Why do we watch the movie award shows like Golden Globes and the Oscars? I’m honest enough to say I love the variety of dresses, gowns and sartorial twists that are flaunted before viewers. Certainly Lady Gaga’s poof of a gown( matching chignon. Oh my!) last Sunday night that might have been previously hanging from a curtain rod in a decrepit mansion suggested Scarlet O’Hara’s ballgown as transformed by Valentino. So both laughter and visual interest were my rewards for tuning in.
Yet the films at the theatres are now certainly challenged and rewarded by their own alter egos created to be viewed on Netflix, Prime, whatever- such as My Brilliant Friend, The Americans, Bodyguard, Outlander, Homecoming, The Crown: also included as contestants in these broadcasts.
Yet the purview I felt last week was truly retro. A Star is Born has been around the block several times, most settling on the dewy- eyed Judy Garland as the star although a lovestruck, bleary- boozy-eyed Bradley Cooper was truly convincing as the Gaga promoter. Green Book too, although well acted, produced stereotypes of a good- hearted Italian’s decision to befriend the black pianist Dr. Shirley. In spite of its “ inspiration” rooted in realities, the characters reek of stereotypes with little shading beyond the haughtiness of an erudite performer, the backseat sharing of fried chicken, the closeness of Italian families, and Tony’s eventual good hearted defence of the erudite Shirley, for example. The film does speak to one man’s disavowal of segregation and societal restrictions of a day, but for me, only a group of black field hands in the south stopping to ponder and stare at a white man driving a black man( shades of Driving Miss Daisy) created a true moment of real discomfort as the audience observed from the eye of the oppressed, amazed and perturbed. Articles in the news do point out the film’s perspective is based on the education of Tony the Lip, ( Vallelonga), the true life driver as recorder by his son, Nick.
I haven’t seen Queen, but although lauded by some and acknowledged by Rami Malek’s portrayal, newspapers, two days after the Golden Globe, say, ” The film itself is a wash, a pandering and disrespectful portrayal of a complicated man and artist , Freddy Mercury, that all but erases his queerness”( Barry Hertz in The Star). This news piece also indicates a sexual abuse issue with director Bryan Singer dismissed from the production. Even so, Mercury’s greatest impact occurred around 1969. So it seems our films reach back to times passed and although there is nothing intrinsically bad or wrong in this act, why bother, if nothing fresh is added, and if we cannot learn something new and valuable by the endeavour, why rehash it?
With the resurrection of Hamilton for example, the recasting of diverse actors , the sensitivity of portrait, the talent of performance, the hubris of Aaron Burr, Washington and Hamilton, himself, touches us in a way unexpectedly- but then it is theatre with real people standing before us, not two times removed by the media. But in truth, a really wonderful film can accomplish this too.
Perhaps that is why Roma by Alphonso Cuarzon has found its way into awards. And it is true that we can empathize with Cleo, the housekeeper- slave in the film. She is genuine, loving, sweet with no recourse but to submit to her life. Shot in black and white, Roma feels more like a documentary and it is based on the film maker’s relationship with his own nanny- housekeeper. Although Cleo lives for us on screen, she is surrounded by the harsh stereotypes of employer and changes in a time of governmental suppression and student unrest that complicate and darken the impact on her life.Not to mention her unfortunate linkup with a marital arts sadist, the resultant pregnancy that makes for a pretty depressing film.
Maybe because the film Boyhood with Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke took 12 years to film, its honesty and sensitivity in portrayals were uplifting, refreshing, a balance of goods and bads, the long view afforded us by the master Richard Linklater. In Roma, a year or so in the life provides the ongoing reality of a life that is unlikely to change save the very odd outburst of second hand joy perhaps through the children to whom she is indentured.
On the other hand, what appeals about Roma is the stark moments of truth of the story: that poverty, educational limitations, no access to outside help continue to grind down the less fortunate in society. The filmmakers’ production that avoids easy, rosy false solutions takes us into the heart of the matter, offering us the facts, as he sees them, that continue to confront the world. Unpleasant images such the repetitive washing away of dog turds are symbolic of the life Cleo faces- with no answer suggested in the film. In deed, by engaging the audience of watchers, the problem as part of the viewers’ realm becomes ours. No gloss, no glib, just the ongoing tragedy of so many Cleos we would prefer to ignore, pass on the street and turn away from. Ironically, watching Lady Gaga’s empowerment in Star removes us from the everyday so we can applaud the women who are strong enough, talented enough to escape the drudgery of life.
Further, in terms of irony outside of the film, Joanna Schneller in her discussion of Roma in the Globe today remarks how Cleo, Yalitizia Aparicio, a teacher from rural Oaxaca, when involved in auditioning for the film, thought for a minute she might be inadvertently involved in a human- trafficking scam.
In the end, I suppose we need both the Gagas and the Cleos in film, those able to lift us up and believe there are the opportunities to leave harsh circumstances, be brave enough, to take a chance and reach towards the heavens. However, in a year of Me#Too, we absolutely must be mindful of the Cleos of the world, the ordinary, everyday women with no resources, no outstanding talents or access to better lives, who may be unable to take the steps, who cannot locate the right person, within or without, to help support those initial moves towards better lives. We, as the watchers, must continue to press for ways and means to make the world fairer and more accessible. For every one.