Thursday, December 29, 2016

The other side of sexual racism: gay white men, the N word and the slaveowner mentality



This has happened to me before.

A non-black man approaches me. I turn him down. He turns on me.

It happened to me twice in my book Is It True What They Say About Black Men?: Tales of Love, Lust and Language Barriers on the Other Side of the World.

I wonder how "Friendly guy" above would have reacted to a white man who replied the way I did to his disgusting opening line. There's a very good chance he would have let it go. After all, anyone who approaches others with any regularity on Grindr knows that rejection is part of the experience.

Of course, when someone sees you as nothing more than "BBC" (big black cock), as way too many non-black gay men do, they don't think of you as an equal. All you are, sadly, is "BBC."

Some might say - some have already said - "If you don't like it, get off the Grindr." Unfortunately, it's not that simple. The guys lurking on Grindr, simultaneously craving and despising "BBC," exist in real life, too.

The only difference is this: The anonymity of Grindr breaks down the inner censor that keeps most of us from walking around bars showing our cock pics to potential conquests, so it's easier to accidentally hook up with a closet racist when your first encounter with him is offline.

That said, the closet racist can strike anywhere. The worst experience I've had with a guy who went from lusting after me to loathing me in the space of minutes happened entirely in real life. One minute he was aggressively pursuing me (in a manner that would have been considered sexual assault if I were a woman), the next he was hurling the N-word at me.

It's the flipside of the "No blacks/Asians/whites/whatever" sexual policy, but the racism at the root of it is just as powerful and hurtful.

I'm sure the N-word was ringing in the ears of many black female slaves (and probably some male ones) as they were raped by their white masters. Does anyone who watched the perverse sexual relationship between Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) and Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o) in 12 Years a Slave actually think he respected her? Too him, she was less than human, a piece of meat with a vagina.


To "Friendly guy" and to too many non-black guys who approach me both on Grindr and in real life, I'm "BBC," whether or not I'm even worthy of "Hello." At least you're more likely to get that message quickly on Grindr.

"Just because he fucks you doesn't mean he respects you," a wise writer once wrote. I already knew this before I read it, and I owe that awareness all to Gaydar and Manhunt (precursors to Grindr).

So for all of its flaws and faults (which are too numerous to go into here), Grindr can be illuminating in ways bar talk and pillow talk might not be. In this Grindr day and age of gay men freely letting it all hang out from the moment of first contact, I don't have to fuck anyone to find that out how little he respects me.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

A Spotify Playlist: George Michael, 1983 to 2004

Several years ago when George Michael nearly succumbed to pneumonia, I so thoroughly prepared myself for his passing that I'm handling 2016's latest death of an icon with a lot more composure than I might have otherwise. 

That said, it's hard not to lose it a little when listening to all of the rich art that George left behind when he died on Christmas Day at the age of 53. 

Over the years, I've sometimes wished he had been a more conventional recording artist and released new music less sporadically. But then, if he had embraced convention in any way, the music that he did release might not have been quite as special. R.I.P.

For those wondering why the dates in the title of this blog post aren't the actual dates of George's life, it's because the Spotify playlist below covers music dating from Wham!'s 1983 debut album Fantastic to George Michael's 2004 solo album Patience.

And it begins with the song that I consider to be his crowning artistic achievement, from his 1990 magnum opus Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1. I never stopped waiting for volume two, and now, the hope for it is gone. You can't always get what  you want... to paraphrase George quoting The Rolling Stones on one of many Prejudice standouts.

But getting back to "Praying for Time," lyrically, It's as relevant today as it was when it was released in 1990. Musically, it's timeless, like so much of George's art. 

"You have been loved," he sang on his 1996 album OlderHe has been, he will be, he is loved. And he will be missed. 


Wednesday, June 1, 2016

My Australian TV debut

On Monday, May 30, 2016, I made a comeback of sorts while breaking new ground. For the first time since leaving New York City nearly 10 years ago, I filmed a TV spot. It was also my first appearance on Australian TV (discounting the Janet Jackson E! True Hollywood Story from ages ago that apparently still occasionally runs down under).

I was invited to discuss the breaking celebrity news of the day on Nine Network's afternoon news show, Nine News Now. It wasn't just a random appearance. The entertainment website I edit, TheFIX, and Nine Network, are both owned by the same company, Nine, so it all came together in a perfect storm of synergy.

