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Spike’s Big Night: A Short Story (Part 4)

June 29, 2011

[Click here to read Part 3.]

The show rolled merrily along. Brenda Fricker won Best Supporting Actress for My Left Foot. George Lucas and Steven Spielberg presented a lifetime achievement to Akira Kurosawa, who during his acceptance speech humbly confessed: “I feel I still don’t understand cinema yet.” Actor Geoffrey Holder—aka, the tall black guy with the cool raspy voice who starred in those 7-Up commercials back in the ’70s—badly lip-synced one of the songs from The Little Mermaid. Glory won two more Oscars, including one for sound mixer Russell Williams II, the second brotha’ to win an Oscar that night. (Would Spike be the third?) And when Jessica Tandy (to no one’s surprise) won Best Actress for Driving Miss Daisy, Morgan Freeman ran down the aisle to help the 80-year old actress to the stage. Spike, feeling rather uncharitable, couldn’t tell whether Freeman was acting out of chivalry or if he just couldn’t shake playing the role of the helpful black servant. And he felt a perverse satisfaction when he realized that Tandy had failed to thank Freeman during her acceptance speech. Too bad, Morgan. I guess thanking “the help” just slipped her mind. However, Spike knew he was being unfair, for in Tandy’s defense, she also forgot to thank her husband, actor Hume Cronin.

During one of the commercial breaks, Spike’s Nike ad featuring him and Michael Jordan aired on TV. No one in the Dorothy Chandler saw the commercial, only the viewers watching the telecast, but Spike had been given a rough estimate of what time it was supposed to air. It showed a more playful side to Spike than most people (or people who only knew him as the actor/writer/director of Do the Right Thing) were familiar with. He wondered how viewers would reconcile the “two faces of Spike” they were seeing that night: on the one hand, the hip, goofy sidekick to Michael Jordan, happily serving as a spokesman for Air Jordan sneakers; and on the other hand, the controversial filmmaker whose film had been the focal-point for the most uncomfortable Oscar moment of the night. Which of these personae would they see as the true face of Spike Lee? Both? Neither? Perhaps each personae cancelled out the other. As Spike thought about the matter, he began to have doubts about his own answer to these questions. Who was the “true” Spike Lee? In his best moments, Spike liked to think of himself as an uncompromising filmmaker, an artist unwilling to sell out…but was that really true? Was that really him? By agreeing to make those Nike ads, commercials for overpriced sneakers targeted to kids—primarily urban kids, many of whose families couldn’t afford them—hadn’t he in his own way sold out? Hadn’t he become an unwitting spokesman for The Man, supporting a system of power that, in Do the Right Thing’s theme song, Public Enemy had urged the people to fight? Maybe he was no better than Morgan Freeman. Maybe he was worse. Freeman only played a black servant, Spike actually was a black servant—though admittedly a highly paid one. Maybe—and here was the realization that Spike was just beginning to make, but that artists such as Freeman had figured out a long, long time ago—maybe it wasn’t a question of selling out versus not selling out. Maybe it was a question of choosing which form of selling out you can live with. For some, it’s playing the black chauffeur in Driving Miss Daisy. For others, it’s pimping overpriced sneakers for Nike.

As the show came back from commercial break, a voice addressed itself to Spike.

“Good luck tonight, Spike.”

Spike turned. He was surprised to see that the voice belonged to Steven Soderbergh.

“Whatever happens,” Soderbergh said, looking like a young professor with his bookish glasses and receding brown hair, “I just want you to know, you made a great film.”

“Thanks, Steve,” Spike heard himself say. “You as well. Good luck to you too.”

“These awards, they’re all bullshit anyway, right?”

“Yeah, total bullshit.”

They shared a smile, then like two opponents who after a brief spell of amnesia suddenly remember they’re opponents, abruptly broke eye contact and leaned back in their respective seats.

Spike hadn’t expected this gesture of rapprochement, was frankly more unsettled by it than comforted. Was Soderbergh being genuine, or just fucking with him? Was he trying to prove to Spike that he was the bigger man? Did he know something Spike didn’t? Spike suspected there had to be an ulterior motive—he was nothing if not a paranoid black man—but he was too anxious, too fidgety, too hungry (he hadn’t eaten in hours), too preoccupied with his own thoughts, to figure out what it was. And to make matters worse, that damn Debbie Gibson song he’d heard earlier in the limo had popped into his head and was now playing in an endless loop: “I think we’re alone now, there doesn’t seem to be anyone around/ I think we’re alone now, the beating of our hearts is the only sound…”

On stage, Charlton Heston and Argentine actress Norma Alejandro were presenting the documentary awards via satellite from the Theatre Colon in Buenos Aires.

