- The Washington Times - Friday, March 29, 2002

You could tell Denzel Washington was uncomfortable watching his brand-new Oscar for Best Actor morphing from a token of his peers' esteem into a token of something else racial politics.

After being crowned this year's King of Hollywood, Mr. Washington did what he could to deflect the line of questioning from racism to acting. Citing composer Randy Newman's string of Oscar shutouts the composer was 0 for 15 going into the ceremony on Sunday when he won for the first time Mr. Washington asked, "What would he say on the 15th time when he lost? Was that racism?"

Mr. Newman, by the way, is not only white and male, but also bona fide Hollywood royalty. (His Uncle Alfred won nine Academy Awards for composing and was head of music at Twentieth Century Fox.)

"There's been a lot of talk about race," Mr. Washington said. "This is an award to an actor."

Poor Mr. Washington. I'd like to agree with him, but that would just make two of us. The conventional-wisdom crowd is behind Halle Berry, Hollywood's new queen, on this one. Miss Berry, of course, just became the first black woman to win the Best Actress award, sobbing, throbbing and accepting her statuette on behalf of all black-actress-Oscar-hopefuls as a kind of reparation for racial slights, grievances and injustices past, real and imagined.

"This moment is for Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll," Miss Berry gasped. "It's for the women who stand beside me, Jada Pinkett, Angela Bassett, Viveca Fox, and the nameless, faceless women of color who now stand a chance tonight because the door has been opened. I thank the academy for choosing me to be the vessel." The vessel? If Mr. Washington is best actor, and Miss Berry is best vessel, no wonder there's confusion about what really happened Sunday night. The casual viewer might think that two coveted acting awards went to a pair of highly regarded actors who are black, while the year's honorary Oscar went to a grand, oldish man of Hollywood, Sidney Poitier, also black. But that would be too simple and nothing about this year's Oscars was simple. Even before the ceremony, civil rights leaders were, as they say, "voicing their concerns" that too many nominees were black honest reason being, as the New York Times explained it, that "so many black nominees might convince Hollywood that its racial problems had been solved." (Don't think about that too hard; it hurts.)

The burning question now seems to be whether wins by Ms. Berry and Messrs. Poitier and Washington constitute what NAACP President Kweisi Mfume called "a sign that Hollywood is finally ready to give opportunity and judge performance based on skill and not on skin color… " or, whether, as he continued, they are just "a momentary flash in a long history of neglect." Of course, even if the news turns out to be good, it's bad. As Miss Berry put it, "I hope this means they won't not see our color."

Assuming the enlightened position just isn't as easy as it used to be. Should we be colorblind, or blinded by color? One thing is certain: Mr. Washington's instinct to accept his Academy Award as a well-deserved tribute is hopelessly retro now that Miss Berry has refashioned Oscar as a weird, new entitlement. If, as she implied, racism deprived her peers of their rightful Oscars racism that Miss Berry, as "vessel," now redresses with her own statuette only an uninterrupted streak of black Oscar wins will keep such racism in check. As black director Spike Lee said, "The real test comes in what happens next year or five years from now."

It sounds as if the Lala-land crapshoot of winning the Oscar just became the latest yardstick of justice for all. Needless to say, this doesn't bode well for either justice or the Oscar. Meanwhile, just for fun, consider a few biggies Oscar overlooked during stellar careers: Cary Grant, Greta Garbo, Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Kirk Douglas, Rosalind Russell and Groucho Marx all had to wait for their retirement years to receive "honorary" Oscars, while Robert Mitchum, Steve McQueen, Errol Flynn, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, John Barrymore, Richard Burton, Marlene Dietrich, Peter O'Toole, and W.C. Fields are, you might say, still waiting. So is Tony Curtis, who just this week told The Washington Post that he thinks his personal state of Oscarlessness is due to anti-Semitism.

Why not? Probably makes him feel better than thinking his peers didn't like him or his acting (or both) quite enough to crown his mantelpiece with golden bric-a-brac. But it does sound cranky. And it goes against the ideal of individual achievement that an Academy Award is at least supposed to signify and which Denzel Washington, for one, would like to uphold. Congratulations to the lucky winners.


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