It seems every year come Oscar season, there’s always a fair share of controversies. Some wins are applauded and some are scorned, some are written off as snubs or further examples of the Academy’s dismissal of genre or specific performers. This year was no exception. Everything, Everywhere All At Once proved a darling with audiences and critics, currently earning the most awards for any single film in history, culminating in its sweep of the 2023 Oscars. Most applauded wins netted by Ke Huy Quan and Brendan Fraser, but one win proved controversial. That was when Jamie Lee Curtis won Best Supporting Actress for Everything. Everywhere, All At Once.
The moment went viral for a number of reasons, not the least of which was fellow nominee Angela Bassett’s reaction. Before a winner is announced, the nominees are shown on a split-screen. When Curtis won, her elation was juxtaposed with Bassett’s very visible heartbreak. Some felt deeply for Bassett and looked at this moment as yet another snub for an actor of color, something the Academy still struggles with. Others called Bassett childish, dismissing Bassett’s reaction as political grandstanding and saying Curtis was more deserving of the Oscar.
Let me start off this article by saying those talking down to Bassett need to knock it off. Bassett’s reaction is human, and she shouldn’t be scorned for it. Being upset, even angry, can be a healthy thing in the right doses, and for Bassett, the disappointment and even outrage in this moment must have been unbearable. Denying her the right to feel and process these emotions is toxic and not at all helpful. For Bassett, I was devastated that she didn’t get her time to shine.
At the same time, Curtis was someone I always wanted to see holding that statue.
The following is a meditation on why it has been an especially trying mental exercise to figure out just where I stand on this win.
I have a deep admiration for both of these actors. Admittedly, I have a stronger connection with Curtis. My first experience with her was in True Lies, and since then she’s always someone I looked forward to seeing in the movies. I especially love her as a horror fan, and it’s a really fascinating exercise to trace her roots in indie horror all the way to her mainstream breakthrough with Trading Places and beyond. Her work also adds an undeniable legitimacy to an oft-maligned genre, and seeing her break those genre barriers sets a great example not only for actors starting out, but filmmakers who may not otherwise have paid much attention to genre actors.
However, I also love and deeply admire Angela Bassett. My first exposure to her was Music of the Heart, an urban-based school drama I initially only watched since it was directed by horror auteur Wes Craven. My admiration for horror will be a recurring theme in this article if you can’t tell. Bassett was someone I remembered, even more than star Meryl Streep. Since then, she’s continued to appear in many of my favorite films, and it’s been nothing short of delightful to see the range and professionalism she brings to her roles. Her work on American Horror Story has allowed her to play a wide variety of unique characters over the anthology series’ multiple seasons. Once she joined the cast, Bassett quickly became my favorite.
This put me in a very compromising position come the night of the awards. I’ll freely admit to rooting for Curtis. Everything was my favorite film the previous year, and seeing Curtis take on such an unconventional role in an even less conventional film was exciting. So naturally, the prospect of a longtime favorite finally getting that recognition was very exciting. Then Oscar night happened. When Curtis won, I was thrilled. That thrill turned to shock when the backlash began.
Of course, my first instinct was to rush to Curtis’ defense, a difficult position since, if worded incorrectly, could have been interpreted as a dismissal of Bassett and the other nominees. I suppose the main issue for me was not only the dismissal of Curtis’ work in this film, but what I perceived as a disdain for her and her entire career. There are a number of reasons some would look down on an actor like Curtis. She has developed an odd, some would say flamboyant personality in recent years, which could be considered off-putting. Then there’s the fact that Curtis got her start in the industry due to privilege. Her parents were Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis, two of the most recognizable faces from what many consider Hollywood’s golden age. Curtis admits this privilege helped her get started, and has worked hard to try and forge her own legacy beyond that of her famous parents. However, what bothered me more was less a dismissal of her parentage and more a dismissal of her body of work, because Curtis got her start in horror.
True, Curtis’ first feature film, Halloween, was a critical and commercial success and is considered to this day a genre staple. Despite this, many people have a bias against horror even if they’re not completely aware of it. People will say Halloween or Texas Chainsaw Massacre are great films, but always stop short of putting them alongside the likes of Gone With the Wind or Sound of Music. Some even go so far as to insist that films like Alien and Silence of the Lambs aren’t horror, and have even coined the term ‘elevated horror’ to differentiate these and similar films from the rest of the genre. Surely something with well-drawn characters and interesting themes can’t be horror, because horror is trash.
What I always liked about Curtis is she took her work in horror seriously, even in films that aren’t especially strong like Prom Night or Terror Train. Even as she struggled to expand beyond the genre, appearing in such classics as Trading Places, A Fish Called Wanda, My Girl and True Lies, her work was generally not singled out in those films. Dismissing her in Everything seemed to me a further example of that.
