Oscar Soapbox

Would it be considered a lost cause to complain about the mixing of politics and the Oscars?  Is it just too late in the game for us to do anything about it?

Probably.  But every losing issue needs somebody to argue it for the last time, and on this occasion, that person might as well be me.

From this year’s Academy Awards, broadcast a week ago Sunday, arguably the most admired moment came from Patricia Arquette, the winner of Best Supporting Actress, who devoted the final chunk of her acceptance speech to call for equal pay for women.  “We have fought for everybody else’s equal rights,” said Arquette.  “It’s our time to have wage equality once and for all and equal rights for women in the United States of America.”  The remarks yielded howls of approval inside the Dolby Theatre and wide support on the interwebs in the hours and days thereafter.

Indeed, I can’t say I have any quarrel with the substance of Arquette’s remarks.  While I think the specific issue of wage equity is slightly more complicated than it appears—not every case is a matter of out-and-out discrimination by an employer—it’s just about impossible to dispute the principle of equal pay for equal work.

Here’s my question:  What does this have anything to do with the Oscars?

In theory, the Academy Awards are nothing more than the recognition of the film industry’s best work in a given year, as determined by members of the industry itself.  Acceptance speeches by the winners are meant to be exactly that:  A show of gratitude for having been singled out by one’s peers.  And—as has become the practice—an opportunity to thank everyone who helped get them there in the first place (which, as we know, tends to be everyone the honoree has ever met).

As such, Oscar speeches, at their best, are exercises in humility—ironic as that sounds, considering that the speakers are effectively being crowned kings and queens of the universe, or at least of the American culture.

To that end, my own favorite moment from last Sunday was Eddie Redmayne winning Best Actor for his performance as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything.  Although I thought Michael Keaton slightly more deserving of the honor for his work in Birdman, I sort of hoped Redmayne would win, anyway, because I figured (from his previous wins this year) that he would react exactly as he did:  By jumping up and down like a giddy schoolgirl, completely overwhelmed.

There’s a certain feigned modesty that many British actors have turned into a shtick, but with Redmayne—33 years old, with no major starring roles until now—you sense that the gratitude is real.  That he works hard and takes his job seriously, but never in a billion years expected to wind up on the Oscar stage, and knows precisely how lucky he is.  That in a Hollywood overstuffed with jerks and prima donnas, Redmayne is one of the good ones.

That’s what the Oscars are all about:  Giving a moment in the spotlight to stars whose very existence elevates show business to something pure, noble and joyous.

And joy, it must be said, was oddly hard to come by during the balance of the Oscar telecast.  We had Best Song winners Common and John Legend lamenting the continuing racial injustices in the American legal system (and elsewhere).  We had Dana Perry, producer of the documentary short Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1, invoking her son’s suicide in a plea for more public discussion of the subject.  We had Imitation Game screenwriter Graham Moore citing his own brush with suicide and begging today’s tortured young people not to give up hope.

Sheesh, what an unholy string of letdowns.

Surely, these are all deathly important issues that deserve a thorough public airing, as they all surely have in recent times—albeit some more visibly than others.

But is the Dolby Theatre on Oscar night really the proper setting for them?

Can’t the Oscars just be the whimsical, frivolous, bloated Hollywood orgy we all think we’re tuning in to on the last Sunday of every February—curled up, as we are, on the couch with a tub of microwave popcorn and a cosmo?

We deal with the discomforting horrors of real life at all other moments of the year.  Why can’t the Oscars, of all things, be a temporary respite?  Arguably the single central function of movies, after all, is escapism.  Shouldn’t the event that celebrates movies follow suit?

Movie stars can, and do, stake out public opinions on any issue that interests them.  But must they do so at the very moment when most of us would just as well not be reminded of the fraught and complicated real world to which we must return in the morning?

I know this is a line of reasoning with holes large enough to drive a tank through.  I know movies are not only about escape.  I know the Oscars represent the largest audience that any artist will ever have.  I know that the Academy is, itself, a highly political organization and that Oscar voting is subject to the same cynical political maneuvering as any presidential election.  I know that the gripes about sexism and racism are as germane to the film industry as to any other.

