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Road to the Oscars: Alfre Woodard

No “Oscar roles” for women of color, says BU alum

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Alfre Woodard in a BU production of Thesmophoriazousae in 1974. Photo by BU Photography. Photo of 2004 Commencement below by Albert L'Etoile

To mark this Sunday’s Academy Awards presentation, BU Today has featured interviews this week with alumni who have their own Oscar histories. We conclude the series today with Alfre Woodard (CFA’74, Hon.’04), who was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for her work opposite Mary Steenburgen in 1983’s Cross Creek.

Alfre Woodard had made only two feature films when she landed the part of Geechee, a young woman living in the Florida bayou who befriends the real-life writer Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, in the critically praised Cross Creek.

Directed by Martin Ritt (Hud, The Great White Hope, Sounder, Norma Rae) and based on Rawlings’ memoirs, Cross Creek recounts the story of how Rawlings came to leave her husband, move to an isolated orange grove in the 1920s, and go on to write one of the most beloved books in children’s literature, The Yearling. The film, which starred Steenburgen as Rawlings, was nominated for four Academy Awards.

While Woodard did not win an Oscar for her work in Cross Creek, she did go on to get offers for bigger roles, particularly in television films and series. Her performance in a three-episode story arc on Hill Street Blues won her the first of 4 Emmys (she’s been nominated 16 times) the same year as her Oscar nomination. She also won Emmys for her work in the pilot episode of LA Law, as Miss Evers in the television drama Miss Evers’ Boys, and for a guest appearance on The Practice. The actress, now 57, was a series regular on TV’s St. Elsewhere, and she recently spent a season residing on Wisteria Lane in Desperate Housewives.

Woodard has appeared in many feature films, including Lawrence Kasdan’s Grand Canyon, John Sayles’ Passion Fish, and Spike Lee’s Crooklyn. These days, she can be seen in the recurring role of Ruby Jean Reynolds in the cult hit True Blood on HBO, and as Lieutenant Tanya Rice on the TNT drama series Memphis Beat.

BU Today talked with Woodard about her Oscar nomination, the current state of the Academy Awards, and what it’s like for an African American to work in Hollywood.

BU Today: Did you have to audition for the role of Geechee?
Woodard:
Yes. One of the funny stories about that film is that I just loved director Marty Ritt. They had decided that Mary Steenburgen would read with a handful of people they thought would work. And of course, Mary and I clicked, because she’s from Little Rock and I’m from Tulsa. I went in to the audition, and they asked, “Would you like some water?” And I said, “Well, you know, actually, I would love a cup of tea.” And they went and got me some tea, and Mary has given me grief about that ever since. She says, “I think they gave that role to you because you were so bodacious.”

One of the things that clicked for Mary and me was that our characters were cross-culture, cross-economic, cross-region, and cross-race. But they identified each other as kindred spirits in terms of women taking control of their lives and not leaning on a man.

Do you remember your reaction when you found out you’d been nominated for an Oscar?
I certainly do. A friend of mine, E. Lamont Johnson, who did a freshman-sophomore year at BU and was two years behind me, had been dying of AIDS, and I’d been at the hospital for weeks. We’d met at BU, on that CFA fourth floor. And he was a dear, dear, dear friend. I got the call that morning about Lamont going on. So we were in the throes of that, weeping and all. And then half an hour later, my agent called and told me about the Oscar nomination.

I couldn’t believe it. We didn’t really have a campaign because there was no money. And I said, “Oh, that’s really great,” and I got excited and exhilarated about it. I was on the phone going, “Now wait, how do you get it?” Because I really didn’t know what the Academy was, who they were, or how it worked.

I got off the phone and told my fiancé, who’s now my husband. I said, “I just got nominated for an Oscar.” And we just kind of went, “Whoa, that’s so good.” And we were laughing, and we hugged each other. And then I started weeping. I said, “But Lamont died. Oh my God.” And we started crying about Lamont. It was just like a roller coaster within 15 minutes. I lived in Manhattan Beach then. And I just ran down to the water in my pajamas and jumped in the ocean, and I laughed and I cried.

What do you remember about the Oscar ceremony?
It was like being at the Super Bowl, the circus, a wedding on the fourth of July, everything rolled into one. It was like the craziest kind of rave. It’s sanitized now. They’re very strict. They say, “Don’t chew gum. Don’t yawn. Sit up straight and look happy. Smile, because the camera is going to be going through the audience.” And if you have to pee, they have seat sitters who jump in your seat next to your beloved or your friend. And you can’t come back in for like another 20 minutes. You have to stand outside. It’s more fun watching it on TV than it is being there.

