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Ruby Dee (#110 of 5)

Summer of ’91 Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever

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Summer of ’91: Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever

Universal Pictures

Summer of ’91: Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever

The interracial love story that anchors Jungle Fever is the least interesting element of Spike Lee’s 1991 joint. It’s the dull circle from which more compelling plot tangents offshoot. While the director is game for a surface-level exploration of the trials and tribulations of forbidden love, his once-controversial subject matter is merely a selling point designed to get asses into theater seats. Once Lee hooks his audience with the promise of sin, he pivots his social commentary to a tragic secondary character, just as Douglas Sirk did in Imitation of Life. This is appropriate, because Jungle Fever is the equivalent of a 1950s message picture. Expertly wielding his influences, Lee throws a dash of Delbert Mann and a soupcon of Stanley Kramer into the proceedings. Though the outcome is at times woefully dated, it’s also the origin of several ideas Lee would return to in subsequent films.

Oscar 2011 Winner Predictions: Actress in a Supporting Role

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Oscar 2011 Winner Predictions: Actress in a Supporting Role
Oscar 2011 Winner Predictions: Actress in a Supporting Role

While maybe not quite as tight as this category was in 2007, at which time we guessed correctly that Tilda Swinton would take the trophy from the likes of Cate Blanchett, Amy Ryan, and Ruby Dee practically by default, once again Best Supporting Actress is giving Oscar prognosticators everywhere the fear of—gasp!—getting one category wrong. The only candidate everyone feels pretty safe writing off without a qualm is Jacki Weaver, whose performance as Animal Kingdom’s quasi-incestuous Ma Barker picked up a citation from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, but whose slow-burning presence in the film doesn’t really start to accrue merit points until long after some voters could be expected to hit eject.

Oscar 2008 Winner Predictions: Supporting Actress

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Oscar 2008 Winner Predictions: Supporting Actress
Oscar 2008 Winner Predictions: Supporting Actress

When scrutinizing this race, pundits rarely discuss precedent. If they did, Amy Ryan’s chances probably wouldn’t be so overdetermined, because if there’s anything more eternal than Oscar’s penchant for snubbing a critic’s darling, it is its tendency to give the cold shoulder to loathsome, almost irredeemable female roles (like Something Ronan’s sniveling brat from Atonement, who is redeemed by film’s end, but by two other actresses!). Not that most of the ladies in this category have been short-listed for playing saints, but the squawking Ryan’s potty mouth reigns supreme in Gone Baby Gone: The calculated one-liners meant to elicit audience sympathy for Boston’s lower class (“I don’t got no daycare”—essentially a variation of Amy “I got one leg” Poehler’s Amber from SNL) are trumped by nasties like “Why don’t you suck a nigger’s dick, Bea,” “It smells like cock,” “Nigger please, I hid it,” “Fucks yous both,” and my personal favorite, “Who’s the faggot now, haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa.” A potential win in this category with precedent is Cate Blanchett’s “Bob Dylan” from Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There, but that precedent is Cate Blanchett’s Katharine Hepburn from Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator, and though pundits are right to wonder if the Academy will want to give this fussy actress a second Oscar so soon after her last one, Blanchett may lose for representing a film that comes on intellectually strong and is possibly more obnoxious than American Gangster. Which brings us to Ruby Dee, whose two or three scenes in Ridley Scott’s big and impossibly dumb drugland drama are triumphs of resilient, saving-face movie acting. Every single one of us should be praising the complexity with which Dee fights against and humanizes Scott’s movin’-on-up reductivism (that slapping scene, a scorching evocation of a mother marking her territory and asserting her right to be heard, is of a volatile emotional tenor only Tilda Swinton comes close to achieving), but the almost racist rumblings echoing from certain circles suggest that Dee’s miniscule screen time is not just a point of contention but a point of active resentment (must be all those size queens rallying behind Blanchett), and may work against her and the traction she picked up since her SAG victory. (Sympathy may be on her side because of her civil rights work and long acting career, but she wouldn’t be the only legend—paging Lauren Bacall and Gloria Stuart!—anointed by SAG but passed over by Oscar.) Does Swinton have this one almost by default? The British actress and queer icon represents the most liked film in this race, and though she plays a sketchily, almost offensively drawn archetype in Michael Clayton, Swinton brings her customary nuance to a muted, almost abstract role, humanizing her corporate baddie in such a way that voters may see more than just a villain, but a woman bumping her head against the glass ceiling—something, no doubt, Hollywood actresses can commiserate with. Forget that this would be Oscar’s way of rewarding Michael Clayton and think of a Swinton victory as Oscar’s way of honoring an actress who is finally getting the attention Blanchett has been bogarting from her for way too long.

Oscar 2008 Nomination Predictions: Supporting Actress

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Oscar 2008 Nomination Predictions: Supporting Actress
Oscar 2008 Nomination Predictions: Supporting Actress

In November, it seemed a dead certainty that Cate Blanchett’s interpretation of Bob Dylan in Todd Haynes’s insufferably academic I’m Not There would be the sort of stunt that the critics’ awards wouldn’t be able to ignore. (The stunt being not so much that she was a woman playing a man, but rather that she played said man more femininely than she did Katherine Hepburn.) By the end of December, Amy Ryan’s performance as an unapologetically dumpy, arrogantly stupid but still aggrieved mother in Gone Baby Gone had made a near clean sweep. A few of the late-season awards finally broke Blanchett’s way (as happened with the National Society of Film Critics), but the damage was done and Ryan is clearly the one to beat. It certainly helps that she’s competing against a lot of other nasty girls. (Ruby Dee may be the only one that generates honest goodwill with a titanic slap worthy of the category’s “season vet” slot.) But Tilda Swinton’s pallid, clammy executive in over her head is more than matched by Saoirse Ronan, who (spoiler alert!) is the category’s most hateable character in a walk for being the author of Atonement itself (and even the film’s fans would have to admit that it’s Vanessa Redgrave, playing the older version of Ronan, who nets all the sympathy points). If anyone’s capable of crashing this line-up, it’s probably Catherine Keener in Into the Wild, slightly more animated than she was in Capote, but just as blandly good-hearted. It’s either her or King of Kong’s long-locked Billy Mitchell, if some voters mistake his supreme bitchery for him having an actual vagina.