Although my performance received excellent reviews (I've been invited to return two times next week), I know there is plenty of room for improvement. It was only the second time, I've ever taped a TV spot alone in a room (the other time was when I did a point-counterpoint segment for Fox in New York City after the Janet Jackson-Justin Timberlake Super Bowl XXXVIII Nipplegate scandal in 2004).

So if you notice I keep looking off to the side, it's because I was focusing on the camera where the anchor was visible rather than the one straight ahead (a common rookie mistake, I'm told), and of course, there's the issue of my voice. Does anyone ever love the sound of their own voice once they've heard how other people hear it?

Oh, well. We live and learn and improve...hopefully by next week.


Saturday, April 23, 2016

My second Spotify playlist: Prince and the divas

The untimely passing of Prince this past week has inspired countless countdowns and ruminations on the iconic artist's most unforgettable hits. My personal Prince playlist has been on repeat in my head since I learned of his death on April 21 at his home in Minneapolis at age 57. It includes some of the usual suspects ("1999," "Raspberry Beret," "Kiss," Sign o' the Times," and "Cream"), as well as some less obvious purple fare. Among them: "4 The Tears in Your Eyes," "Mountains," "I Wish U Heaven."

But if I'm being completely honest, the Prince songs that have been popping into my head most are the ones by other artists that he wrote, produced, performed on and/or financed...particularly the ones sung by fierce ruling divas. Those are the oldies but goodies that make up my second Spotify playlist.

Sadly, some of them are as elusive as the man was himself. You won't find them on Spotify, so I've left them off my second Spotify playlist and included them at the bottom of this post. Enjoy!

https://open.spotify.com/user/22lx2wfkekdhp2mtixdvc36oq/playlist/2fa6gLdvkePOg2tu7oMW1T


"101" Sheena Easton



"Time Waits for No One" Mavis Staples



"Nothing Compares 2 U" Sinead O'Connor



"On the Way Up" Elisa Fiorello




"Elephant Box" Ingrid Chavez



"I Hear Your Voice" Patti LaBelle



Thursday, April 7, 2016

Twinkle, twinkle lucky star: Merle Haggard, 1937-2016

Today I found out Merle Haggard died, and 12 hours later, I'm probably more devastated than I was at the moment of impact. I haven’t been so affected by a country music passing since Tammy Wynette’s death nearly 20 years ago (and incidentally, Merle’s tribute to Tammy remains, for me, one of the most memorable parts of her televised funeral).

Why am I especially blue when we've already lost so many greats in the first three months of 2016? I’m not entirely sure. I can’t say Merle’s songs saved me (as everyone crawls out of the woodwork claiming whenever any iconic figure dies), nor would I even count him among my Top 10 all-time favorite country music singers.

I’m well aware of the man’s musical genius. I recently listened to countdown of the 40 biggest country music artists of the 20th century, and Merle was right up there at No. 3, behind Conway Twitty (No. 2) and Eddy Arnold (No. 1). I wouldn’t have expected anything less from the man who, along with Buck Owens (No. 10), defined country music’s Bakersfield sound in the 1960s.

But that was before my time. I arrived at the altar of Merle Haggard a decade later. He may not have saved my life, but what an impact he had on it. His music was a vital part of some of my most musically formative years, from 1979 to 1982, when country music dominated my personal playlist. I can’t imagine my pre-teens without him.

So I suppose in a sense, the passing of Merle Haggard represents yet another brick removed from my musical foundation, from my life’s foundation. It’s a reminder of my mortality, as I inch closer to my own finale, which feels like an element of a running Merle Haggard theme: the end of innocence.

This morning as I walked to work, when I was listening to “Mama Tried,” I had no idea that I was a half hour away from finding out that Merle had passed away on his 79th birthday. The tribute from his son on People.com that broke the news of his death for me probably shouldn't have come as such a shock. I knew he wasn’t in the best of health, but I always thought that he, like so many icons who have recently left us, would live forever.

Maybe I’m mourning not only the loss of Merle but also the fact that others will follow. It’s like a dark cloud following us through life. But there’s also an ever-present rainbow, a silver lining in the art they leave behind.

