Spike Lee is a New Yorker through and through, just as Donald Trump is a New Yorker through and through — but the similarities pretty much start and end right there.
Asked what he thought when he saw Sarah Palin endorsing Trump for president, Lee replied in a voice so quiet it was almost a whisper:
“We’re all going to hell in a handbasket.”
Lee was in Chicago on Thursday to talk about the Amazon Prime release of “Chi-raq.” We talked about the reaction to that film, the ongoing problems of gun violence in Chicago and Lee’s upcoming documentary about Michael Jackson’s iconic “Off the Wall” album — all of which I’ll address in a follow-up column.
It was Donald J. Trump, and of course the controversy over the absence of minorities among this year’s Oscar acting nominees, that took center stage in our conversation.
“I’m surprised no one is really talking about that slogan, ‘Make America Great Again.’ Those are code words. Are you going to bring back George Wallace, standing on the doorsteps of schools in Alabama? You want to bring back Bull Connor, with the water cannons and the German Shepherds? You want to send all the undocumented Hispanics back? You going to take back a woman’s right to vote? African-Americans’ right to vote?
“Mr. Trump, we’re not going back to ‘Ozzie & Harriet,’ we’re not going back to ‘Father Knows Best,’ ‘Leave it to Beaver.’ ”
As for the Academy Awards, Lee has been clarifying he never called for a boycott of the ceremony.
“If people choose to boycott, they should. If you want to go, you should go. Do what you want to do.
“Same thing with Chris Rock [hosting]. Chris Rock is my man. Whatever Chris wants to do, I support. My wife and I aren’t going. We’re going to the Knicks game. They play the Heat.”
Lee received a Lifetime Achievement Oscar at the Governors Awards last November. I point out the Knicks are only a .500 team. It’s not like they’re the Golden State Warriors. You could miss a game.
“At the Oscars, I would not be able to give a 21-minute speech like I did at the Governors Awards,” says Lee.
“If you go online, I addressed a lot of things about diversity in my speech. I said it’s easier for a black person to be president of the United States than president of a Hollywood studio. I said the United States Census Bureau says by 2043, white Americans will be a minority in this country. Diversity is what makes us great, so why is Hollywood so resistant where everybody else embraces it?”
Even if the Knicks WEREN’T playing on Feb. 28, Lee would have opted out this year.
“I know that usually when you win an honorary Oscar, which takes place in November, you come back for the big ceremony, but I can’t do it. I can’t support it.
“But there’s no right or wrong. If [Will and Jada Pinkett Smith] don’t go, I support that. If they did go, I would support them. Whatever position you take, you’re right. Unless you’re Stacey Dash.”
So what DOES Lee think of Dash, the actress who has been all over the media, saying here shouldn’t be a Black History Month and there shouldn’t be a Black Entertainment Network?
A long pause. “I’m going to use a term my grandmother would say: God bless her. God bless her.”
So when Stacey Dash says all this talk about a lack of minority nominees is a non-issue?
“God bless her. God bless her.”
It’s so Hollywood for us to use the word “snub” when it comes to award nominations.
Were Will Smith, Ridley Scott, Michael Keaton, Helen Mirren and “The Force Awakens” literally snubbed by the collective members of the Motion Picture Academy, as in disdainfully and purposely spurning?
I’m thinking probably not. It’d be more accurate to say certain actors and films simply didn’t get enough votes to make the cut — and in some cases, the omissions were unjust, at least according to this Panel of One.
My picks for the biggest surprises among the nominees, and the best films and performances NOT to get nominated:
“Straight Outta Compton.” A breakout hit from late summer, directed by an African-American, featuring a mostly black cast, garnering overwhelmingly positive reviews and grossing $200 million domestic. A nod for “Straight Outta Compton” wouldn’t have been some kind of statement; it would have been Hollywood recognizing that rare, relatively small, original film that resonated with fans on a level the industry didn’t anticipate.
“Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” Unlike previous box office champions “Titanic” (14 nominations, including best picture, and 11 wins, including best picture) and “Avatar” (nine nominations, including best picture, and three wins), “The Force Awakens” received only five nominations: four technical salutes and a nod for John Williams’ score. I thought the Academy would have found room for “SWTFA,” (a) because it’s a strong and wildly popular film, and (b) because it sure wouldn’t have hurt viewership on Oscar night.
The “Spotlight” nominations. As much as I admire Mark Ruffalo’s work in “Spotlight,” I’m surprised the supporting actor nomination didn’t go to Michael Keaton, who had the most pivotal role in the film and perhaps should have been slotted in the lead actor category by Open Road Films.
Jacob Tremblay. Tremendous to see the support for “Room”: best picture, Lenny Abrahamson for best director, Brie Larson for best actress. But Jacob Tremblay also deserved recognition for one of the five best performances by a child actor I’ve ever seen.
Will Smith. His work as Dr. Bennet Omalu in “Concussion” was more impressive than his nominated performance in “Ali,” and equal to his second best actor nomination, for “The Pursuit of Happyness.”
“The Martian.” Ridley Scott’s breathtaking and innovative film is up for seven Oscars — including best picture and best actor for Matt Damon — but somehow the director himself was overlooked.
Tom Hardy for “The Revenant.” Leonardo DiCaprio is a heavy favorite to win his first Oscar for his work in “The Revenant,” and indeed DiCaprio was a force as the insanely determined and resilient frontiersman Hugh Glass, but Tom Hardy’s villain was a more complex, more intriguing, more surprising character. Hardy gave a unique spin on a character that could have been reduced to sociopathic clichés in lesser hands. He deserved his nomination. Still, it came as something as a surprise, the crowded field of deserving actors that included “also-rans” Idris Elba (“Beasts of No Nation”), Michael Shannon (“99 Homes”) and Paul Dano (“Love and Mercy”).
A step back for diversity. You can’t put this all on the Academy. Until mainstream Hollywood ups the percentage of films made by minorities and/or starring minorities, we’re going to see at best a handful of minorities getting nominated. As much as it pains me to say this, which black actresses were overlooked this year, either for lead or supporting role? The parts just weren’t there. That’s the REAL injustice.
Alan Rickman. Some 30 years after “Die Hard,” if you ask someone to name the main villain in that film — BOOM! “It was Hans Gruber.” Rickman’s portrayal of the velvet-voiced, America-loathing terrorist was one of the great bad-guy performances in modern movie history — but Rickman didn’t even get a nomination, let alone Oscar gold. Through a brilliant screen career in all eight “Harry Potter” movies and such films as “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves,” “Dogma,” “Truly, Madly, Deeply,” “Love, Actually,” “Alice in Wonderland” and “Bottle Shock,” Rickman was one of the most valuable team players in the movies, one of those actors whose name you might not recognize immediately, but when you saw him onscreen, you straightened up and focused a little more, because: Hey, it’s that guy, I like that guy, he’s great.
This is the thing about the Oscars: Often they get it right, and nearly as often, one can only scratch one’s head over the madness of it all. No offense to Jonah Hill, a fine and growing presence as an actor, but Hill has two acting nominations already, matching Helen Hayes, Kevin Spacey and Vivien Leigh, and surpassing Robert Redford, Myrna Loy, Raul Julia, Jim Carrey, Jeff Daniels, Meg Ryan — and Alan Rickman.
One seriously doubts even Mr. Hill would tell you that seems about right.
What’s wonderful about the movies, and the actors who create those portrayals we remember all our lives, is that in the end, it matters not whether someone was honored with a trophy for enriching our lives. Alan Rickman’s work as Hans Gruber will live on for decades.
David Bowie was one of the most beloved and influential musical artists of the 20th (and early 21st) century—but he was also an interesting and diverse actor who created a lasting persona in just a few dozen movie and TV roles.
