By Lorraine Ali
Going to television once meant your film career was over. Now it can mean you will be bestowed one of the highest honours in Hollywood: an invitation to join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
In a move to diversify the 90-year-old organisation’s mainly white, mainly male ranks and perhaps render #OscarsSoWhite obsolete, the academy invited an unprecedented 774 new members to join last week.
And television, it appears, provided many of those names.
Phylicia Rashad (The Cosby Show), Donald Glover (Atlanta), Rami Malek (Mr. Robot), Debbie Allen (Grey’s Anatomy), Sharon Gless (Cagney & Lacey), Priyanka Chopra (Quantico) and Lou Ferrigno (yes, you read that right — the Hulk of the ’70s) and TV legend Betty White are among the invitees.
Sure, they’ve all done work in motion pictures, but that’s not where their success or notoriety lives.
Just try to name an indelible Betty White film role without turning to Google. And did you know Chopra from Hollywood, or Bollywood, before Quantico?
The inclusion of TV folk in the academy is a highly visible symbol of how the caste system of Hollywood has changed. TV is no longer less than film, if only because there is much more cross-pollination of talent.
Over the past decade, film stars have gone to TV in hopes of Emmys, which they often got: Kate Winslet, Al Pacino, Julianne Moore, Michael Douglas, Jessica Lange. Now television is infiltrating the Oscars.
Given that TV is inarguably the ascendant medium, it’s only good business for film to make what was once known as small-screen talent part of its fold.
NBC’s Saturday Night Live is and was home to several of the names on the list of academy invitees: Leslie Jones, Kate McKinnon, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Molly Shannon.
And premium and basic cable gave the academy several standouts. HBO boosted the careers of Adam Driver from Girls and Riz Ahmed from The Night Of, AMC made Jon Hamm a household name with his role on Mad Men, and Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele — writer-director of this year’s buzzed-about horror hit Get Out and invited by multiple branches of the academy — sprang from Comedy Central’s Key & Peele.
To be eligible to join, these actors had to have, according to the academy, “a minimum of three theatrical feature film credits, in all of which the roles played were scripted roles, one of which was released in the past five years, and all of which are of a calibre that reflect the high standards of the Academy.”
It does not say that we must remember those roles.
But their honoured position as potential academy member is not totally out of left field. Bill Mumy, whose most notable role was as the young Will Robinson in Lost in Space, has been a member since 1975.
It has, however, ruffled the feathers of veterans who say the academy is diluting its rarefied ranks by inviting in prospective members who haven’t paid their dues.
Ironically, Mumy is one of those critics: Don’t “capitulate to a handful of whiners,” he wrote in a Hollywood Reporter guest column in 2016.
But where else was the Academy going to look for eligible industry professionals to diversify its organisation?
Not its own backyard: A 2016 report by the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism found that 97 percent of major studio film directors are male, 87 percent are white and only 21 percent of the top executive positions are held by women.
Just 3.4 percent of film directors were female, and only 7 percent of films had a cast whose race and ethnicity reflected the country’s diversity. (Minorities make up nearly 40 percent of the US population.)
Television has shown to be, at least anecdotally, the more diverse medium.
From Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Harlots to FX’s Atlanta and The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story to Netflix’s Master of None and Luke Cage to ABC’s “black-ish” and Fresh Off the Boat, TV appears miles ahead of film when it comes to productions made by, written and starring women and people of colour. But it too has a long way to go.
According to a 2015 report from UCLA’s Ralph J. Bunche Center for African-American Studies, just 5.9 percent of the creators of scripted broadcast shows were racial minorities in the 2012-13 TV season, 28.9 percent were women and 19 percent of programs were ethnically balanced.
At least networks who did take chances on shows made by or starring women and people of colour — Scandal, Orange Is the New Black, Mr. Robot — are reaping the rewards in ratings and Emmys.
And if you can make it in TV, you can make it anywhere. Even film. —Los Angeles Times/TNS
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