Gratitude at the Oscars

“It doesn’t escape me for one moment that so much joy in my life is thanks to so much pain in someone else’s, and so I want to salute the spirit of Patsey for her guidance.” – Lupita Nyong’o, March 2, 2014

A story about how millions of people were bought and shipped in containers across oceans, some carted overboard as ballast, many torn from their families, and indentured to work in fields to build the economy of a land whose constitution guaranteed equality and the freedom to pursue happiness: a speech about humility, acknowledging the suffering people to whom the film pays tribute, and particularly the person whose life story was invoked in order for the award to be won.

Perhaps it’s a manifestation of the outsider status that Lupita Nyong’o inhabits as an immigrant, or tribute to the Kenyan education system, but her beautifully refined speech on winning the Best Supporting Actress Oscar was not only a stunning example of grace under pressure, but a rare example of someone at the Academy Awards adequately recognizing the proportion of the situation. She was grateful, to be sure, but she understood that part of what was being recognized by the academy was the suffering of someone long dead. Patsey, in 12 Years a Slave is one of the great embodiments of what human beings can endure, and the object of the evil that people can do to each other; Nyong’o’s performance is note-perfect, but as with Gandhi and Schindler, it’s helped along by the source material.

Criticizing 12 Years a Slave is like criticizing the abolition movement; criticizing Dallas Buyer’s Club like pretending AIDs in the Reagan era wasn’t that big a deal. To do either risks evoking the straw men that racism and homophobia depend on to maintain a pulse – any time you hear someone complaining that someone else is ‘playing the race card’ or saying that they don’t mind what people do in behind closed doors ‘as long as they don’t shove it down my throat’ you’re likely in the presence of someone in denial about their own prejudice. So to suggest that 12 Years a Slave or Dallas Buyer’s Club are anything other than perfect representations of historical fact is too easily rejected as equivalent to endorsing slavery or homophobia themselves.

This is moot, in these cases, because both are genuinely fine films (and in the case of 12 Years maybe even a great one), and deserve the acclaim they have received; but that makes Matthew McConaughey’s speech at the Oscars stranger still.  (His movie: A story about how the government of the people by the people for the people refused to listen to the suffering of people it didn’t like, conspiring to prevent potentially life-saving medicine getting into the hands of those who needed them, while one man took his life in his hands, and heroically served the community by whatever means he could. His speech: about how great the person playing the role thinks he can be (though intended in good faith, still clunky), without once mentioning the themes of the film, nor even the disease that occasioned it.)

It’s not like people would have been turned off by him acknowledging the real life person whose suffering and death gave him a chance to win Best Actor. They certainly weren’t when Lupita N’yongo made a speech that is as elegant as the film she was winning for.

This all begs the question as to why any of us cares about the Oscars. I suppose it’s a bit like professional sports (a contradiction in terms if you really think about it)–we are looking for identification figures on whom to project our hopes. If the identification figures fit the definition of beauty as conceived by the dominant media culture, they will attract attention.  If they are underdogs, even better. There is much more drama to be had in rooting for someone who hasn’t yet surrendered their teeth or their lips to a Hollywood surgeon, getting their big night out at the palace of dreams than in wondering if Meryl Streep is going to win on her eighteenth nomination or what Angelina Jolie’s going to wear.

It’s deeper than that, of course, because cinema is itself a dream projection–the very medium mirrors the experience of the stories we tell ourselves in the subconscious wanderings of the slumbering mind. So why wouldn’t we somehow feel that Cate Blanchett is worthy of the same kind of empathy as her Blue Jasmine? Or why wouldn’t we be a little nervous around Robert de Niro in case he explodes in the kind of rage we associate with Cape Fear or Taxi Driver?  We saw them do that on screen, and we’re seeing them get awards on another screen – so we can avoid too much self-flagellation at how easily it is to get caught up in the emotion of the moment. The naysayers who scoff at the vicarious joy some of us feel when art we admire is rewarded are sailing a little close to the wind of shutting out their feelings altogether.

I think it might serve us, instead of shaming our affection for celebrity, to go even deeper into the feelings conjured up by the sight of the achievements of the famous to see if there’s something wise awaiting us.

We could begin with the notion that Cate and Robert and Lupita and Matthew represent identification figures who set a bar for us to reach. Ponder for a moment, however, your perception of that bar. Is it the shimmer of fame that appeals? That’s totally natural, but it’s also fake–for all the famous people I’ve ever encountered experience at least part of their celebrity as an enormous burden. Is it the money? Understandable, but are you prepared to struggle forever to know who your real friends are? Is it the sense of recognition by a system of power and publicity? Again, that’s something most of us can identify with; but did you ever feel complete when you got it? (The wonderful little book Art and Fear by David Baylee and Ted Orland suggests that the history of art is littered with the stories of people whose greatest wish was to have a solo show at the local museum, and after they got it, they never painted anything decent again; the same is surely true of writers and National Book Awards, musicians and Grammys, and, dare I say it, actors and Oscars.)

The best advice my higher self could give to my shadow in these contexts is simple, and clean, and profound, and actually achievable. The point of doing good work is not to win awards. It’s to get better at doing good work. The point of making art is to tell your audience something it may need to know, whether it thanks you or not. The point of awards ceremony acceptance speeches is to show that you can embody gratitude along with the humility of recognizing that all great artists stand on the shoulders of giants. Oscar is just a little gold guy. His shine eventually fades, and needs to be replaced by a new award. But the work is what will last. Lupita Nyong’o knows this. The same goes for those of us who will never have to worry about what to say at an awards show podium. The work is what will last.