Last November’s news that Eddie Murphy had stepped down as this year’s Academy Awards host prompted much discussion about nothing — which is a shame, given all that can be said about how race and gender play out on Hollywood’s biggest night.
Murphy’s departure came the day after the producer he brought with him to the project, Brett Ratner, left after uttering a homophobic slur on “The Howard Stern Show” (whose official tagline should be “the shameful one-night stand of radio”). Murphy reasoned that although the word choice was regrettable, he couldn’t make the show work the way he wanted without Ratner.
Make no mistake: Murphy’s departure was most devastating to the Academy because of his image. Choosing Murphy gave the 94 percent white, 77 percent male Academy a perceived edge, despite the fact that Murphy’s unpredictable nature faded out with “Daddy Day Care.” He was a route the Academy hadn’t taken since 2005, when Chris Rock did a commendable job deconstructing Hollywood’s pretensions, pulling stunts like interviewing moviegoers at the Magic Johnson Theater in Los Angeles about their personal favorites of the year — never to be asked back as host.
This model Academy — black performer; mostly white, male production team — is strikingly similar to a lot of the past and present films it chooses to honor.
This year’s nominee “The Help” shows the civil rights struggle through the lens of a heroic, young white journalist, who coaxes fearful black housemaids into telling her their stories. The film treats black women much how one might treat a particularly bright young child: They have insight, but it’s always cloaked in insufferably cute and simple language, and even then it comes as a surprise. “The Help” is based on a book written by a white woman, and has a white director and screenwriter. The only people of color exist onscreen, where it has become poor taste to fake one’s background — though apparently that doesn’t matter so much on the other side of the camera.
“The Help” has gotten flak for being as racially problematic as James Cameron’s behemoth blue-people movie “Avatar.” Actors of color play all the Na’vi (read: native) characters in that film, and in the end they’re all led to triumph by a white ex-Marine. Similar problems can be found in Disney’s “Pocahontas,” as well as Kevin Costner’s “Dances with Wolves” — both Oscar winners, interestingly enough.
People of color aren’t the only ones traditionally relegated to offscreen honors. It was wonderfully satisfying to watch Cameron lose to his ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow in 2010 for Best Director, making her the first woman ever to win in that category. But it’s telling that to get there, Bigelow had to make “The Hurt Locker,” a war movie with an all-male cast. The Academy couldn’t bear to give one of their precious behind-the-scenes statues to someone with a vagina unless the film had more than the standard dose of machismo.
The most progressive nominations made this year, then, are the ones for “Bridesmaids.” Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo got a screenwriting nod for making a movie about and for women, and Melissa McCarthy’s supporting actress nomination breaks the mold in a category usually reserved for sexy newcomers and blubbering older women. It’s a shame the chances of a win are next to nothing — the Academy isn’t used to rewarding women or minorities for work that isn’t about sexism or racism (just look at “Young Adult,” this year’s most egregious snub), and it certainly wouldn’t deign to give a win to a mainstream comedy.
The Academy chose to replace Murphy with host Billy Crystal, who hasn’t been relevant since he met Sally in 1989. That shouldn’t hinder him, though — not much has changed. And until Hollywood and the Academy can recognize women and people of color for being as important offscreen as on, nothing will.