Saturday, January 17, 2015

Hollywood's Non-inclusiveness History

Frankly, I'm tired of the TV media bellowing about the current lack of other-than-white-faces in the line-up of Oscar nominees this year. Irate people in the media and elsewhere are bemoaning the total lack of any people of color or of women in the major award categories for the Oscars. Is this so different for an industry that has a tradition of male dominance, having Caucasian actors play Native Americans, South Sea Islanders, bi-racial women or the Chinese? Actors have had to change their names to hide their ethnicity and play to stereotypes just to placate the bosses who ruled their lives. Is it any different today?

What was the 1937 film role that German-born Austrian actress Luise Rainer , playing a Chinese peasant, received an Oscar for? Can you name her male co-star, also a Caucasian actor, who played a Chinese servant? It was produced by the late, great Irving Thalberg.

In 1958, one of the few Black actresses performing in popular movies and who was born in New Jersey, played a Chinese-American and a Tonkinese woman. An incredibly gifted and professionally trained singer, her singing for this hit musical film was actually dubbed by another woman who had appeared in the original London stage production. Richard Rogers, or so it is said, felt the stage performer had the better voice for the film role.

The famous Chinese detective Charlie Chan films never featured anyone of Asian descent, depending instead on first a Swede, then an American actor of Swedish descent and next another Caucasian man born and raised in Boston. The original Chan films which had used East Asian actors never caught on with audiences so the decision was made to change actors playing the role and all of them were Caucasian. Was it Hollywood or the American culture? 

Who got the role of Maria for the film "West Side Story?" Was it the very talented Chita Rivera or even Rita Moreno, two women of Hispanic extraction? No, it went to Natalie Wood who was neither Spanish nor could she sing and used an awful accent. They said the reason was box office and so it may have been and Hollywood doesn't take chances with box office.

The past year may have had films either produced, directed or featuring African-Americans or women or individuals of varied ethnicities, but in Hollywood if you don't get promotion and publicity, only the few are ever noticed. And the money machine is very, very necessary to success because promotion can push even the mediocre to award nominations. We've seen plenty of this and the great promoters know how to turn dogs into silk purses. Yes, I turned the expression around to suit this piece better.

Independent films were supposed to level the playing field and give us access to new talent, new ideas and new "stars." But ask Spike Lee his opinion of the film industry and the fate of independent films if you'd like an unvarnished, perhaps, view. The history of Blacks in films or producing, directing and writing films is quite interesting and most film lovers are unfamiliar with it. The incredible exception today, of course, is Tyler Perry who does it all and he does it brilliantly. But, you say, don't point out the exception, look at the overall field.

For a brief interlude in the 70s there was a spate of films featuring African-Americans and one, Shaft, was a hero of sorts. Things were quite different from the early 30s when a new, vibrant film industry was taking a foothold, but it slid back when just a few powerful studios began providing product to the many movie theatres and chains around the US. No distribution or limited distribution meant no production and that's probably what happened to the Black film movement back then. So, distribution or American cultural bias or distribution based on cultural bias? 

"Black Orpheus" would seem to give pause to reconsider if really good films featuring actors of many colors and ethnicities in front of and behind the camera were the underlying reasons for the cessation of this type of niche film production. It won the 1959 Palme d'Or at the Canne Film Festival and the 1960 Academy Award and the Golden Globes for Best Foreign Film. Did it have to be a "foreign" film to be accepted by audiences? One has to wonder.

Today, if you want to see representative films of the diversity of cultures anywhere, you have to look to the resurgence of art houses or the emerging film efforts of new giants like Amazon, Netflix and others. But how will their work be perceived by the 94% white individuals who vote for the Oscars? How many women are in that voting cadre? According to Wikipedia and a survey by the Los Angeles Times, the membership, which is not made public, is 77% male, 86% age 50 or older, and has a median age of 62. 

A uni-dimensional approach to the awards is tantamount to wearing a positive bias blindfold. All awards bear one prime characteristic with politics and that is making friends and influencing people in the industry. Fall short on both of these vital parameters and you are not going to receive the award you may deserve. Forget greenlighting a project, too. And, it's said, in Hollywood negative memories and ire burn brightly in the minds of those with a special film-centric thin-skinned ego. One misstep and you're toast.

Like wars, too, sometimes the all-too-salient isn't the true reason for an action. Look beneath it and you'll find a number of forces that need to be addressed. For films, it still remains the box office, foreign distribution and direct to video or cable. Some films are sold to cable even before they hit the box office. How's that for believing in a product? 

A darker side to awards, too, has been offered up. This relates to the slathering of goodies in many forms on the membership of the awards organizations. One actress gave out fashion watches. Film bigwigs wine and dine voters and give them special access to events and mega-stars. Unethical? Oh, please.

One thought nags me and that's the incredible wellspring of foreign and art films that we saw in the early 60s. What happened that we would accept the avant garde then but we have become so conservative in our approach to entertainment now? Have we been persuaded to dumb-down and accept pap for introspection or holding our faces to the mirror? Was it the rebellious spirit of the times? Railing against the status quo? What drives us away from creativity and inclusiveness? 

Ok, I give up. It's box office and that directly connects to our American culture and what is widely acceptable and what's still a bit verboten. There is racial, sexual and gender bias and we can't deny it. It's a struggle that still continues but which may be ameliorated by the current wave of blending of cultures and races. Do we have to wait two generations for real change? Who knows.