And Merle left a lot, but for me, his work in the late '70s and early '80s will be what I keep going back to for the rest of my life. To commemorate his life and my love of his music, here are 7 of my favorite Merle musical moments:

“Mama Tried”

“If We’re Not Back in Love by Monday”


“The Way I Am”


“Big City”


“Yesterday’s Wine”


“Going Where the Lonely Go”


“Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Star”

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Notes from a bored gay black man

From my Scruff profile:

What I'm looking for…

The one.

Until I stumble upon him, sentences over monosyllabic responses, answers over questions, words over acronyms, face-to-face dates over instant hook-ups and pointless, endless chit chat. I'm not lonely or bored, so I'm not desperately seeking online pen pals. Why are guys so afraid of dates nowadays?

Let's just meet with no agenda and let the sparks fly…or not.

If you wouldn't ask it when meeting me for the first time, say, in a bar - *cough cough* "Top or bottom?" "Hung?" - then please don't ask me here. I reserve the right to be immediately turned off. If you've read this far, you don't have to ask "What are you looking for?", which, by the way, ranks among the Top 5 lamest gay-app questions. ("What's doing?" and "Horny?" round out the list, alongside the aforementioned.) Good conversation/banter is not a Q&A. I'm a journalist, so I get enough of that at work. In real life, they bore me easily, and I tune out.

Racial references are kind of icky. If you're talking to me, I assume you like black guys…or just me. .It's OK if it's just about me…better even. Can we move past "I love black guys/cocks" please? It's boring, and I never know how to respond. Have you complimented ME? If I said, "I love white guys," have I complimented every white guy?

Gay men who go to Asia and write "no Asians" in their profiles are the worst. Would you go to America and say "no Americans" or Sydney and say "no Australians"? Come on, guys. Preference is not a blockade. Racism doesn't always twirl its moustache. At least be man enough to own it. Thank you.

Monday, February 8, 2016

More burning questions: Random things I'm trying to figure out today

If predictive text can guess what I'm going to type next, then why does it keep mangling the words I've already typed? If I wanted to say "around," would I type "round"…or "wombat"?

Why would someone bring a nine-month-old baby on a wine-tasting excursion? I let the tot-toting couple in my Hunter Valley tour group off the hook this past weekend, though, because they were lesbians and the baby was so damn adorable. But still, why?

Who was Michael Fassbender really playing in Steve Jobs? I loved the performance and found him/it a lot more entertaining than Leonard DiCaprio in The Revenant, but I don't recall the real Steve Jobs being so urbane and sexy…at least not according to his public persona.

Speaking of Oscar-nominated performances, what did Rachel McAdams do in Spotlight to score that best supporting actress nod? It was a solid movie that I think suffered from not having a central point of view. Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, and especially Liev Schreiber were all great, but did any of them impact the film the way Sylvester Stallone did Creed, or Tom Hardy did The Revenant, or Mark Rylance did Bridge of Spies, or Jacob Tremblay did Room? Oh, right - Jacob wasn't even nominated for best supporting actor (though he's more lead in Room than Best Actress frontrunner Brie Larson). Hey, Academy, what's up with that? #OscarsSoAgeistAgainstKids?

Why are gay men so desperate for ego boosts yet so terrified/turned off when they get them?

Why do the coolest/hottest guys online always seem to live 50 kilometers or more away? Do they seem more perfect because they're less accessible? Are they only acting so dateable because they know there's safety in distance? Or are we simply always living in the wrong city?

Why do Australians get so excited when an Australian does something "newsworthy" in Australia? Doesn't that sort of thing happen every day? You'd think we were living in some foreign country where you could go months without hearing a single "Hey mate."

Why doesn't Newcastle, NSW, get more love from Aussies other than the ones who live there? And why did it remind me so much of Lima when I visited for the first time this past weekend? Did it have anything to do the city's underrated status and its coastal cliffs? Walking along Newcastle Beach, if I had tilted my head just so, I would have sworn I was in Miraflores. Am I alone here?

Newcastle

Lima

Why is it "hit and run" and not "hit and drive"?

What's with the continued Botox-shaming? Everybody does it these days, and are the results really any more inauthentic than those offered by fake tanning and coloring one's hair?

Why isn't everyone else listening to "Consideration," the opening track on Rihanna's Anti, on repeat?