And I know that, barring a totalitarian freak-out by future Oscar producers, winners are going to continue to say whatever the hell they want when they get up on that stage, even if it means talking over that infernal orchestra and harshing the buzz of everyone at home.

There is no escape from facing the hard facts of life—not even at silly award shows, which you’d think would be immune to them.  Apparently they’re not.

So instead, we are left with the second-best option:  Awarding trophies only to artists intelligent enough to climb on their political soapboxes in an articulate and entertaining fashion, as (it must be said) nearly all of them did last week.

Or we could just give everything to Eddie Redmayne.


Blue Olive

Why can’t chronic depression always be this much fun?

That is what I wondered during Olive Kitteridge, the new TV miniseries that premiered last week on HBO.

Four hours in length, based on the novel by Elizabeth Strout, the film covers 25 years in the life of a depressed and difficult woman whose company, at first blush, would seem to be unbearable.  Yet by the end—long before the end, actually—Olive Kitteridge manages, by some miracle, to make us not only listen to its protagonist, but to understand her, respect her and maybe even like her.

You wouldn’t expect such a thing to be possible, given the evidence.  Here, after all, is a wife who is curt with her sensitive husband, a mother who is abusive (verbally and physically) to her son, a teacher who is severe with her students, and a member of an old-fashioned Maine community who is cold, bitter and vindictive toward nearly everyone in town.  How could this woman ever be made sympathetic?

The explanation might simply be that she is played by Frances McDormand, long one of America’s finest actresses, who will almost surely earn her first Emmy Award for what she does here.  Indeed, we can probably agree that a performer of McDormand’s caliber could make almost any character endearing, seemingly without trying.

Except that Olive Kitteridge, the book, won the Pulitzer Prize and wide critical acclaim long before McDormand was involved, so there is evidently more to this character than McDormand’s inherently appealing disposition.

Having twice seen the miniseries but not yet read the book, I would posit that Olive Kitteridge is as great as critics say it is because Olive herself possesses two of the most essential traits to any worthwhile character:  Honesty and humor.  They seem like fairly basic personality requirements, until you realize how very few people—in fiction and in real life—actually possess them.  For Olive, they comprise her very essence and serve complementary functions:  She is funny because she is so unsparing.

As Exhibit A, I offer her charming chance encounter, late into the film, with a whimsical local played by Bill Murray.  She finds him sprawled on his side near a park bench, having spontaneously passed out and, after regaining consciousness, opted to just stay put.  They begin to chat, and soon discover they’ve each recently suffered a great personal loss, from which neither intends to recover.  Murray challenges her, “Give me a reason to get up in the morning.”  Olive retorts, “Don’t have a clue.  I’m waiting for the dog to die so I can shoot myself.”

This is no idle quip.  Soon enough her beloved dachshund does indeed kick the bucket and Olive takes to the woods with a blanket, a radio and a revolver.  In a way, the whole story had been leading up to this, and we all knew it was coming.  Olive had been clinically depressed practically since birth—an affliction inherited from her father and passed down to her son—and by the time the Murray character enters the picture, she is resigned to the fact that her life will end by her own hand.  It’s nothing that anyone can do anything about; as she says about so much else, “It’s just a fact.”

And yet, when she discloses her pending suicide to a disinterested Murray, it comes across as a punch line.  Knowing full well that she is being perfectly serious, he (and we) cannot help but laugh at her unvarnished candor.  (Along with the grim irony that she values her dog’s life more than her own.)  Here is a woman who knows exactly what she wants, and the hell with anyone who might stand in her way.

Indeed, Olive is nothing if not supremely self-confident, and stubborn as all heck.  In marked contrast to her husband, Henry—the sweetest and most sympathetic man in town—Olive has no patience for idle niceties or phoniness of any kind.  She deals only in directness and absolutely cannot stand being patronized, condescended to or, for that matter, treated with undue kindness or compassion, however well-meaning it might be.

What she respects are honesty and intelligence.  She invariably judges others’ worth as a function of how smart they appear, with the few people she actually likes being the brightest of all.  (Conversely, she has a way of cutting down former students by reminding them of their poor grades in math class.)

What is more, the folks with whom she forms real emotional bonds—this for a woman otherwise incapable of feeling anything for anybody—are those who share her chronic propensity for the blues.

