Richard Dreyfuss doesn’t get it, but most grouchy, self-proclaimed keepers of the old Hollywood guard never do when it comes to creating an industry that gives a chance for everyone to thrive.
It was Sept. 8, 2020, and I was one week into my job as the awards editor for Variety when the Academy dropped its bombshell news that as part of its Aperture 2025 initiative, the organization was introducing new representation and inclusion requirements for submitting in the best picture category. There are four standards, and a film must meet only two in order to be eligible. So naturally, the news designed to promote and encourage diversity in the Hollywood system was met with divisive reactions. Some, such as Viggo Mortensen, said, “It’s about exclusion, which is discrimination.”
Others like comedian and actor Andy Samberg pointed out the apparent loopholes in the Academy’s gesture: “The parameters if you look at them closely… you can have the ‘whitest’ cast in the history of cinema and still very easily meet them by just doing a few key roles behind the camera. People who have problems with it can fuck off.”
Now enters Dreyfuss, whose comments come during an interview on PBS’ “Firing Line With Margaret Hoover.” When asked about the standards that go into effect this year, the 75-year-old actor responded, “They make me vomit.”
Such a physical, dramatic reaction from the Oscar winner of “The Goodbye Girl” (1977), who at 30, became the youngest best actor winner until Adrien Brody, 29, won for “The Pianist” in 2002. I don’t recall the “What About Bob” star sharing his bodily nausea during some of Hollywood’s most significant moments of reckoning, such as the fall of disgraced figure Harvey Weinstein during the height of the #MeToo movement, the murder of George Floyd or even the current writers guild strike that’s halted the business.
But many may remember his bewildering appearance in the courtroom during the O.J. Simpson murder trial in 1995 — on the defendant’s side, no less.
This is yet another demonstration of the exhaustive behavior of the vocal “rebellious freedom fighters” in Hollywood. Talking heads like Bill Maher or former Fox and NBC personality Megyn Kelly have made careers out of sitting on the partisan fence with their versions of “both sides are bad,” but seem to only be on the record criticizing actions and policies that advocate for a better world for marginalized communities. In conversations with industry professionals not in favor of the guidelines, I’ve found the absence of a fundamental understanding of the rules, what they mean and how movies remain eligible.
With minimal effort on their part, the current 640-word document as it stands would not disqualify any film nominated for best picture, going as far back as 1980. That means the country-singing character piece “Tender Mercies” (1983), the dual-male-character war drama “1917” (2019) and the macho-gangster best picture winner “The Departed” (2006) all keep their pieces in Oscar history. And that declaration comes without the knowledge of studios’ executive teams or internship programs available during the respective eras.
But Dreyfuss still finds the flaws in the Academy’s motion.
One of the most jaw-dropping moments from Dreyfuss’ PBS appearance was when he invoked Laurence Olivier’s work in the 1965 version of the William Shakespeare classic story “Othello,” which featured the actor in Blackface.
“He played a Black man brilliantly. Am I being told that I will never have a chance to play a Black man? Is someone else being told that if they’re not Jewish, they shouldn’t play [in] ‘The Merchant of Venice’? Are we crazy?” Dreyfuss asked. “This is so patronizing. It’s so thoughtless and treating people like children.”
:: takes a deep breath ::
Mr. Dreyfuss… we live in a free world. If you feel inspired and spiritually driven to play the role of a prominent Black figure like Rosa Parks or the recently departed Harry Belafonte, you can produce, direct, write, star and self-distribute this hypothetical motion picture. If you want to keep the “purity” of art alive and wish to hire an all-white crew, you also can do so.
It may be helpful to know that Mr. Dreyfuss could be nominated and even win a second acting statuette for what he might call his “most important work” during his campaign tour. However, the best picture statuette from the over 9,600 members would likely not meet the prerequisites.
What makes Dreyfuss’ statement more ironic is Olivier’s work garnered him a lead actor nom. While acknowledging the time when “Othello” was filmed, we’ve also seen respected actors like Patrick Stewart, who starred in a 1997 production of the titular character, able to do so without resorting to Blackface.
Dreyfuss, and others in his controversial camp, consistently fail to address the derogatory and offensive stereotypes involved with “playing a Black person” when you’re not. They also won’t acknowledge such a practice does to the attempted erasure of Black actors. They only have the entitlement they possess to play any role they wish.
His comments further suggest the Academy’s guidelines, which are truly the bare minimum of telling Hollywood to get its act together, are pushing this alleged “race and gender war” conservative naysayers cite often. It fuels an arbitrary theory that qualified white men are being prevented from being gainfully employed in favor of unqualified BIPOC people to meet some arbitrary quota. Yet, any recent study examining the data shows a stalemate, even a regression, for BIPOC artists and stories. For example, UCLA Center for Scholars & Storytellers revealed in its report only 4.8% of experienced directors are female compared to 95.2% of experienced directors being male. And 16.3% of experienced directors are BIPOC, and the rest are white.
Also worth noting, “Othello” (1965) would also meet the proposed Academy criteria for best picture — thanks to production and costume designer head Jocelyn Herbert and the storyline focusing on a Black man (even though it wasn’t played by one).
“What is all this for if everything stays the same,” you might be asking yourself. One well-intentioned issue at a time, folks.