Oscar Highlights

Tavis revisits highlights of his conversations with several of this year’s Oscar nominees.

The 2012 “class” of Academy Award nominees includes several thespians who sat for a chat with Tavis in the past year.

Two co-stars of The Help (nominated for best picture) visited the Tavis Smiley set. Viola Davis received her second nomination—this time for best actress in a leading role for playing a maid who agrees to talk to a writer about her white employer. And, Octavia Spencer earned her very first nod for her supporting role as a maid who loses her job with a socially prominent family.

Gary Oldman is nominated for best actor in a leading role for his portrayal of British intelligence agent George Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and Michel Hazanavicius made the best director cut for his work on the black and white silent film The Artist.

And, one of the stars of Hugo, Sir Ben Kingsley, spoke with Tavis at length about the film, which is based on a children's book about an orphaned boy and garnered the most Oscars nominations (11) this year, including best picture and best director.


Tavis: The movie, “Hugo,” is up for more Oscars Sunday night than any other film this year. Directed by Martin Scorsese, “Hugo” is the story of an orphan who resides in a Paris train station in the 1930’s and stars Oscar-winner, Sir Ben Kingsley.


Tavis: Does working in 3D alter what you do as an actor in any way?

Sir Ben Kingsley: I think it does.

Tavis: In what way?

Kingsley: Well, the Panavision close-up, the regular close-up, demands an economy, it demands a stillness, it demands an accuracy and it demands a truth. When you’re really in close-up, the camera can see the thoughts behind your eyes and the 3D camera can see the thoughts in your brain before they’ve started to happen [laugh].

It’s an x-ray device, so you really have to be so perfectly in character, so on top of the game and you have three forces coming at you on Marty’s set.

You have Marty who demands a very special version of the truth, you have little Asa Butterfield who’s a child actor who has no filters – it’s all from the heart and that also demands that you respond in that way – and then the 3D camera.

So it was a tightrope, but one that was exhilarating to walk. You could never explain between action and cut. You could never comment, you could never demonstrate. You just had to be.

Tavis: When you said that Martin Scorsese – I can’t call him Marty as yet – but Mr. Scorsese for me. When you said that he demands a certain kind of truth from you, unpack that for me. What do you mean by that?

Kingsley: Well, I don’t mean demand in the demonstrative sense. I don’t mean that he literally asks you for it. But he is such a tender, intelligent, pure guy that you have no choice but to get out of your corner by offering him the truth.

Once Marty’s given you the role, a part of you can completely relax and know that you don’t have to audition anymore, you don’t have to demonstrate anymore and you don’t have to go after him with your actor’s begging bowl to ask if he liked what you just did because he’s seen everything.

One, he’s cast you in his mind ideally and, two, once he’s said action, you’re free to be. You’re not being tested. He is so secure in his craft and so confident in his craft that he knows we can do it.

He puts his chemistry together in such a great way that he knows the sparks will fly between me and Asa, for example, or me and Chloe. He just knows. That to me is very releasing and freeing for me to be with Marty.

Tavis: Sunday night is shaping up to be another banner Oscar night for movie mogul, Harvey Weinstein. Not only is he a possible Best Picture winner for “The Artist,” but two of his leading ladies, Meryl Streep and Michelle Williams, are competing against each other in the Best Actress category.


Tavis: How much of your success has to do – you and your brother’s success – has to do with being the Anti? You use the word, but it seems so apropos for the way you approached your success. How much of it has to do with being the Anti?

Harvey Weinstein: You know, I think, Tavis, I’ve tried to make movies that appeal to me and also to try and make something that’s different out there. I always get a kick out of, you know, when some people criticize me and I go, “Oh, my God, if they only understood the economic realities of what I do.”

I know they think that I don’t go far enough. But within the limits of running a company, you know, I try to go as far as anybody in their right mind would go and sometimes not even in their right mind.

I mean, sometimes people sit back in journalism and go, “Oh, my God, couldn’t it be tougher? Couldn’t it be this, couldn’t it be that?” I’m like, “Are you kidding me?” Like, what studio is doing the kind of work that we do or Sony Classics or Fox Searchlight?

There aren’t any of them doing that and they have the money, the capital, you know, the money to spare to make those kind of movies. You know, I take the risks because I believe in the work that we do and I also believe in movies. I’m a fan and I want to see something different.

You know, last year we made “The King’s Speech” and people said to me, “A movie about stuttering? Are you crazy?” This year, they’re saying, “A black and white movie? A silent movie? “The Artist?” You are crazy.” [Laugh] I don’t know. You know, I’ll probably make the first super hero movie that bombs [laugh].

Tavis: I went to The Grove here in Los Angeles to watch the “Marilyn” project. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Tell me how that came to be and what your hopes are for it.

Weinstein: Well, I read Colin Clark’s book about a 23-year-old boy who got to romance Marilyn Monroe at age 30 for a week when he was making a movie in Pinewood Studios in London in 1956.

The movie doesn’t take place over the period of a week, but we feature the week that he and Marilyn got close when Arthur Miller left her after they had a big fight in the middle of their honeymoon and this boy sort of told Marilyn the truth about her life, this, that, and she kidnapped him one day.