Perhaps her most worthwhile conversation in the whole film is with a former student of hers, Kevin, now in his mid-20s, with whom she compares notes about their families’ histories with depression.  Kevin’s mother shot herself when he was still quite young—as did Olive’s father—and he now exhibits certain warning signs of following her lead—not least the shotgun half-buried in the back seat of his car.

Olive, sensing an impending tragedy as perhaps no one else does, engages Kevin’s intellect rather than talking down to him or treating him like damaged goods.  She mentions how hurt her mother was that her father didn’t leave a suicide note.  To this, Kevin chimes in that his mother mailed him a letter.  “Did it help?”  Olive asks.  “She left instructions on how to use the washing machine,” he replies, “And to watch out for the purple snakes in the dryer.”  They both smile.  Later that evening, Olive coaxes Kevin to cast his shotgun into the sea, having accepted Olive’s implicit message that killing himself would be a highly regrettable decision.

The question, then, is why can’t Olive follow her own advice?  Why is she such a hypocrite when it comes to suicide?  If Kevin’s life is worth saving, why isn’t hers?

One answer to this—as Robin Williams demonstrated this past August—is that depression is inherently irrational, and suicide is rarely performed by someone is his or her right mind.

Olive, for her part, says early on that she would rather be depressed and smart than happy and dumb.  But of course this is a false dichotomy she invents to justify her stubborn refusal to seek outside help.  She isn’t interested in getting better:  She simply accepts depression as her genetically-acquired fate, and behaves accordingly.  We know today that this doesn’t have to be, and one unspoken message of the series is how many people have needlessly died through some combination of obstinacy and ignorance.

Not that Olive’s attitude toward her condition isn’t understandable, at least from her point of view.  As we were also reminded by Robin Williams’ untimely demise—and those of innumerable entertainers before him—many who struggle with the blues are nonetheless highly functional most of the time.  More often than not, depressed people are able to keep their mental demons at bay and convince the world that everything is just fine, largely by convincing themselves of the same thing.

In a way, the case of Olive Kitteridge is exactly the reverse:  She prides herself on having no illusions whatsoever, and has no tolerance for people who behave with even a whiff of insincerity or condescension.  (“I know when I’m being handled,” she tells her son as he tries to calm her down.)  For her, depression is something to be acknowledged rather than suppressed.  It’s the core of her identity, and by owning it, she considers herself stronger and better than if she surrendered to the temptation to consult a therapist and lighten up.

But it’s really all an act.  In truth, she is every bit as vulnerable and insecure as the “dopes” she spends her life ridiculing.  She is a lost soul silently crying out for help, even as she publicly maintains that she likes herself just the way she is.

This contradiction is, finally, what makes this ostensibly unappealing character so compelling and so companionable.  Olive is a person who earns our sympathy by denying that she wants it.  Who sacrifices her happiness to maintain her dignity, never quite realizing that it is possible to have both.

Not All Clowns Are Sad

Dying is easy.  Comedy is hard.

This quip, or some variation thereof, has been attributed to just about every great comedian who has ever died.  Few doubt that it’s true—particularly the second part—although even fewer understand how very true it is.

Of course, the only people who can fully appreciate the singular challenges of stand-up comedy are those who have actually done it.  We who haven’t can only use our imaginations.

In light of the recent suicide of Robin Williams, our culture has come to conflate humor with sadness and dysfunction.  As a rule, America’s funniest citizens are also its most insecure, owing either to a traumatic childhood (and/or adulthood) or some mental illness that cannot quite be accounted for.

“While I don’t know what percentage of funny people suffer from depression, from a rough survey of the ones I know and work with, I’d say it’s approximately all of them,” wrote David Wong of Cracked.com.  “Comedy, of any sort, is usually a byproduct of a tumor that grows on the human soul.”

Reading such things, both before and after Williams took his own life, I could not help but think, “Thank God I’m not funny.”  The gift of comedy might allow one to bring joy to millions, but if it also requires—and is a direct consequence of—incalculable misery within oneself, I would just as well do without.  I understand the notion of “suffering for one’s art,” but personally, I’d prefer not to suffer and not be called an artist.  Seems like a reasonable trade-off to me.