What's the big deal about Beyonce's "Formation"? I mean, what's her point? Is she saying be black and be proud...if you're gorgeous and you've got "paper"? Hasn't she been singing that song for years? #Overrated

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

In defense of the BET Awards: Is celebrating women in rock anti-male?

I've had it. I'm done. Let's move it along, please.

If I read one more comment by one more disingenuously slighted white person using the BET Awards as ammunition against the #OscarsSoWhite call for diversity and inclusion in Hollywood…

Let's just say, it's time to give that particular one a rest. Trying to turn the tables is futile. When it comes to the thorny race issue, the majority generally wields the power. That's why no one has ever been able to coin an anti-white slam as brutally effective as the N word (and no, neither "honkey" nor "cracker" comes close). And to those tit-for-tatters who carp, "Well, black people use the N word, too," the danger isn't in the word itself but in the hatred it represents and the painful history it recalls when uttered by anyone of the race that coined it,

Those shouting "Reverse racism!" over the Oscars boycott and the BET Awards can continue to do so if it helps them feel less guilty about being white and privileged, but the slights they allegedly suffer at the hands of black people don't begin to approach the level of disgrace and injustice blacks in America experience every day.

Personally, I consider the Oscars boycott to be ridiculously self-serving and misguided, but that's beside the point. The Oscars are beside the point. The point is a movie industry that's too narrow in its scope to spawn diversity during awards season. The un-diverse Oscar nominations and it lack of acting nominees of color are but a symptom of a much larger problem: a Hollywood movie industry that reflects the ongoing dismissal of minorities in the U.S. and the systemic white-is-better racism that's plagued the country since its inception.

Why do we need the BET Awards, and why aren't white performers invited to the party?

That's like asking why Adele's "Hello" isn't eligible for a Latin Grammy, even if Latinos love the song. Just as the Latin Grammys were created because a specific ethnic demographic wasn't being properly represented at the regular Grammys, the BET Awards were created to recognize talent that was also being overlooked at mainstream awards shows.

How is celebrating yourself because no one else will racist against the ruling privileged majority? (A similar case can be made for Black History Month, another target of some privileged whites who have likely never heard of the Harlem Renaissance or any other aspect of black history that, unlike slavery, doesn't revolve around whites and therefore isn't taught in school.)

Should we close down all of the gay bars and clubs because they may be construed as being heterophobic? Should we cancel everything that celebrates women because they might be interpreted as being man-hating? It's already a man's man's man's man's (Western) world - one in which straight white guys have a clear advantage. Forgive me if I don't cry for them because they occasionally feel left out.

White (male) power is a fact of life that cannot be refuted by the tired reverse-racism argument that too many white people, including an out-of-touch Charlotte Rampling, are grasping at to make those pesky black folks go away…or at least shut the hell up.

But getting back to the BET Awards, Black Entertainment Television put the BET in the BET Awards. The network came to prominence during a decade in which The Cosby Show was pretty much the only mainstream representation of black culture. All of the progress blacks had made in the '70s toward something resembling diversity had fallen by the wayside.

In music, MTV was created mainly as a vehicle for white artists, as there was an unofficial decree that videos by black artists were not to be played because even if audiences wanted to hear their music, they didn't want to actually see them. At least that was the ruling assumption. Things only changed when Michael Jackson's Thriller came along. The future self-proclaimed King of Pop, the world's biggest artist at the time, was able to reverse MTV's racist decree only because his record label threatened to pull all of its white artists from the network if it didn't play the videos by its top star.

Even after Michael Jackson became a video icon, all but the biggest crossover black artists were still largely ignored by MTV and Top 40 radio. If it hadn't been for BET's Video Soul and its host Donnie Simpson in the '80s, I might have entirely missed the incredible music being recorded by non-crossover artists like Stephanie Mills, Angela Winbush, and Miki Howard. I owe the balanced musical diet of my formative years as much to BET as to MTV's 120 Minutes and Bob Kingsley's Great American Country Countdown.


Meanwhile, as I've already mentioned, things had gone from decent to worse on TV in the '80s. Good Times, Sanford and Son, The Jeffersons, Diff'rent Strokes, and What's Happening!! had all left the air. And even during the peak era of Norman Lear's lower-case black entertainment television sitcoms, Isabel Sanford, who played Louise "Weezy" Jefferson on The Jeffersons, was the only black performer ever to win an Emmy for best leading actress in a comedy series. To date, she remains the only black women to ever take this prize.


