thejazzmonger Cited in Ms. Magazine

Ms. Magazine, in its online edition of Feb. 23, 2012, offers an excellent article on the struggle of black actresses to find suitable roles in Hollywood films, from the very beginning to the present day.

The discussion is prompted by the current nominations of Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer for the Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress Oscars, respectively. Should Davis or Spencer win, there will be much discussion of the fact that the first black person (of either sex) to win an Oscar was Hattie McDaniel. She won the  Academy Award in 1939 as Best Supporting Actress for her role as “Mammy” in Gone With the Wind. The issue at hand is that McDaniel, Davis and Spencer are all cited for playing characters who are maids.
Author Janell Hobson writes about the struggles of the extraordinarily beautiful and talented Lena Horne to avoid being recast as an “exotic” (read “Latin”) instead of as a black woman. To her ultimate credit, Horne flatly refused and saw her film career wither.

Young Lena Horne

Beautiful, Supremely Talented - Lena Horne

Hobson discusses “Soundies,” musical performances by singers like Lena Horne and, especially, Big Bands such as the Duke Ellington Orchestra and the Count Basie Orchestra.When Hobson mentions “Soundies” she does it as a link to our story of June, 2009. (Link here: thejazzmonger on “Soundies”)

It is very gratifying to have an eminent publication such as Ms. cite our work.

Turning to the current controversy about film roles, let me say that I think it is a mistake to criticize, or otherwise demean, the roles and excellent performances presented by both Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer. The story told in The Help, book and movie both, is a good one. Their two characters are strong, vividly-drawn and, without doubt, women who are far more than their occupations. We should not be seeking to eliminate the existence of maids in films that depict an earlier time. What we need are stories, scripts and films that give life to people and stories of women who are not maids.

American-made movies have always had a dearth of strong roles for women, all women, really, but for black women, in particular. For a short period in American film history, there was a coterie of dominant actresses (Joan Crawford, Betty Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Lana Turner) who “carried” films. IT was their name and, often, their name only that was above the title. The entire film was the story of the character, a woman, being portrayed by one of these preeminent actresses.

Consider just a couple of films from these four giants of an earlier era:

Barbara Stanwyck: The Lady Eve  &  Double Indemnity

Betty Davis:  Now, Voyager  &  Dark Victory

Lana Turner:  The Postman Always Rings Twice  &  Imitation of Life

Joan Crawford:  Mildred Pierce  &  The Women

Isak Denisen aka Karen Blixen

Kren Blixen (aka Isak Denisen)

What happened? Why did great stories and meaty roles disappear, for the most part, from American films? Sure, Meryl Streep is nominated every three or four years, and wins about as often. But too often she is getting the Best Actress nomination for films like Postcards from the Edge, Music of the Heart or The Devil Wears Prada. It was all the way back in 1985, in Out of Africa, that we last saw her stretch in a role that carried the entire film. I f an actress of Meryl Streep’s talent and stature can’t find a truly outstanding role in more than 25 years, what hope does a raft of talented but relatively unknown actresses have?

The problem, my friends, is  the lack of books & scripts about women. Isak Denisen’s book, Out of Africa, was published in 1937. Denisen (real name Karen Blixen) was a marvelous story-teller with a unique and intriguing personal history on which to draw.

One has to think that there are good stories about women, and women’s lives, that are just being passed over by Hollywood brass in favor of cartoon boys, remakes about CIA operatives

and Vampires. Nowadays, when Hollywood does give us a film dominated by females, it’s just a group of women making a female installment (Bridesmaids) of The Hangover.

About thejazzmonger
Music fan. All types of music but, especially Jazz, Big Band, Swing & Oldies from the 50s & early (pre-Beatle) 60s.

5 Responses to thejazzmonger Cited in Ms. Magazine

  1. Nugros C says:

    Viola Davis deserves to win this year’s Best Actress, I truly believe that her win would mean so much more than Halle Berry’s because she could actually change things. She has the determination to, Plus, this is about talent and respect, where Halle is extremely beautiful and young (when she won), Viola isn’t mixed or considered a babe, and is in her 40s already. And I know Viola WANTS to change things. So it makes me feel very happy. She’s a beautiful actress.

    • Thanks for your Comment, Nugros.

      I have to back up what you say about Viola Davis being a very talented actress with considerable range. And I think you are right, that her winning would create new stimulus for things to change. It would certainly give force and attention to the important things she has to say.

      The only thing I might disagree on is your intimation that Halle Berry WAS beautiful. She still is, my friend. She still is. Amazing!

  2. Nugros C says:

    I’m so sad. Viola joined Whoopi Goldberg as the only black actress with two Oscar nominations, but became the only black actress with more than one nomination without winning. I’m so sad.really!! I’m still a little disappointed that that Davis lost, because I thought she was marvelous and I wish the Academy would have taken the opportunity to honor an actress who hasn’t been abundantly and consistently awarded for 30+ years. But Davis’s nomination is by itself an incredible honor, and I hope her career continues to flourish.

    Couldn’t The Iron Lady have come in 2009 so Meryl could have won over Sandy and Viola would now have an Oscar? Agh.

    I loved Meryl’s speech though, truly touching.

    • It just doesn’t pay to be up against Meryl Streep, does it? I can’t, legitimately, knock the Academy’s choice because I did not see “The Iron Lady.”

      But I think Viola Davis gave an Oscar-worthy performance, without doubt. Maybe this just helps stoke the fire under her activism AND will rally more people behind her.

      • Nugros C says:

        I am ecstatic for Meryl, but sad for Viola (if that makes sense).
        They both would have been happy for the other one (and it was palpable). Meryl kissed Viola after Don Gummer
        Viola also looked stunning (yet again). I hope both are nominated again and again. Viola will win hers one day, of that I am certain.

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