However, many folks are unwilling or unable to settle for a life of comfort and risk-aversion—they’re just too damned funny—and last week we lost another such specimen in the person of Joan Rivers.

Watching Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, the 2010 documentary that follows its subject for a year and also serves as a career retrospective, we find a natural-born comedienne afflicted with all sorts of personal and familial quirks, but depression was not necessarily among them.

Rather, what the documentary portrays above all is a woman who achieved great fame and success as a comedic performer through good old-fashioned hard work.  In so doing, it shows stand-up comedy itself to be not just a calling—something either you have or you don’t—but as a job like any other, requiring perseverance and resolve, raw talent and the understanding that you could be rejected a thousand times in spite of it, as Rivers most assuredly was.

There is one moment in particular in Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work that brings the preeminence of a strong work ethic into sharp relief.  It comes when Rivers directs us to an old filing cabinet in her Upper East Side penthouse—a set of drawers much like those one used to find in a library—and we are informed that it contains every joke that Rivers has ever written, organized alphabetically by subject matter.

In other words, Rivers didn’t become a comedy legend because she was depressed.  She became a comedy legend because she harnessed every iota of comedic potential in her politically incorrect brain, wrote it down, worked it out, and never took a day off.

Certainly, one can do those things and also be depressed.  One can also be a brilliant improvisational star, as Robin Williams was, without doing any particular prep work.  No two comics work in exactly the same way.

What Rivers demonstrated, in any case, is that sometimes the secret to comedy is not as dark as we are often led to believe.  Sometimes a clever mind, a strong constitution and a little bit of luck is all it takes.

The scene with Rivers’ filing cabinet put me in mind of an equally hard-working contemporary of hers, George Carlin.  Known above all as a zany anarchist on stage, Carlin could easily give the impression of improvising on the spot.  In fact, Carlin, who died in 2008, was a meticulous craftsman and wordsmith who spent months composing, revising and fine-tuning his act on paper before trying it out in front of an audience.  He was as much a writer as a performer.  It’s a testament to his skill at both that you would never know it from watching him.

Carlin was one other thing, too: happy.  Raised by a single mother, he had a fairly typical childhood in an agreeable middle-class neighborhood in northern Manhattan.  While he regularly went after the Catholic Church in his routines (along with every other religion), he insisted that his actual Catholic school experience was utterly benign and sometimes outright enjoyable.  He was married to the same woman for 36 years (until her death), and then to another woman for 10 years (until his death).  While he more than dabbled in every illicit substance he could get his hands on, his drug use never seemed to have a deleterious effect on his life or his career.

Perhaps Carlin is simply an anomaly in this respect, as he is in most other respects.  Or perhaps he had demons like everyone else and was just really good at concealing them.  We’ll never know for sure.

But so far as we can reasonably surmise, he was a normal, healthy guy who conquered the world of stand-up comedy through sheer determination and uncommon intellect, and without the supposedly necessary baggage of depression and perpetual discontent.

Much like Joan Rivers.

Teachable Tragedy

On the American home front, there were two big events last week.

First, a 63-year-old man killed himself for no good reason.  And second, a police officer killed an 18-year-old kid for no good reason.

The former is newsworthy because the man was beloved actor and comedian Robin Williams.  The latter is newsworthy because the officer was white and the kid was black (and unarmed), and because of the subsequent uproar in the town of Ferguson, Missouri, where the killing occurred.

If the official narratives are to be believed, both deaths came about through mental illness.  Williams was a victim of depression, while the kid, Michael Brown, was a victim of racism.

In fact, we don’t know for sure whether either of those assertions is true.  Williams apparently did not leave a suicide note, and there are crucial details about the shooting of Brown of which we remain ignorant.

But that’s not the point.  These two incidents were tragedies—both incalculably unjust and unnecessary and preventable—and we, the human race, have made it our duty to make sense of them, regardless of the facts.  To explain things that are inexplicable.  To transform a tragedy into a “teachable moment.”  To shape individual deaths into symbols of broader crises in our society, in order that we might prevent such misery in the future.