By the time The Cosby Show ended its run in 1992, the white status quo had a solid grip on the three major networks. If you wanted to see shows featuring blacks in prominent roles, you had to go to Fox…or BET. Black performers were largely absent from the must-see TV of the '90s and the early '00s. Friends, Seinfeld, Will and Grace, Mad About You, and Sex and the City, like Girls today, were all set in a New York City that was nearly 100 percent white.

Melrose Place, another '90s cultural phenomenon, had a token black regular for several seasons who was relegated to minor "black"-themed storylines until she was bounced completely. For black performers and people who wanted to see them in substantial roles, Fox and BET (and later UPN) were pretty much the only options.

The TV industry has come a long way since then, but in some ways, the movie industry still feels like TV in the '90s. I don't blame the Oscars for the dearth of black nominees, or nominees of color. I blame a movie industry that erroneously believes that the white majority isn't interested in black stories, or in diversity. It's actually less about racism than it is about ignorance.

Just one look at the music charts or the success of series like Empire, Black-ish, How to Get Away with Murder, and Scandal shows that audiences are a lot more sophisticated than movie executives believe them to be. To paraphrase a Field of Dreams line spoken by a highly esteemed black actor, James Earl Jones, if you create diverse entertainment, they will come.

And they have, in TV and in music. The Grammys are fairly solid as far as black-and-white diversity goes, and the Emmys are still catching up. Last year Viola Davis became the first black actress to score an Emmy for a leading role in a dramatic TV series. It was a win-win, but it took us decades to get there. Halle Berry became the first black woman to win an Oscar for a leading role 15 years ago, and we're still waiting for the second.

So despite the inroads made on TV and the progress made by the Oscars before the recent reversal, the BET Awards remain as valid and important as ever. They were created to recognize talent that would go largely unrewarded elsewhere, talent that continues to go largely unrewarded elsewhere. We need them as much now as we did 10, 20, 30 years ago.

No, whites are generally ineligible because it's Black Entertainment Television. But so what? They already get plenty of recognition everywhere else from voting bodies that present "white" awards in everything but name. Should blacks stop launching their own shows and their own movies and remain at the mercy of an industry run by white men? Should we stop creating our own opportunities as well as our own forums for recognition?

I can understand the frustration of white people who cringe whenever race comes up. It's not a pleasant topic, but ignoring it or trying to turn the tables on minorities isn't going to lead to progress.

To those who insist on closing their ears and their minds, I offer a suggestion: Rather than griping about the incessant "whining" of black people and making our experience all about yourselves, why not try to listen to us? You just might learn something. And knowledge is power…for everyone.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Happy 70th, Dolly Parton: 7 of my favorite songs by the birthday girl

If David Bowie was my best interview ever, Dolly Parton may have been my most embarrassing. It happened years ago, and it was over the phone. To break the ice, I pulled an old trick that always seemed to fly: I let her know that I was more than just another journalist. My appreciation of her work went beyond the obvious hits.

I told her three of my favorite Dolly Parton songs, ones that would be relatively obscure to all but true country-music fans, expecting a gold star. Her response: "Oh, you just happened to pick three that I didn't write!"

Oops!

She was just joking, of course, but as a singer-songwriter, she had to be a little slighted by my oversight. Well, I figured that she'd made enough money for writing "I Will Always Love You" (thank you, Whitney). Did it matter that neither that nor "9 to 5" nor "Jolene" (the latter two also self-penned) didn't get an honorable mention during our interview?

Here are the three that did and four more: my seven favorite Dolly Parton singles in honor of her 70th birthday today (January 19), one for each decade.

"Heartbreaker" (written by Carole Bayer Sager and David Wolfert) The beginning of my Dolly Parton appreciation era (1978 to 1982), this marked the first time I heard a Parton song on the radio and knew exactly who was singing it.


"Starting Over Again" (written by Donna Summer and Bruce Sudano) I still have a hard time wrapping my head around the fact that this 1980 country No. 1 was recorded in December of 1979, at the end of the year of Summer's disco peak. It's the first of the three songs that made Parton mock mad at me.