Also, the Oscars really have nothing to do with the finest work in cinematography or acting or makeup or costumes or screenplays that year…occasionally, somebody really deserving wins the Oscar, but usually not. Because, frankly, maybe the best actor didn’t even get nominated that year. Probably the best actor for that role wasn’t even hired to do it.

I am actively a member of the Academy. I’m on the actors’ branch that brings in membership and on the international outreach committee, and I believe very much in the Academy. I’ve been on the membership committee for 12 years or more and we really set out in the last decade to try to increase the ranks of the younger generation. The other thing that I fight on that committee is that just being a big moneymaker is not necessarily a qualification to be in the Academy. You don’t go for the top moneymakers. You still try to figure out who those people are that work in a way where you feel their judgment would add to us helping make decisions about who we want to acknowledge…it’s the kind of thing that’s constantly evolving, and we’re constantly trying to make it live up to what we want it to be as an Academy.

Did your Oscar nomination have an impact on your career?
No, not at all. I think now there’s more of an impact. It’s always had an impact on a white male career. And probably a white female. But it had no impact whatsoever on an African American woman’s career then. Now it gives people heat and a boost and cachet. But when I got mine, no, not at all.

Are there more opportunities for African American actors today than when you started in the business?
You know what I would say? It hasn’t changed toward really including African American women who are bona fide dramatic actors or even comedic actors. The last years, there have been African American people who are now part of Oscar history who hadn’t even made a commitment to acting, not to mention training. I don’t know how you kick-start a career now if you are a serious actor or a trained actor, especially an African American person, because if you’re lucky, you might get to be number three or four on a call sheet.

I don’t think that the business—and when I say the business I mean the entire system—differentiates between people of color. They know the difference between Kate Winslet and Cate Blanchett and, say, Britney Spears or some girl they find in a beauty contest in a mall. But the business doesn’t know the difference between—if it’s a woman of color, whether she’s brown, yellow, or red—they don’t know the difference between them and any other brown, yellow, or red woman who might strike their fancy and who they think will somehow make more money. They look to people of color to bring the audience. They don’t care where they’ve made their money before—whether it’s singing, rapping, or just being so unusual that it’s a novelty. That’s what I find.

There is such a thing, unfortunately, as an Oscar picture. There is such a thing as an Oscar role. And that’s the thing. Women of color never get a chance at those roles. What the business promotes (because it thinks that’s where it’s going to make money) is people of color—and especially men of color—doing certain things that are highly personality-driven, and they are not Oscar fare.

As a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, who are you going to root for Sunday night?
I’ll tell you what I am excited about this year is Anne Hathaway and James Franco as hosts. I think it’s really lovely to bring it back to two actors. I think this really was not a good year for film. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t a handful of films that were good, but when you’ve been making films all year long and all you’ve got is a handful, that’s not a good year.

And I think that coincides with something I was terribly against—the whole idea of nominating 10 films for Best Picture. It’s like being on a peewee sports team where everybody gets a frigging blue ribbon. So this year’s 10 nominees—it’s like I might as well have the video from my kid’s birthday in there as well.

Read more in our series “Road to the Oscars,” about Oscar winners Olympia Dukakis, Michael Williams, and Corinne Marinnan.

John O’Rourke can be reached at orourkej@bu.edu.

3 Comments

3 Comments on Road to the Oscars: Alfre Woodard

  • Anonymous on 02.27.2011 at 3:45 pm

    Tell it, sista!

  • Anonymous on 02.28.2011 at 11:55 am

    I feel like Halle Berry might disagree with this assessment.

  • Ron on 03.19.2011 at 2:03 pm

    Well, it’s a little bit ironic… Best Picture nominees were 10 when there were maybe not even 5 worthy ones. To “compensate” this, Best Animated Feature Oscar nominees were just 3 although there were probably at least 5 worthy animated films. I saw there were some people on the Web critisizing this year Awards (like these 2 articles, for example, http://www.reviewmaze.com/2011/02/academy-award-nominations-2011-oscars.html and http://www.reviewmaze.com/2011/02/oscar-winners-at-2011-academy-awards.html) but still there is not enough publicity concerning the real problems of the Academy. Most of the folks are just writing about the ceremony and its faults instead of going a little bit deeper on the substantial issues.

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