A few of my favorite David Bowie films and performances:
“The Man Who Fell to Earth” (1976)
Who better than the pale, rail-thin, androgynous-looking David Bowie to play Thomas Jerome Newton, an alien who lands on Earth in search of water for his dying planet? Bowie is a natural playing an unnatural being in Nicolas Roeg’s visionary, unsettling and melancholy cult classic.
“Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” (1983)
Arguably Bowie’s best performance, as Major Jack “Strafer,” Celliers, a POW in a Japanese war camp during World War II.
“The Hunger” (1983)
In Tony Scott’s lurid, smoky, erotic horror film, Bowie plays Tom, a centuries-old vampire married to fellow immortal Catherine Deneuve’s Miriam. As Tom realizes the extent of Miriam’s deceit and realizes he is NOT destined to remain eternally young and rapidly begins to age, Bowie makes great use of his ability to disappear within a character. His onstage chameleon-like transformations served as years of prep for similar feats of quick-change onscreen.
At times in his career, Bowie actually looked as if Jim Henson might have invented him. He’s perfectly cast as the charming but evil Jareth the Goblin King in Henson’s ambitious fantasy adventure.
“The Last Temptation of Christ” (1988)
Bowie delivered a strong performance as a conflicted, tortured, cowardly Pontius Pilate in Martin Scorsese’s controversial take on the life and times of Jesus Christ.
And then there were the countless times Bowie “starred” in a film via his music, e.g., “A Knight’s Tale” (2001).
Although Mr. Bowie didn’t appear in Brian Helgeland’s vastly underrated fantasy/comedy/romance, his “Golden Years” was featured in one of my favorite dance numbers of all-time, with Shannyn Sossamon’s Jocelyn rescuing Heath Ledger’s William Thatcher at just the moment when the evil Count Adhemar (Rufus Sewell) was about to confirm his suspicion’s about William’s tall tales. It’s a lovely, funny, exhilarating sequence, sweetened and fueled by the one and only David Bowie’s golden voice, singing “Golden Years.”
John Hughes’ “The Breakfast Club” begins with a quote from Bowie’s “Changes,” which was suggested to Hughes by Ally Sheedy: “And these children that you spit on, as they try to change their worlds, are immune to your consultations. They’re quite aware of what they’re going through.”
Bowie’s music has been ubiquitous in film and on television. According to IMDB, Bowie’s songs have been featured in 452 films or TV shows. Think of all the times “Space Oddity”—which Bowie was inspired to write after he saw “2001: A Space Odyssey”–has been utilized, from “Friends” to “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” to “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” to “Mad Men.” Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield even performed a reworked-to-a-happy-ending version of “Space Oddity” in outer space a couple of years ago, with the video getting more than 25 million YouTube views.
A few of my favorite marriages of Bowie and the movies:
“Cat People” – Bowie co-wrote (with Girogio Moroder) and provided the vocals for the title track to the sexy chiller by Paul Schrader from 1982. Some 27 years later, Quentin Tarantino made outrageous and ingenious use of “Cat People” in his World War II film “Inglourius Basterds.”
“This is Not America” – Bowie and the Pat Metheny Group performed the haunting theme for John Schlesinger’s nearly forgotten classic spy film from 1985.
“Fashion,” in Amy Heckerling’s enduring and charming “Clueless” (1995).
“Something in the Air” – in Christopher Nolan’s “Memento” (2001), one of my top films of the entire decade.
“Heroes” – in “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” (2012)
“Modern Love” – in “Sleeping With Other People” (2014) and “Frances Ha” (2012)
And just last year in “The Martian,” Ridley Scott couldn’t resist using “Starman” for an inspirational montage in which the American and foreign governments unite to bring home one stranded astronaut who had become a beacon of hope and courage for the world. It was the perfect choice of music.
David Bowie was an artist among artists.