Let’s go ahead and get this outta the way: Taking cues about what’s dope in filmmaking from the Oscars is a loser’s game. A stuffy institution isn’t what creates or dictates what is good in an art form. If anything, its usefulness is more or less for young people scrolling Wikipedia pages searching for movies that feel canonically American as a way to build their own interests. It’s a starting point. And if we were to leave it there, I think conversations around what the Academy is doing would be pretty all right. That’s how I’m approaching this particular topic of Angela Bassett, an absolute tour de force of a performer and worker, receiving an honorary award at this year’s event after decades of hitting her head against the ceiling of “Oscar nominated” with no trophy to her name. If we’re asking why the Academy would reward her now, consider all the losses she’s had to stomach as well as the recent passing of Tina Turner — who we all know Bassett acted her ass off becoming for the 1994 biopic — as a good enough rationale.
That being said, I’d never want to speculate on what the honor actually means to her. We could all feel her stewing in her seat after losing out to Jamie Lee Curtis last year. It’s very easy to imagine the disappointment (especially because, let’s be fuckin’ forreal for a moment, Jamie Lee Curtis, as beloved as she is, wasn’t even in the top-three Everything Everywhere All at Once performances. Her win actually felt like the honorary award for the Academy’s not recognizing her long-standing work in previous movies for which she would’ve probably been a better candidate). No matter how much we may critique the Academy, it is still an achievement and an acknowledgment from peers that you were in your bag for whatever role you filled. Angela Bassett might never feel that satisfaction, and that, objectively, sucks.
There’s a number of ways to take the honorary award, though, and Bassett, I imagine, will win it graciously. I could see her possibly throwing some shade in the award speech, but she’s earned the right to do that, TBH. (Simmering under all of this is the possibility that there will be no actual telecast given that the studios are choosing not to pay writers what they’re due, but that’s a topic for a different column.) The recognition, however, did remind me of three other honorees and their comments about their wins: Sidney Poitier, Cicely Tyson, and Samuel L. Jackson.
Let’s start off with Poitier, who said this in 2008:
“That honorary award for the body of work, I think, belongs as well to Ralph Nelson, as well to Stanley Kramer, and as well to the Mirisch brothers and as well to Norman Jewison and as well to all the directors I’ve worked with and as well actors and actresses that I’ve worked with, the sound people. Everyone that I’ve worked with left a little of themselves with me. I would like to think that everyone that I’ve worked with I’ve left a bit of myself with them. So that, even in a more complete way, the award, the honorary award trumped the single award for the performance as an actor. But the aggregate performances of my work as an actor includes those people. I think the honorary award had a significance unto itself.”
Poitier is — at times even problematically — a class act. So this response isn’t surprising at all. But what makes this different from Bassett is that his work was acknowledged twice before by the Academy. He was what the institution considered A Good One. Y’all take that how you will. There is no doubt that Poitier was a standout actor and performer. One of the greatest to ever do it, so no tea, no shade. But getting the honor after already winning can color his reaction to yet another acknowledgment. I don’t doubt that Bassett might feel similarly in terms of how the award signals the workers alongside her, but the idea that it’d trump the individual one is a little ehhh.
Now to Cicely Tyson, who said this months after receiving her honorary trophy in the mail:
“First of all I was given an honorary Oscar months ago. I did not expect it. It had me in a state for days, in a state for days. I could not leave the house. And I say that because I made a certain decision about how I wanted to speak to issues that I found disturbing. There was no guarantee that it would be accepted or that it would pay off in any way but I was determined to prove that there was more than one way to speak to an issue and I stuck with it. And it paid off.”
I really liked this one not only because Tyson remains principled in her elocution and stands ten toes in the things she finds important. But that phrase, “I was in a state,” could refer to a bunch of different emotional energies. I’m sure she felt all kinds of joy from the premiere acting body finally seeing her for all the contributions she’s made to both film and television. But I can just as easily imagine that she might’ve been fucking livid for it to take so long. “Better late than never” may be where she ended up. I do wonder if this is where Bassett will end up with it. It feels about right.
And now to that nut (I say this with the utmost love) Samuel L. Jackson, who, when asked whether the emotional night receiving the award was a surprise, told the L.A. Times:
“Maybe a little bit. As jaded as I wanted to be about it, you know thinking, ‘Well, I should have won an Oscar for this or should have won for that and it didn’t happen,’ once I got over it many years ago, it wasn’t a big deal for me. I always have fun going to the Oscars. I always look forward to getting a gift basket for being a presenter. I give stuff to my relatives; my daughter and my wife would take stuff out. It’s cool. But otherwise, I was past it. I was never going to let the Oscars be a measure of my success or failure as an actor. My yardstick of success is my happiness: Am I satisfied with what I’m doing? I’m not doing statue-chasing movies. You know: ‘If you do this movie, you’ll win an Oscar.’ No thanks. I’d rather be Nick Fury. Or having fun being Mace Windu with a lightsaber in my hand.”
I obviously dig this reaction simply because it removes the power of the Oscars in deciding one’s fate or happiness from the equation entirely. Of course Jackson has always been about doing roles that puts butts in seats, but he also reflects on the point in his life — perhaps a point that Bassett is reaching, too — where the back and forth of asking why one doesn’t get the recognition becomes tired. I wonder if she’s there, especially after this latest loss.
But the other thing that’s interesting is that her honorary comes so soon after a nomination that she should’ve won. Whereas Jackson’s came super later on in his career and after he’d already become one of the highest-earning actors to ever walk the Earth. That’s the brand, you know? It’s interesting because Bassett was nominated for a box-office hit, has been nominated for “statue-chasing” roles, and still no dice. She’s tried it all. And while I do believe she still has more to give if she wants to give it, the reality is the opportunities in an ageist Hollywood industry could really dry up after this. Which provides the Oscars rationale for turning this honorary award around so quickly. There could still be some frustration on Bassett’s part because of just how blatant the Oscars are in awarding her this year. It’s the Academy signaling to her that it doesn’t think there’ll be a chance for her to be nominated again.
Again, I don’t want to speculate on how she feels; maybe one day we’ll get a real answer to that question. But placing her in the context of other stars who receive the honor can kinda give us an idea of where her head might be. She doesn’t need their stamp, as much as it might feel nice in the moment. One hopes that she has already accepted how much she’s meant to viewers, specifically Black women watching her films, over the last four decades. There isn’t a trophy known to the human race that can outshine that.