Spike closed his eyes. Stay calm, Spike. Don’t bug out now. Your ass made it this far. And believe me, that’s a lot farther than most folks’ll ever get… Was Steve being sincere? He sounded sincere. Maybe you shouldn’t be hard on the guy. After all, aren’t we both independent filmmakers, members of an endangered species just trying to survive in the same crazy jungle?… Mental note: Jungle Fever would make a good title for a movie… Should you have brought my mom to the Oscars? Denzel brought his mom. Maybe you should’ve brought yours… Should you keep doing on commercials for Nike? Does making them mean you’re a sellout?… No, you were right not to bring your mother. You know how she is. She only would’ve got on your nerves… OK, so maybe there’s no such thing as not selling out. Perhaps every artist is a servant to The Man in one form or another. But you still say there’s a difference between being a servant who does everything he can to piss off The Man, and being an Uncle Tom who does everything he can to please him… Gotta make sure to say hello to Kim Bassinger after the show. Mad cool what she did. Just make sure not to say anything about her dress…Face it: you probably won’t win. Not this year. But that’s OK, ‘cause guess what? You’ll be back here again next year. That’s right, both you and Denzel are gonna score nominations for Mo’ Better Blues. No doubt about it. Besides like Steve said, these awards, they’re total bullshit. And you know as well as anyone that the Academy is famous for getting it wrong all the time. Remember Raging Bull? High Noon? Dr. Strangelove? Network?  So if you lose, just remember, you’re in good company… So what if you made those Nike commercials? Is it really selling out when you’re working for The Man so you can have enough money and creative freedom to make movies like Do the Right Thing that tell The Man to fuck off? Or are you just rationalizing?… God you’re hungry. Wonder what they’re serving at the Governors’ Ball… “I think we’re alone now, there doesn’t seem to be anyone around, I think we’re alone now, the beating if our hearts is the…” Goddamn! Can’t believe you got that stupid Debbie Gibson song stuck inside your head. Though you have to admit, it’s kinda catchy. Wonder if she saw Do the Right Thing

Spike opened his eyes just as actress Jane Fonda emerged on stage and approached a microphone. “The nominees for Best Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen are…”

At last, here it was—the moment of reckoning. Spike tried to play it cool and focused on the stage. As Fonda read the names of the nominees, he experienced a feeling of déjà vu, then remembered that at Cannes last year, Fonda had announced the winner of the Palm D’Or, bestowing the honor to his rival Soderbergh. And here she was again, about to hand out yet another award that he and Soderbergh desperately wanted to win, even if they both pretended otherwise in each other’s presence. Whether it was mere coincidence that Fonda had been chosen to present the screenwriting awards, or whether the show’s producers had deliberately made the decision as an industry inside joke (a very likely possibility), Spike couldn’t say. Perhaps the producers were attempting to stage a dramatic Oscar moment: if Soderbergh did win, perhaps Spike—triggered by his traumatic defeat at Cannes—would go off and do something crazy, maybe trip Soderbergh on his way to the stage, maybe storm out of the auditorium. A little drama for the cameras. But Spike resolved not to give them the satisfaction. His stream-of-conscious soliloquy had gone quiet. All he could hear now was the beating of his own heart, the intermittent applause as each name was called (including his), and then finally—silence, the longest, most nerve-pinching silence Spike had ever endured. It occurred while Fonda was opening the sealed envelope that held the card with the winner’s name.

“And the Oscar goes to… Tom Schulman for Dead Poets Society.”

The audience erupted in applause, no doubt happy for the winner—Schulman was a well-liked screenwriter in his late-30s who’d been pounding the Hollywood pavement for years—and not a few of them relieved that they wouldn’t have to hear a “fight-the-power” acceptance speech from Spike Lee.

Spike was forced to stand up to let Schulman pass by so he could make his way to the stage. He could’ve easily made him trip, but there wouldn’t have been any satisfaction to it. The pain of losing wasn’t quite as devastating as Spike imagined it would be. No, he didn’t enjoy losing, but he tried to take comfort in the fact that at least he hadn’t lost to Soderbergh. However, he wasn’t sure that losing to the screenwriter of a movie about privileged white boys liberating themselves through literature was a preferable outcome. As Schulman gave his acceptance speech, Spike managed to make eye-contact with Soderbergh and shrugged his shoulders, an expression whose translation seemed to be: Well, looks like we both lost. To which Soderbergh replied with a smile whose translation (as far as Spike could tell) seemed to be: Yeah, but at least I won Cannes, bitch!

Later, Spike concluded that he’d most likely misread Soderbergh’s expression. He was probably just smiling at one of the jokes Schulman made during his charming and thoroughly uncontroversial acceptance speech. But Spike gave himself a pass. After all, when you’re an angry, brilliant, misunderstood black man and you’ve just lost your first Oscar—well, it’s easy to be paranoid.

[Click here to read Part 5, the final installment.]

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