman of color who now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened." Strikingly, though, ABC flashed a quick shot of the former beauty queen's mother, who happens to be very white.


Judith Berry raised Halle and her sister Heidi single-handedly after her African-American husband abandoned her. A quite interesting movie could be made about the relationship between an actress campaigning for the Oscar as a "woman of color" and her blonde mom.

Berry's nonstop efforts to insinuate that the best way for the academy to compensate for its past slights against black actresses was to giver her an Oscar probably will distract attention from the more significant victory for a black performer last night: Denzel Washington's well-deserved Best Actor Oscar for "Training Day." That movie may establish the important precedent that black stars should be allowed to play bad guys opposite white good guys.

Actors love to play villains. Evil roles won Best Actor Oscars for Anthony Hopkins (as Hannibal Lecter in "Silence of the Lambs") and Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko in "Wall Street."

Unfortunately, African-American actors have long been held back from getting these kind of juicy parts by what's known as Ben Stein's Law. The mordant law professor, economist, screenwriter and game show host made an in-depth study in 1979 that revealed in any Hollywood whodunit, the whitest, richest and most respectable character usually turns out to be the bad guy. In last summer's "Rush Hour 2," Chris Tucker updated Ben Stein's Law with his "Law of Criminal Investigation: Always follow the rich white man."


The controversy surrounding purported efforts to undermine the Best Picture winner, "A Beautiful Mind," by rival films supposedly "leaking" facts about its subject, mathematician John Nash, was one of the funniest in Hollywood history. The source of the information in these "leaks" was, of course, Sylvia Nasar's meticulously researched and highly readable biography of Nash. Only in Hollywood would everyone assume the only way anybody would ever find out about the contents of America's No. 1 best-selling nonfiction paperback was if another nominee's public relations department was whispering it all over town. How else could anyone find out what's in a book that's prominently displayed near the entrance of every bookstore in America?

Much of the "Beautiful Mind" controversy revolved around the movie's avoidance of any mention of Nash's possible bisexual leanings. This outraged several gay commentators. Yet, casting the 37-year-old high school dropout Crowe as a 20-year-old math genius was, for all of Crowe's talent, a big enough stretch. Asking the thuggish actor to play a bisexual as well might have been straw that broke the camel's back.

Besides, would the gay community really have benefited from showing Nash's men's room arrest? Cruising public toilets is not an activity that elicits much sympathy from even the most tolerant-minded heterosexuals.


Oddly enough, however, the Best Picture victor did not suffer from any political controversy over its failing to mention Nash's long-suffering wife, Alicia, is Hispanic.

Perhaps Hispanic ethnic activists didn't realize Alicia was Hispanic because nobody leaked them the info. Still, it's a lucky thing for "A Beautiful Mind" that Halle Berry isn't half-Hispanic.

"A Beautiful Mind" also was lucky not to be criticized for "racism" in casting Oscar winner Jennifer Connelly as this Salvadoran immigrant.

Granted, Connelly looks a lot like the beautiful MIT graduate, who was born into an upper-class family proud of its European aristocratic heritage. Still, physical similarity hasn't always saved non-Hispanic actresses from being attacked for their ethnicity.

For example, the Italian-American actress Laura San Giacomo, now in the "Just Shoot Me" sit-com, was hired in 1991 to play the Mexican-born painter Frida Kahlo because she is a dead ringer for Kahlo, who specialized in self-portraits. Yet, San Giacomo was driven from the role by Hispanic protests about her ethnicity. She was replaced by the Bronx-born Puerto Rican star Jennifer Lopez, who doesn't look anything like the painter, nor is Mexican. But she is Latino.


Lopez's movie has since been put on hiatus, but another Frida Kahlo biopic is going ahead, starring Salma Hayek. Although born in Mexico, Salma's father was an Arab. Whether that makes her more or less ethnically worthy of playing Frida, whose father was a Jew, is one of those diversity conundrums that Hollywood must increasingly scratch its collective head over.

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