Well, the Oscars are coming up again, and I’m wondering if “diversity” will be an issue again. Certainly it wasn’t an issue at the Golden Globes, at least not for African Americans.
But I’ve been sort of simmering ever since Jada Pinkett Smith stirred the pot at last year’s Oscars. You want no diversity? Let me tell you about a segment of the population that’s been thoroughly ignored at entertainment awards ceremonies. I’m talking about Native Americans, aka American Indians.
In all of Oscars years, only one Native American has even been considered. Graham Greene was nominated for best supporting actor for his role as Kicking Bird in “Dances With Wolves.” He didn’t win. He should have.
But at least the Native American characters in Dances were portrayed by Native Americans. That alone was a departure from Hollywood norm, something that was almost unheard of for decades.
Major Native American roles in the movies have been played by Burt Lancaster, Burt Reynolds, Rock Hudson, Audrey Hepbun, Tony Curtis, Cyd Charisse, Victor Mature, Jack Palance, Jack Lord, Jeff Chandler, Clint Walker, Anthony Quinn and Dustin Hoffman. Every nationality in the book except Native American in that lineup.
Some who claimed to have Native American heritage appeared on screen as such, including Johnny Depp, Elvis Presley and Marlon Brando. I’ve never seen any definite proof of that heritage, but it’s not been disproved, either.
But there are dozens of fine Native American actors, Greene probably being best known, except for Jay Silverheels, a Mohawk who was Tonto in the Lone Ranger series. Jay Silverheels was the stage name of the man born Harold J. Smith.
Will Sampson of the Creek Nation, is the big guy who was Jack Nicholson’s pal as they took aim at Nurse Ratchet in “One Few Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” and Wes Studi, a Cherokee, has played the bad guy in a bunch of movies which featured Native American characters.
Studi was prominent as a bad guy in the most recent filming of “The Last of the Mohcians,” and as the warrior who led the Pawnee in every attack on the whites and Lakota (Sioux) in “Dances.”
Also prominent in Dances were Rodney A. Grant (Wind in His Hair), Tantoo Cardinal (Black Shawl, Kicking Bird’s wife), Floyd “Red Crow” Westermann (Ten Bears), Michael Spear (Otter), Nathan Lee Chasing His Horse (Smiles a Lot), Jimmy Herman (Stone Calf), Jason R. Lone Hill (Worm).
Other Native American actors in lesser roles in Dances included Percy White Plume, John Tall, Steve Reavis, Sheldon Wolfchild, Buffalo Child, Clayton Big Eagle, Richard Leader Charge, Doris Leader Charge, Redwing Ted Nez, Ryan White Bull, Maretta Big Crow, Marvin Holy and Otakury Conroy.
And that’s far from a full roster, so there’s no shortage of Native American actors — just a shortage of recognition for them.
Wes Studi is, in my estimation, the most underrated and overlooked of the more than 40 Native American actors available for roles today. He’s been in every motion picture calling for Native American portrayals in the last 20 years.
If anyone ever deserved an Oscar, it would be Studi for one film in which he was the star. For almost two hours, the tall, slender, hawk-faced Studi actually made me believe he was the short, squat, flat-faced “Geronimo.”
He’s that good.
One thing that’s gone right — Hollywood finally stopped putting Sioux warbonnets on every supposed Native American from the Apache to the Zuni. Used to be the entertainment capital thought the only way the dumb audiences could identify the Indians was if they were decked out in fans of feathers with trailing trains that would’ve done a wedding gown proud. As if we couldn’t figure out who was riding horses with no saddles, whooping and chasing cavalrymen.
Yes, I think African Americans are sometimes overlooked for awards, but at least they can’t be portrayed on film by whites. So how about more recognition of talent, not only for Native Americans, but for Asians and Latinos, who are also frequently played by whites. F’rinstance, Mickey Rooney as a Japanese in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” Come to think of it, though — no self-respecting Asian would have accepted that offensive caricature role.
And while I’m on the subject, which probably not many of you care about, who in the world thought Hollywood’s top honor should go to that depressing, gloomy movie about a rose-petal obsessed wanna-be child molester and his unfaithful murderous wife? I was even disgusted by the title, saw no beauty or anything American about “American Beauty.” Kevin Spacey and Annette Benning could have done much better in some other film.
There — now I can get down from Ms. Soapbox and let Mr. Walker take me to lunch.