Oscar Mania

The Great Hollywood Brownout

February 26, 2012

Multiple Pages
The Great Hollywood Brownout

Many people claim that they pay no attention to race, but then along comes the Jeremy Lin story to prove again that most folks do. Wikipedia, that embodiment of 21st-century attitudes, remains diligent about posting most of its subjects’ racial and ethnic background. I enjoy using their countless racial lists, such as Oscar nominees, to count subversively. 

The funniest footnote in Charles Murray’s book Coming Apart is where he documents his assertion that the movie industry openly proclaims its liberalism with:

Source: almost any Academy Awards show.

Yet Hollywood applies its own diversity rules selectively. For instance, blacks matter. Every few years, the Oscar season is wracked with controversies over whether blacks (or less often, women) are getting their fair share of statuettes. A year ago, there was a fuss over how not a single black had been nominated.

“Wikipedia’s Oscar lists suggest that no Mexican American has been nominated in any category, no matter how humble, since the 1980s.”

Blacks have been nominated 60 times for Oscars in the four acting categories, so the quibbles have grown more meta. This year, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer are in the running for The Help, but that raises second-order controversies about whether we should be comfortable with black actresses playing maids.

And why have black leading ladies been nominated only half as often as black leading men? Is Hollywood saying black women are less attractive?

Black achievement in less glamorous Oscar categories has been more modest, but that doesn’t raise much interest. For example, after blacks garnered seven Best Score nominations from 1961-1987, none has been nominated in almost a quarter-century. (That might imply that black musical competence has been declining in the hip-hop age, but nobody wants to talk about that.)

Yet the most striking diversity shortfall in Hollywood is one that would get any less liberal industry in trouble with Obama’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Los Angeles County is about half Hispanic, and Latino fans make up 30% of the enthusiasts for summer blockbusters. Despite all that, Mexican Americans—meaning those who have spent at least part of their formative years in America—are remarkably underrepresented in The Industry. 

Wikipedia’s Oscar lists suggest that no Mexican American has been nominated in any category, no matter how humble, since the 1980s. 

Oddly enough, Mexican Americans did better in the pre-diversity days, receiving five acting nominations from 1952 through 1964. Granted, one went to Susan Kohner, daughter of a Mexican silent-film actress who married her Jewish producer.


But Anthony Quinn, who was born in Mexico and raised in Boyle Heights, was closer to the real deal. He won Supporting Actor Oscars for playing the brother of the Mexican revolutionary in 1952’s Viva Zapata! and for playing Paul Gauguin in 1956’s Lust for Life. The studio publicity department stylized him as half-Irish; in truth, three of his grandparents were born in Mexico and only one in Ireland.

That Quinn was a mestizo made him more valuable in Hollywood, since he could plausibly play a huge range of races, from Indian chiefs to Greek fishermen to Bedouin sheiks to Ukrainian popes. If you wanted to make a mainstream movie about, say, Eskimos, you could always put famous Oscar-winning movie star Anthony Quinn in your lead role.

But as the number of Mexican Americans has mounted to over 30 million, their Oscar recognition has dwindled. The last Mexican American nominee was Edward James Olmos as calculus teacher Jaime Escalante in 1988’s Stand and Deliver. Gregory Nava is the only Mexican American screenwriter given a nod, for El Norte in 1983. John A. Alonzo was nominated for Chinatown’s superb cinematography in 1974.

A growing number of honorees are alumni of Mexico City’s film and television industry, such as Emmanuel Lubezki, nominated for filming Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, or Demián Bichir, who received a surprise Best Actor nod for playing an illegal-immigrant gardener in Chris Weitz’s box-office flop A Better Life

But there hasn’t been an American-raised Oscar nominee of Mexican descent for 23 years, unless you want to count Susan Kohner’s sons, the Weitz Brothers, who were nominated for writing About a Boy in 2002. But though their 101-year-old actress grandmother was born in Mexico, Chris and Paul Weitz aren’t exactly representative Mexican Americans. Their Berlin-born Jewish father was the late John Weitz—fashion designer, racecar driver, best-selling novelist, yachtsman, spy, and dandy.

Hollywood types appear to assume that since they are by definition Nice, they are immune to being smeared with Not Nice terms such as “disparate impact.” That the Hollywood craft unions remain nepotistically white isn’t a problem for them. Nor do they feel guilty to insist ambitious young people must intern without pay, which discriminates against Latinos, who tend to hate working for free. While blacks and gays are lavished with attention, Mexican Americans remain the Academy’s invisible people.


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