Meryl Streep can’t help herself: she’s just classy. And in the days following The Iron Lady’s Oscar night upset win over equally classy nominee The Help‘s Viola Davis, the hits keep on coming. Streep has reportedly donated $20,000 to two Rhode Island charities in Davis’ honor. One of the recipients of a $10,ooo gift is The Segue Institute for Learning, a struggling charter school in Davis’ hometown of Central Falls.
A poll released today shows that Streep’s acceptance speech Sunday night (Feb. 26) was one of Oscar‘s most-DVR’d moments. That is likely because, as always, both actresses were incredibly gracious, embracing before Streep took the stage. The two became mutual admirers while co-starring in Doubt in 2008. But Streep’s speech was also undoubtedly a DVR smash because an awful lot of people were really pissed off.
Don’t get us wrong: a lot of people still love Meryl Streep. She consistently pays homage to her fellow actors when she scores a win. And while she’s seen as a trophy-scoring juggernaut, she has lost the Oscar race 14 times – five times since 2002 alone. Since she seems to earn Golden Globes like someone with a punch-card and a mean Subway habit, even I was surprised to realize that she hasn’t returned to the Oscar stage for 29 years. But this was supposed to be Viola Davis’ year. For those of us Viola fans who’ve been waiting for her to get her due since the veteran stage actress blew us all away with a two-scene, Oscar-nominated turn in Doubt, Sunday night was a bummer.
I say “bummer” but a lot of Twitter-types and onlookers said worse. On the heels of a Feb. 19 Los Angeles Times story that pointed out just how many Academy voters are white guys (94% white, 77% male average age of 62), Streep’s win was loaded. And it is hard to overlook the fact that this would have been the first time two African American women took home acting awards in the same year and only the second time that two black Americans had won in the same year *period*. Had Davis won, she would only have been the second African American actress to take home the lead actress trophy (Halle Berry was the first).
Okay, so none of this is Streep’s fault. And as I would tell my toddler daughter if she could say more than “Hi Doggie!,” that the Oscars should be based on talent, not skin color. But I appreciate the tension over Streep’s win, even if it isn’t really about Meryl Streep or Viola Davis. The whole Oscars and race thing is just suspect. The Oscars simply don’t look much like America, or any other country where the majority population isn’t naturally blond, for that matter. America is 13.6% black. Thanks to multiple process changes over time there are conflicting figures for just how many Oscar nominations have been made since the Academy began giving awards in 1927. But if you consider that they have been giving Oscars for 84 years and only 99 African Americans have been nominated…
There has been some progress since 2001: the percentage of people of color nominated for the so-called top awards has increased from 9% to 20%.
This brings us back to Ms. Streep and Ms. Davis: my guess is that neither woman signed up to be a lightning rod. Poor Davis has already had to spend too much time defending her choice to play a maid when we should be focusing on her chops. And my guess is that Streep’s gift had everything to do with a deep respect and love for Davis and less to do with mitigating against racial tension. I also suspect that the Academy will do a few things right and keep nominating Davis. It’s a perfect, halcyon vision of Streep and justice and the American way to which I choose to cling. I’m a sucker for a Hollwood ending.
Next time, though, Hollywood, would it kill you to cast some black people in that ending?