There is scarcely anything wrong with this impulse, as such.  While it would be nice for us—particularly our representatives in Congress—to address all the injustices in the world all the time without any prodding, certain practical considerations prevent it.  There just aren’t enough hours in the day.

Accordingly, we often depend on specific, isolated moments to remind us of the issues that especially deserve our attention, and which had perhaps been neglected up until then.  Hence the emphasis on gun control legislation following a school shooting (or three), or on climate change policy in the aftermath of a destructive hurricane.

So it is understandable that the suicide of an admired celebrity with a history of depression and drug abuse would lead to an outpouring of public interest in suicide, depression and drug abuse.  They are real and serious problems—as are the stigmas attached to them—and if it takes the loss of Robin Williams to examine them closely, so be it.

But the situation in Ferguson is exceptional, owing to the sheer number of “national conversations” that have arisen in its wake, some of which not necessarily having much to do with each other.

There is, for starters, the question of whether outfitting local police forces with military-style tanks and weapons might carry unintended consequences.  And whether dispersing non-violent protesters with tear gas and rubber bullets ultimately does more harm than good—both in terms of maintaining order and establishing trust.

As well, there are the matters of suppressing freedom of the press and the right to peaceably assemble that have come into question amidst the public response to the Brown shooting, along with the media’s tendency to perpetuate clichés and prejudices as to who the “heroes” and “villains” are, long before all the facts are known.

But this is all mere window dressing around the central concern of black and white. 

First is the assumption that Michael Brown is dead because he was black and the officer who shot him, Darren Wilson, is white—in other words, that racism itself, be it latent or blatant, is the primary culprit. 

Second, that the near-uniform whiteness of the Ferguson police force in a town that is two-thirds black is at least partly to blame for all the mayhem that has occurred there in the past week and a half.

Third is the long history of racial tensions in the greater St. Louis vicinity, illustrated and exacerbated by the way that black people there tend to be overrepresented in number but underrepresented in power—a fact partly, but by no means entirely, explained by politics.

This is but a partial list of the topics that have suddenly sprung to the nation’s lips, and they are all due to a single incident that—at the risk of repeating myself—we know practically nothing about.

This year marks the centenary of World War I, whose very existence still baffles us 100 years hence.  To this day, much of the world is still trying to fathom how a single, seemingly random incident—namely, the assassination of the Archduke of Austria by a 17-year-old Serb—could possibly throw every great empire on Earth into conflict.  How could so much come from so little?

In light of the events in Ferguson, I am beginning better to understand.

The answer, in both cases, is that the commencement of hostilities did not, in fact, come from nowhere.  Rather, such tensions had been simmering, lying in wait for many years, until some triggering event forced them to the surface, allowing the aggrieved parties to have it out once and for all.

This at least explains the readiness of virtually every person on Twitter to attribute the Brown shooting itself to racial prejudice.

In point of fact, we do not know what was inside Darren White’s head when he decided that shooting an unarmed 18-year-old six times was a good idea, just as we do not know what was inside Robin Williams’.  White hasn’t yet appeared in public, and thus hasn’t uttered a word in his own defense.  We have been provided several eyewitness accounts, and they do not agree on all points.

The shooting of Brown might well have been motivated by racism in one form or another; perhaps one day we will know for sure, although we shouldn’t hold our breaths.

The broader point, though, is how convenient it would be for our national narrative about race relations if it were.  If Darren White considered Michael Brown threatening purely (or even partly) because he was black, it would confirm all our suspicions about racial bias in our police forces.  And if White is ultimately exonerated, it would confirm similar biases in our justice system.

It’s not as if we require any such confirmation at this point in the game.  As no less than Senator Rand Paul put it, “Anyone who thinks that race does not still, even if inadvertently, skew the application of criminal justice in this country is just not paying close enough attention.”  The statistics speak for themselves.

Nonetheless, it would greatly serve the purpose of noticing and ultimately rectifying the problem of racial prejudice in America if the shooting of Michael Brown could, indeed, be categorized as just such an incident.  What is more, it would save us the discomfort in considering that the shooting had no basis at all.  That it was a senseless act from which nothing meaningful can be learned.

No, it is much better always to have a moral to the story.  To not let the facts get in the way of the truth.