"Old Flames Can't Hold a Candle to You" (written by Patricia Rose Sebert and Hugh Moffatt) Sebert is also known as the mother of pop singer Ke$ha. Does Sebert's little girl still use the $? This is the second of the songs I name-dropped during my Parton interview.


"But You Know I Love You" (written by Mike Settle) Fun fact: This was originally a Top 20 pop single by Kenny Rogers and the First Edition. Rogers, of course, would later duet with Parton on one of her biggest hits, "Islands in the Stream." This was the final song I mentioned to her during our interview.


"The House of the Rising Sun" (traditional) I know this is probably sacrilege, but I much prefer Parton's overhaul of the roots classic to the version that The Animals took to No. 1 in 1964. I'm clearly in the minority: It was one of Parton's few heyday singles that didn't make the country Top 10, conking out at No. 14.


"Single Women" (written by Michael O'Donoghue) I remember being scandalized by the line "Oh, what's the matter, are you gay?" as it was climbing to No. 8 on Billboard's country singles chart. Years later, a Katy Perry lookalike in Bangkok would ask me pretty much the same thing.


"Do I Ever Cross Your Mind" (written by Dolly Parton) Probably my all-time favorite Parton song, written by the woman herself. It's a precursor to The Grass Is Blue, her 1999 bluegrass album and her creative zenith. I don't know why I didn't mention it during our interview. Sorry, Dolly...and happy birthday!


Friday, January 15, 2016

10 random musings on the Oscar nominations

1. Did the Academy figure there are so many black actors and actresses kicking ass on TV right now that they could afford to ignore them all again this year? Or is it that there was no major "black" film that ticked the make-guilty-white-liberals-feel-better-about-themselves-for-watching box? Or is it the fact that Hollywood still thinks storylines like the ones in Room, The Big Short, or The Martian are only believable if they involve characters played by white actors? Newsflash, Academy: There is more to being black than suffering.

2. Two of the Best Actress nominees - Brie Larson and Jennifer Lawrence - are nominated for Joy. Not the film (that honor has been bestowed solely upon J-Law) but the character. Like the role that earned 25-year-old Lawrence her fourth nomination, 26-year-old Larson's Room character is named Joy. Oh, um, joy.

3. Kate Winslet scored her seventh nomination (Best Supporting Actress for Jobs) on the same day that Alan Rickman, her romantic interest in the film for which she earned her first one (1995's Sense and Sensibility), died. Also nominated: the guy who played her romantic interest in the film for which she won nod No. 2 (her Titanic co-star Leonardo DiCaprio - of course - who is a fifth-time nominee for The Revenant).

4. Speaking of The Revenant, the movie's Best Supporting Actor nominee, Tom Hardy, appeared in one other Best Picture nominee, Mad Max: Fury Road.

5. With his Best Supporting Actor nomination for Creed, Sylvester Stallone has now been cited twice for playing the character of Rocky Balboa. He was previously a Best Actor contender for playing Balboa in 1976's Best Picture winner Rocky.

6. Three of the Best Actress nominees - Lawrence, Larson, and Brooklyn's Saoirse Ronan, 21 - are in their twenties. That's three times as many twentysomething nominees as there are in all the other acting categories combined.

7. Is third-time Best Supporting Actor nominee Mark Ruffalo (for Spotlight) en route to becoming Oscar's male Thelma Ritter, who was nominated for Best Supporting Actress six times without ever winning? With Stallone and Bridge of Spies' Mark Rylance in the running, he sort of doesn't stand a chance.

8. Every Best Actress contender is nominated for a film with only one word in the title. Meanwhile, both Lawrence and Carol's Cate Blanchett are nominated for playing the titular character, as are two of the Best Actor candidates (Trumbo's Bryan Cranston and Jobs' Michael Fassbender), whose films are both titled after their real-life characters' surnames.

9. At this point, I'd say Best Actor is the only slam dunk. It's DiCaprio's to lose. Best Actress will likely go to Larson, though Ronan and Blanchett remain strong contenders. My gut tells me Stallone will get his lifetime achievement award, but if I were Sly, I wouldn't count out Rylance or Hardy. Best Supporting Actress will probably end up being Mara's, but The Danish Girl's Alicia Vikander is some powerful competition. And Picture and Director are two-horse races, featuring The Revenant vs. Mad Max and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu vs. George Miller. I suspect the Academy will choose a The Revenant/Miller combo.

