I watched The Deer Hunter again recently for the first time in over 25 years. My memory of the film was shaky but I did have a strong recollection of not much caring for it the first two times around (having seen it twice in its entirety by the mid-eighties). I also recalled the controversy surrounding it and wondered if the recollection of any of that might be peppering my memory. I decided to give it another look, 25 years later, to see what it would feel like, decades removed from any controversy over the content of the film or the war in Vietnam itself. The experience was an interesting one, if not least of all for the fact that it has much to admire within its frames and much to deride. Suffice it to say, The Deer Hunter makes for a very conflicted viewing experience, giving the viewer plenty of time to process information about its characters but giving up precious few secrets about them on which to base that processing.
Oscar Peterson’s career as a jazz pianist was always a bit tricky. Unlike a Bill Evans or Herbie Hancock or Victor Feldman, who could control a set through steady use of block chords and minimal melodic adornment, Peterson was all about flourishes. His style was such that the left hand was of only nominal use while the right hand created intricate melodic magic. Which is all to say, Peterson worked best as a front man, not an accompanist. And when accompanying him, best to keep it simple. Too much counter melody, too intricate a bass line and the whole thing could quickly become an incoherent mess. Perhaps that’s why Peterson’s foray into orchestral jazz turned out so well.
Here’s the requirements for membership in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, as taken from the Wikipedia entry on the organization:
Membership in the Academy is by invitation only. Invitation comes from the Board of Governors. Membership eligibility may be achieved by earning a competitive Oscar nomination, or two existing members may sponsor a candidate from the same branch to which the candidate seeks admission.
The majority of members in the Academy, as you may expect, comes from nominations. Go ahead and look up the nominations, from the very first Oscars up to now, anywhere on the Oscars own website or by category on Wikipedia. Here’s one: Best Cinematography. Go ahead and look through the nominees. Tell me when you get to the female name. Oh wait, you won’t. From the Wikipedia page on this Cinematography award: “No woman has ever been nominated for an award on this category, this makes it the only category in the Academy Award’s history where no female contender has ever been nominated.” With the exception of the Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress Oscars, and the one for Best Costume Design, the overwhelming majority of all nominees have been men. For most of the Academy’s history, that’s meant white men.
The Academy currently has upwards of 94% white membership and 76% male membership. The problem of people of color not being nominated and female-centric movies like Carol being snubbed isn’t going away soon unless the Academy changes the membership rules, perhaps by opening membership up far beyond just nominees and invitations by other members, perhaps to all working union members. And the unions have their own problem that needs to be addressed: Women and people of color are woefully under-represented in the editing, directing, photography, and other film-making fields of pursuit. I don’t have the solution but I do know the problem isn’t going away any time soon because each year another crop of predominantly white, predominantly male nominees gets added to the membership rolls, self-perpetuating the very thing we’re trying to change.