I cannot say that the idea of being kidnapped by Marilyn Monroe did not have a total appeal to my fantasy [laugh].

I read Adrian’s script and Michelle signed onboard to play Marilyn, which was actually, in one sense, probably the most courageous act that anybody has done this year in a movie.

If you think financing “The Artist” was as courageous as playing Marilyn Monroe, I don’t think it is. Darts could have been thrown at her; instead roses were thrown at her.

Tavis: The race for lead actor this year boils down to two of Hollywood’s biggest stars: Brad Pitt and George Clooney, two foreign-born newcomers, and a veteran actor who is now on movie’s biggest stage, Gary Oldman.

Already known for playing a wide range of critically-acclaimed roles, Gary Oldman may have turned in a career performance this year in the thriller, “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.”


Tavis: I’ve yet to read a single person in this town or beyond who writes about the Academy Awards who does not have you on the short list for a nomination. So I don’t want to jinx you, but I do want to ask, when you’re hanging out with Colin Firth making this, you got any good advice from him about how to navigate what’s about to happen for you in this town?

Gary Oldman: Well, he’s had a lot of practice at it.

Tavis: He has [laugh].

Oldman: Colin, I think he’s pretty much won everything there is to win for “The King’s Speech.” He gave me a little bit of advice the other night. He said, “If you are nominated and you should win, just be brief.” [Laugh]

Tavis: [Laugh] It’s always funny that people give that advice after they’ve been on the stage.

Oldman: Yes. Before the clock starts counting down and you see this thing flashing, wrap up, please wrap up, yes.

Tavis: So we’ll see if that moment should happen, we will grade you and see how well you did on the advice of Mr. Firth.

Oldman: But it’s nice to be in the orbit, nice to be on the list.

Tavis: For those who don’t know John le Carre’s work, have not followed this particular story line or characters, top line for me what the movie is about.

Oldman: Well, as I said, we meet George Smiley who is a sort of chief deputy to the main guy in the British Secret Intelligence Service control and they are both outed by a sort of new regime coming in. Then they discover that there is a mole, an informer, who is giving secrets from within the Secret Service to the Soviets.

The Cold War is a backdrop. Master spy Smiley is sort of recruited back in, but really working covertly outside of the Service. He mounts an investigation to root out the mole.

Tavis: The acting categories for women also feature some household names and a wide range of roles, and two of this year’s nominees come from the same film, “The Help.”

Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer both turned in outstanding performances in the movie based on the best-selling book, but their portrayal of civil rights-era maids re-ignited a conversation about the kinds of roles we celebrate for people of color, a candid conversation we conducted right here on this stage.


Tavis: Let me be honest, the only way I know how to be in television or off the air. I celebrate the two of you, I’m delighted that you were nominated; I’m pulling for both of y’all to win on the Academy Award night.

I wouldn’t want it any other way, yet I will admit to you – and I have friends who feel the same way – there is an ambivalence here. You should know, I’ve had this same conversation on this very couch with Denzel Washington when he was up for “Training Day.”

Octavia Spencer: Okay, good.

Tavis: I want to be honest about that.

Viola Davis: Absolutely.

Spencer: Yeah, I want to know.

Tavis: Denzel and I work out in the same gym. We talk about this all the time. He tells me all the time, “Tavis, get over it,” but I can’t get over it. We had the same conversation.

I didn’t like when they did what they did to him on “Hurricane,” a Black hero. I didn’t like the fact he didn’t get nominated for “Malcolm X,” a Black hero. But for the rogue, the most rogue, nasty, ugly law enforcement officer, the Academy celebrates Mr. Washington, gives him the top prize.

You both have done wonderful work and will do more wonderful work, but there’s something that sticks in my craw about celebrating Hattie McDaniel so many years ago for playing a maid.

Here we are all these years later, and I want you to win, but I’m ambivalent about what you’re winning for. Help me through that, Octavia.

Davis: Do you want to go first?

Spencer: Of course, I do.

Tavis: Help me through that.

Spencer: You know, here’s the first thing that we should address. For me, you know, Anthony Hopkins won for being a serial killer who was a cannibal, and Charlize Theron won for being a serial killer.

So it doesn’t strike me as odd that the Academy would nominate villains, in a way, but I don’t have a problem with nominating these two earnest, hardworking women, and we’ve never seen this story told from their perspective.

Be that as it may that a white woman wrote the original source text, but the fact is, at least she had the – what is the word?

Davis: The insight?

Spencer: The insight to write about women who we’ve not heard from. So I do understand your ambivalence and I’m glad that you prefaced it by saying you’re happy for us because a lot of people aren’t. But I understand that, I do understand that.

Davis: And I will say this. That very mindset that you have and that a lot of African Americans have is absolutely destroying the Black artists.

The Black artist cannot live in a revisionist place. The Black artist can only tell the truth about humanity, and humanity is messy. People are messy.

Caucasian actors know that. They understand that. They understand that, when you bring a human being to life, what you want as an artist is to show all the flaws as well as the beauty.