10. If Carol's Rooney Mara wins Best Supporting Actress (and I'd say the odds are in her favor, unless Winslet edges her out or Vikander pulls an upset), will she finally smile?

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Random thoughts on Room

What a strange little movie Room turned out to be. While I was watching it last night, I kept thinking: This is pretty good, but it's not quite the masterpiece that the breathlessly gushing critics had led me to believe it would be. Frankly, as much as I admired the artistry of Room, I had a much more enjoyable experience watching Brooklyn the night before.

Then something unexpected happened. I went to bed and spent most of my sleeping hours dreaming about Room. Clearly the movie affected me more deeply than I had realized. If it managed to penetrate my subconscious to such a degree that it dominated my unconsciousness (if only for one night), did that make it a masterpiece?

I'm not sure, but it certainly gave me a lot to think about. Among my still-evolving thoughts on Room:

1) I've seen similar storylines play out in documentaries on the Crime & Investigation Network: Crazy guy keeps young woman locked up in a dungeon for years. But C&I always seems to tell those stories from the cat-and-mouse point of view of law enforcement vs. the criminal, leaving it up to your imagination to re-create the experience of the kidnapping victim.

Room tells the story from the other side, and it's a harrowing tale, less because of the squalor of the physical prison and the lunatic warden than the mental torture they impose. What thoughts must crawl through the mind of someone stuck staring at the same four walls (and tiny skylight) for years on end. Room nails the psychological drama of such an unimaginable predicament, but no, it's not an enjoyable watch.

2) Brie Larson is solid as Joy. (Yes, her character shares a name with the titular character of Jennifer Lawrence's latest Oscar hopeful, the significance of which will become apparent in the next paragraph.) I can't argue with her Golden Globe win this week. Is it an Oscar-caliber performance? I'm not so sure. It's not as if she defines the role in such a way that I can't picture anyone else pulling it off.

In fact, throughout I kept thinking about Jennifer Lawrence. She and Brie are around the same age, and they resemble each other slightly. But my thoughts of Jennifer went beyond the similarities between the two mid-twentysomething ingenues. Room is the kind of dark, edgy fare that Winter's Bone made me believe would become Jennifer's specialty. Then she got sidetracked by The Hunger Games and those self-conscious David O. Russell dramedies. Too bad. Had she been cast in Brie's Room role, her name would be as good as engraved on that Best Actress Oscar for playing a completely different Joy than the one she played in Joy.

3) Solid as Bree is, it's all about the boy who plays Joy's five-year-old son Jack. Jacob Tremblay is a true find. Although he's nine now, he makes a perfect precocious five-year-old, the kind you want to bundle up and cradle. But he's more than just an adorable new face. He pretty much carries the movie on his tiny shoulders. Room is really Jack's story, played mostly from his point of view. I started the film in Joy's head, but I spent most of it in Jack's.

4) In some ways, Room is turning out to be this year's Boyhood: Young actor carries the weight of the movie, and the actress playing his mother gets most of the credit. Sure, Brie's leading role is much larger than the supporting one that won Patricia Arquette an Oscar for Boyhood, but while I wonder what J-Law would have done with this Joy, I'm not sure if Room would have resonated with me had anyone but Jacob been cast as Jack.

It's not just his expressive eyes but the way he handles the dialogue and physical sequences that has me seriously wondering what else he can do. It's the best child performance I've seen since Quvenzhan√© Wallis' Best Actress-nominated one in Beasts of the Southern Wild. She deserved better than an Annie remake as a high-profile follow-up. Let's hope little Jacob gets it.

5) It's so nice to see Joan Allen back onscreen. I wish the movie paid a bit more attention to the mother-daughter relationship between Joan's and Brie's characters. There's a pivotal scene that hints at a rich backstory. None of that past plays out on screen, but what Joan does with the little she's given - her uncomfortable restraint, the way she tiptoes around her daughter, around everyone - made me want to know so much more about her.

6) From a narrative standpoint, my favorite thing about the movie is that the characters don't turn out to be what you expect at all. The build-up to the second half left me expecting one thing, but what plays out onscreen is entirely different. Is it their individual relationships with their mothers or innate characteristics that lead Joy and Jack down divergent paths in this movie about maternal love? Maybe I'll figure that one out tonight in my dreams.