My friend Eliza drives up from Eugene to Portland every Oscar night. It’s become an annual ritual for us to get dressed up and watch the Academy Awards while eating pizza and drinking champagne. We mark our ballots, keep tab on winners, make fun of the dance numbers and tear up at the emotional acceptance speeches. Eliza and I met as actors in theatre and have worked together in several productions. We’ve keep our friendship going through more than 20 years even though we might not see each other for months. Oscar night is our one sure date throughout the year. While everyone else might have their Super Bowl Sunday mania, for those of us in theatre and film, it’s all about the Oscars. This is OUR big night.
Even though they might deny it, most actors at one time or another have daydreamed about what they would say in an Oscar speech. I remember a story a friend told me about a famous actor who shall go unnamed who taught a workshop right after he won the Oscar and allegedly brought the little statuette with him to class. He passed it around to all the students so they could hold a real life Oscar award in their hands. Then he told them to make up an acceptance speech and perform it to the class. On the surface that sounds egotistical but I wonder how many students actually enjoyed doing that exercise. They got to live out the fantasy of accepting the top acting award in America—something usually reserved for the privacy of one’s bathroom mirror. Of course I don’t speak from personal experience…ahem…
This year I haven’t seen most of the films nominated but I’m still excited about watching the telecast on Feb. 26th. There’s buzz already that two African-American actresss, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer from The Help will take home Best Lead Actress and Supporting Actress statuettes. I’m thrilled there are actors of color nominated who are frontrunners this year as opposed to the all-white Oscar actor pool last year. The 2012 Oscar acting categories race actually has more race this time including a Latina (Bérénice Bejo in The Artist ) and Latino (Demián Bichir in A Better Life ). Yay, color!
But there’s one thing that makes the Oscars still less than perfect for me. No Asians have been nominated in the big categories especially in acting. With the exception of Jennifer Yuh Nelson for Best Animated Feature on Kung Fu Panda 2 and Asghar Farhadi for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Writing-Original Screenplay for A Separation, the field is bleak for Asians in non-technical categories.
In the entire Academy history, the only Asian actors to have won the golden statuette are Miyoshi Umeki in 1957 for Sayonara, Haing S. Ngor in 1984 for The Killing Fields (a shame Pat Morita received his only nomination for The Karate Kid that same year), Ben Kingsley (who is South Asian) in 1982 for Ghandi and, yes, Yul Brynner in 1956 for The King and I. Believe it or not, Yul Brynner was Russian and Mongolian-Tartar (a mixture of Russian and Turkic).
Directors and production artists have fared much better at the Oscars, especially Taiwanese director Ang Lee, cinematographer James Wong Howe and Editor Richard Chew. But no Asian actor has won the award since 1984. And no Asian has won the Best Lead Actress award—ever.
Will an Asian actress win the Best Leading Actress Oscar in my lifetime? Not with the way film roles are cast these days. Not unless someone decides to produce an Asian version of The Help with stereotypical roles set in a nail salon or sweatshop. Who knows? Maybe that’s in the works. The recent film version of Lisa See’s exquisite book Snow Flower And The Secret Fan that employed Asian actresses in lead roles bombed at the box office. The likelihood of Hollywood taking “risks” on Asian actors in lead roles is slim in this economy. The simple truth is white actors can have failed roles and still keep working but actors of color may only get one chance.
I think about the young Asian actors who can’t find roles in local theatre let alone in major Hollywood movies. I wonder if they have rehearsed their Oscar speeches in front of the mirror. Do they practice thanking everyone who helped them? Perhaps they say, “oh what an historic moment in America and to all the young actresses out there, keep dreaming because this is proof your dreams can come true!”
Meanwhile those of us who know that dream will most likely never come true for us personally can delight in the wins of those who have worked hard and struggled and overcome the challenges to finally bring home that golden statuette. Yes, Eliza and I attired in our fake jewels while clinking our champagne glasses will be there to cheer them on.
© Dmae Roberts 2012
*Originally published in The Asian Reporter