However, it should be pointed out that Angela Basset was nominated for her stellar work in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, a superhero film and a genre that I’m generally skeptical of. I could very easily say that Everything Everywhere All At Once has more substance to its characters and story and was thus more deserving of a win than Black Panther, but how hypocritical would that be after my previous points about how horror is often dismissed as art? And how impressive is it that Bassett managed what Curtis couldn’t and netted a nomination for her work in a popular genre film? Besides, has not Bassett also appeared in a number of horror and thriller films such as Supernova and Vampire in Brooklyn? Regardless of the quality of those films, doesn’t this make my above assessment about an unconscious bias against horror dead wrong? And has not Bassett been forced to navigate a world where she was subject to unconscious biases of a far more insidious nature than a mere disdain for the genre? Most definitely.
One could very easily take a look at both films and say the better film deserved more wins. In this case, Everything connected with me far more than Black Panther. I was in the midst of an existential depression when I saw Everything. I went in blind, knew nothing about it, and yet very shortly after the film began, it almost seemed to be speaking with me directly. The character of Joy, played by fellow nominee Stephanie Hsu, was very much in the same space I was mentally, so her journey was one I related to very closely. I don’t exaggerate when I say that the moviegoing experience was a very healing one. Seeing favorite actors like James Hong, Ke Huy Quan and Jamie Lee Curtis play out this odd comedy-drama only made the experience that much sweeter. It also introduced me to Michelle Yeoh, whose previous work I’m now enthusiastically discovering for the first time.
But Black Panther also has great value not only in its execution but its symbolism. Of all the films in Marvel’s library, the Black Panther films are among the most ambitious. They are earnest in their attempts to tackle issues that are sadly still relevant today, and are fascinating in how they use symbols associated with traditional African Culture to build the world. Wakanda Forever is an especially bittersweet film as it was the first in the series after the passing of star Chadwick Boseman, a talent lost far too soon who I’d go so far as to call this generation’s James Dean. The result is almost a kind of eulogy for the late actor, not just his role in this film but his entire career. This alone makes it one of the most powerful comic book movies ever made.
So where am I, an outsider member of the audience, left? Jamie Lee Curtis is a longtime hero of mine, and after years of being written off by the industry due to her parentage and genre work, I was ecstatic to see her finally get much-needed recognition from her colleagues. Still, taking my personal bias out of the equation, do I think she deserved the Oscar for this role? Yes. I really do. Dierdre is a comical character, and most people didn’t take comedic performances too seriously. Curtis brings depth and vulnerability to the role many other actors couldn’t have, in particular when Quan’s character informs her he and his wife are getting divorced. As a child of divorce, her portrayal of an oft-cynical and exhausted woman is something I grew up around, and affected me very deeply.
And I feel the exact same way about Bassett. She’s been wading through a very unforgiving profession for roughly the same amount of time. Her path to the red carpet has been far more difficult than Curtis. Bassett, who plays T’Challa’s grieving mother Ramonda, had the daunting task of bringing her own heartbreak to the role, giving a voice to legions of fans in mourning. Knowing that real sadness about her co-star’s passing was central to her work in this film gives greater context and power to her work in this film. That’s a lot to bring to a comic book movie, more than most actors are willing. Do I think she deserved the award? Absolutely. Considering how personal this movie must have been, I can’t possibly imagine how devastating this loss was for her.
So I like both actors, but who do I think was more deserving of the award on this occasion? I can’t really pick. It would be easy to say they both should have won. I’m a firm believer that you can never narrow down the arts to a single “best of” no matter how hard you try. There’s simply too much variety and too much to appreciate to pick favorites. In my fantasy world, both of these remarkable women would have been able to take the stage while they took a bow. Some will read that and bring up that people of color have had to share a typically white-dominated stage since the beginning of the industry. Is it really too much to ask that a woman like Bassett be allowed the spotlight all to herself? My response? You’re absolutely right. True, the Academy has improved over time, but we still have a long way to go.
On a final note, it is somewhat upsetting to me that Stephanie Hsu, also nominated for Best Supporting Actress in Everything, seems to have been largely forgotten in the discussion. Hsu, like her fellow cast members, displayed a great range of emotions in the film, playing multiple parts across the film’s run time with the intensity and dedication of the finest actors today. She was also the character I related to the most deeply in the entire movie. As I said before, I watched the film in the midst of a bad bout of depression and anxiety. Hsu’s character of Joy was me. Like me, she was in her mid-30s and trying to forge some independence in her life. Like me, she became disillusioned with reality and wondered what the point of it all was. Like me, she was in a very dark place where despair seemed as prevalent as the air we breathe. I may not have become a dimension-hopping overlord bent on the destruction of the multiverse, but you see where I’m going. The point is, when she took those first healing steps at the film’s conclusion, she gave me the hope I so desperately needed at that point in my life, and helped me start to heal. Her acting didn’t just entertain me. It helped me. To see her take that stage would have been marvelous. I hope one day to see that happen.
As we reach the end of this meditation, you’re probably still wondering where I stand. I’ve provided heavy praise for both actors, and approaching the end have given further praise to a third nominee. And that’s where I stand. The answer is I simply can’t pick, so I’m left with the difficult task of reconciling my elation for Curtis with my heartbreak for Bassett and Hsu, a task as infuriating as it is impossible. Maybe there’s a lesson in that. Maybe that’s a cop-out. But for now, reconciling these conflicting feelings is where this controversy has left me. This article may be over, but for me, this meditation continues.
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