A few years ago, when Halle Berry won an Oscar for her performance in Monster’s Ball, she and a few other people made a big deal out of it. Personally, I thought that was one of the most egregious examples of miscasting I’ve ever seen. Ms. Berry played the widow of a recently executed death row inmate who had not had a date in fifteen years. (The length of her husband’s stay on death row.) I would very much like to know what planet it is that women who look like Halle Berry go dateless for fifteen years. However, what those people apparently overlooked was that Ms. Berry was not the first black actor to have won an Oscar. In fact, she was the fourth. (I said, very much to my collaborator’s surprise.)
Looking at those four actors tells us a lot about how Hollywood has changed in the past eighty years. The first black actor to win an Oscar was Hattie McDaniel in the role of Mammy, a house servant, in Gone with the Wind. The most famous line spoken by a black actor in that film was not Ms. McDaniels’, rather from Butterfly McQueen who played Prissy and said, “Lawdy, Miss Scarlet, I don’t know nothing ‘bout birthin’ babies.”
Years later, Sidney Poitier became the first black man to win an Oscar in Lilies of the Field. In the early years of his career, he was stuck playing straight-arrow, righteous characters who were, in the expression of that long-ago time, “a credit to their race.” The most memorable lines from Lilies of the Field were no doubt Mr. Poitier singing hymns with his costars. Mr. Poitier played Homer Smith, a handyman whose costars are five white women, all nuns: Mother Maria, Sister Agnes, Sister Gertrude, Sister Lisbeth and Sister Albertine. I don’t think there could be any more dramatic contrast in roles than between Mr. Poitier’s Homer Smith and the role that Louis Gossett Jr. won his Oscar for in 1982’s An Officer and a Gentleman, Marine Gunnery Sergeant Drill Instructor Foley. Foley doesn’t sing any hymns; he puts the fear of God into his officer candidates.
Hattie McDaniel played a house servant, Sidney Poitier plays a handyman and Louis Gossett, Jr. is the man. Forgive my warped sense of humor, but one of my favorite parts is when, during a serious brawl, Gunnery Sergeant Foley says to Richard Gere’s character, Zach Mayo: “How about that, MAY-O-NNAISE? Your blood’s just as red as mine.”
Kindly note this public service to my readers. If you haven’t seen An Officer and a Gentleman, it isn’t a good idea to throw down with a Marine Drill Instructor.