Saturday, March 8, 2014

Jared Leto's Oscar Controversy: Are We Oversensitive and Too Politically Correct for Our Own Collective Good?

The Oscar ceremony, it seems, brings out the crank in us all. Maybe it's the three-hour-plus running time, or having to sit through all those categories that most people don't care about, or maybe it's the effect of reading everybody's bitchy and often scathingly hilarious commentary on Facebook and Twitter. Much of the latter, this year, focused on the physical appearance of older actresses like Kim Novak and Goldie Hawn, which is unfortunate and ironic, since it's this very overemphasis on the physical appearance of actresses -- enough with the professional fashion commentary! -- that leads so many of them to butcher their faces.

But lest everyone accuse me of being oversensitive and too politically correct, I'll move on. Whatever the reason for awards show-induced testiness, we've all become armchair critics who can barely offer a single compliment without a "but" twist. Even frequent Tony host Neil Patrick Harris couldn't leave it at Ellen Degeneres did a great job hosting this year's Oscars. He had to criticize the pizza bit, which, after the A-list selfie, was the best bit of the night, for going on too long.

For months, Jared Leto had been collecting acclaim and prizes for his performance as a drug-addicted, AIDS-afflicted transgender woman named Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club. For months, it seemed I was in a party of one, the lone person who didn't love the performance. Didn't anyone else notice that Leto was playing an eccentric, effeminate gay man who enjoyed dressing in women's clothing and not a transgender woman?

There is a difference, you know. Unlike Jaye Davidson in The Crying Game, not once did Leto convince me that Rayon was a woman (and if you understand the transgender point of view, which I now have a better grasp on after the controversy -- yes, more controversy -- over Piers Morgan's interview with trans activist Janet Mock, you understand that transgender men and women are their reassigned sex even before it's reassigned to them). Davidson was also nominated in the Best Supporting Actor Oscar category, but his performance was so convincing that there was actually debate over whether he'd get a Best Supporting Actress nod instead. (I met Davidson one night at Flamingo East in New York City shortly after The Crying Game was released, and he was definitely a guy.)

All it took was an Oscar win, though, for Leto to finally be shoved under the microscope. One round of complaints was over his casting in Dallas Buyers Club. Why wasn't an actual transgender woman cast in the role? Never mind that Leto was devoted enough to his craft to drop more than 30 pounds. Should he have undergone gender reassignment, too, in the interest of being true to the "Method" and doing right by the transgender community?

Do the casting detractors even realize what they are suggesting? Should Best Actress winner Cate Blanchett, an Australian, not have been cast in Blue Jasmine because her title character was 100 percent American made? Should a straight man with AIDS have been cast in Dallas Buyers Club's central role rather than Best Actor Matthew McConaughey? That would have prevented him from having to lose those 47 pounds! And most absurd of all, should Lupita Nyong'o have lost her Best Supporting Actress-winning role in 12 Years a Slave to an actual slave?

The world is round, people (to quote Blanchett), and it's called acting. Actors have been pretending to be people they aren't for centuries. In ancient Rome, men used to play the female parts because women weren't allowed to participate in theater. That's a far bigger travesty than hiring a straight man to play a transgender woman! If people could only be cast as what they are, the film landscape would be altered dramatically. There'd be a lot more unemployed actors, and gays would only be able to play gay for pay, which would mean even more closeted actors.

Is that what we really want?

The other round of Leto criticism was over his acceptance speech. I'm old enough to remember the days when Oscar acceptance speeches were noted only if, like Marlon Brando, you sent a Native American woman to accept your Best Actor trophy for you, or if, like Vanessa Redgrave, you went on a tirade against "Zionist hoodlums," or if, like Sally Field, you were so overcome by effusive joy that your actual kicker ("I can't deny the fact that you like me, right now, you like me!") went down in history as "You like me. You really like me!"

Now you've got to take almost as much care with your acceptance speech as you do with the performance itself. Give the wrong one early in the season, and you just might jeopardize your frontrunner status. A friend of mine actually slammed Leto for not following the proper acceptance-speech etiquette: "He started off thanking his mother. The first acknowledgement should be to the movie, especially a movie like the one he'd been in. Family comes last."

Is that an actual acceptance-speech thing? I know most winners end with family, but I didn't realize they had to. Does that mean when Grammy winners begin by thanking God, they really are wrong?

Leto faced his toughest criticism, though, for not thanking the transgender community in his speech. And why should he? The transgender community was not responsible for his performance any more than slaves were responsible for Nyong'o's, though she did have the foresight to mention her character, Patsey, in her acceptance speech. Leto was cast in the role by a casting director, and he was playing one specific transgender character. Had Robert Downey Jr. won the 2008 Best Supporting Actor Oscar for playing a white man Method acting as a black man in Tropic Thunder, would he have been expected to thank black people in his acceptance speech?

Though I'm still a little miffed that he overlooked costar Jennifer Garner, Leto's tribute to his mother and his brother was touching and his acknowledgement that people should be allowed to be who they are and love who they love showed sufficient awareness of the hurdles that people like Rayon still face in real life. I was moved, and I'm not easily moved on Oscar night (too busy being cranky). I'd certainly take what he said over Matthew McConaughey's awkward rambling about God.

Then there was Ellen Degeneres's now-infamous Liza Minnelli joke in which she suggested that it wasn't Minnelli but an impersonator in the audience and then proceeded to address the actress as "sir." I'm still not sure how anyone could find that offensive or deem it transphobic, which is a word I'd never even heard before until Monday morning. (In the days after the Oscars, I saw more headlines containing the prefix "trans" than I had in all my years before, which is a great thing, but I just wish the prevalent tone hadn't been so defensive.) A drag-queen Liza Minnelli impersonator probably wouldn't have been transgender (drag queen does not equal transgender), so even if Degeneres's crack had been mean-spirited, where would the transphobic accusations come in?

As I saw it, Degeneres was simply acknowledging that Minnelli is a gay icon and a drag staple who is beloved by the gay community and drag queens alike. Although she is a previous Oscar winner (Best Actress for 1972's Cabaret), you wouldn't necessarily expect to see her at the Academy Awards, and I believe that Ellen was simply acknowledging that and having a bit of fun with it. What she said was no more offensive than the episode of The Nanny in which Cher was played by a Cher impersonator, or the episode of Will & Grace where Jack mistook the real Cher for an impersonator. I don't recall any uproar over that. We all need to get thicker skin. (And that includes Minnelli, who, apparently, was unhappy with Degeneres's joke.)

Criticism should be given where criticism is due, but policing the casting of Oscar winners and Oscar acceptance speeches with a magnifying glass, searching for material for damning day-after blog posts, does more harm than good because it turns us into communities of boys crying wolf. We need to pick our battles with more discretion lest valid arguments get lost in the wave of political correctness, and Oscar winners are so afraid to say anything that all they say is "Thank you."

On the plus side, though, that would probably cut down the Oscar ceremony by at least a few hours.
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