We as African American artists are more concerned with image and message and not execution, which is why every time you see our images, they’ve been watered down to a point where they are not realistic at all. It’s like all of our humanity has been washed out. We as artists cannot be politicians. We as artists can only be truth-tellers.

So guess what? If the woman next door killed her baby and was 100 pounds overweight and ate a piece of fried chicken, then went next door and killed somebody, that’s what we have to do as Black artists.

Tavis: You feel no burden at all with any of your choices…

Spencer: …no.

Tavis: …about your people?

Spencer: No. You know why? Because where is the indictment within the Jewish community about movies about their history?

Tavis: They don’t have to be indicted because this town will make a movie about the holocaust seven days a week. That’s why.

Spencer: But here’s the other thing. We have so many affluent African American producers and people who’ve made money in the industry. Why are we still having the same conversation? They can’t pool their resources?

Davis: Okay, I will say this…

Tavis: Because they don’t control distribution channels, Octavia. That’s why.

Spencer: But why haven’t they pooled their resources together? The thing is, if someone isn’t doing what you feel they should be doing, why are you waiting for them to do anything? You should be doing it yourself.

Tavis: Agreed.

Spencer: We have enough resources out there; we have enough brilliant minds out there. If people are this upset, then I’m thinking let’s be a part of the solution and pool our resources and have our own distribution.

Davis: But that’s not the issue. I mean, the issue is they say that forgiveness is about giving up all hope of a different past, and that’s the issue.

Spencer: Absolutely.

Davis: And it’s the issue with me too. I’ve done the same thing. I’ve absolutely been guilty of the same thing is that 350 years of racist policies in this country and what’s left is this pain, this anger, okay? And anything, any image, you know, that’s out of sort can agitate it. It is not a clear-cut linear argument because, listen, I’m a dark-skinned African American actress, okay?

I would say that I have had so many African American artists in my house having the same conversation. I’ve read all the scripts that they’ve given me. Young writers say I’ve got the ultimate role for you, Miss Davis, because I see you.

I would say 99.9% of them are all urban Ghetto mothers who look highly unattractive and they all speak Ebonics. They are probably far more insulting than even some of the roles given to me by white industry people.

Tavis: I accept that.

Davis: So I’m saying that it’s something deeper.

Tavis: It’s a sickness.

Davis: It’s a deeper issue in us and I think that a lot of times we want to either revise or erase our history, but we very rarely want to face it. We don’t want to face that somehow we can’t let go of that pain.

Tavis: It seems almost unthinkable in this age of digital 3D and computer technology that a silent, black and white film could get an Oscar nomination, let alone take home the night’s biggest prize.

But if “The Artist” does win for Best Picture, it would be a triumph for filmmaking of a bygone era and perhaps a fitting statement about the tension between the old and the new.


Tavis: What made you think that a silent film today would work?

Michel Hazanavicius: I would never expect that kind of response of the audience. I thought that maybe – and that’s what I said to the financer and the people I want money from. I told them that maybe in the festival and maybe with the critics, it could work.

I guess the same for every movie; I had the hunch that there was a good movie to make. You never know if a good movie will connect with people, but my point was to make a good movie. I had an audience. I really love silent movies and silent movies in theaters.

So I was thinking they stopped to make silent movies in the ’20s, so if you make a silent movie now, you have the benefit of 80 years of sophistication, the use of music, acting, so I can make a movie that nobody made. So, yeah, that was the point.

I’m very happy, but you never know how people can connect and hear. Harvey Weinstein did that wonderful job, I mean, to connect people with the movie and how he introduced the movie.

Tavis: For those who’ve not seen it, why don’t you describe what the story line is here?

Hazanavicius: The story’s about this big star, male actor, silent actor here in Hollywood. The talkies are coming and he’s gonna fall. In the same time, in the beginning, he meets a young ingénue lady who was an extra at the beginning and she will become an actress and then she will become a star. The story of their crossed destiny. Yeah, more or less.

Tavis: There are a couple of moments, couple of beats in the film, where we really do hear sound. We hear the talk. I don’t want to give it away, but how did you decide that those were the places that that sound needs to come through?

Hazanavicius: Well, in the movie, the antagonist is the sound. So for the first noisy sequence, because it’s not talking, it’s just sound sequence, I wanted to present the antagonist, so I needed the sound and I decided to put it here because I wanted to come early in the narration because I wanted to say to people there won’t be any big surprises.

It’s a very classical story. It’s not the story that goes on so much. It’s the way to tell it. How the story’s told is more important for me than the story itself.

I believe it was funny and cool to surprise people with some very simple things because the convention of the movie is to be silent and then you have sound and it’s really shocking to people. It’s really shocking and it’s so normal with what we hear.

Tavis: If “The Artist” wins on Sunday night, it would join 1927’s “Wings” as the only silent films to win Best Picture in all of movie history.

That’s our look at some of this year’s nominated projects and players. Until next time, goodnight from Los Angeles. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.


Narrator: Every community has a Martin Luther King Boulevard. It’s the cornerstone we all know. It’s not just a street or boulevard, but a place where Walmart stands together with your community to make every day better.

Narrator: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: February 28, 2012 at 8:20 pm