It’s been years since I sat down and watched the whole Oscars. With a two-year-old, it’s hard to get out to the movies these days, much less afford a ticket on a one-income-household’s salary. All the pomp and glamour has seemed very much removed from my stay-at-home freelancer/mother-in-pajamas lifestyle--“And what are you wearing, Ms. Burnett?” “Target yoga pants and a CBGB T-shirt with toddler snot.”
This year, though, I had a stake in the action. A friend from high school, TJ Martin, was up for Best Documentary for his film “Undefeated.” I’d been following his excited Facebook posts for weeks, watching as the film generated buzz and began its climb toward an Oscar nomination. “How did I get in this picture?” he asked us, his beaming grin glowing between Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg.
Then last night, in the middle of helping my daughter go potty, I heard Gwyneth Paltrow and Robert Downey Jr. announce the nominations for Best Documentary. Running out to the TV, my child crying behind me, I watched ‘Undefeated’ win the Oscar, making TJ the first African-American director to win an Oscar for a full-length film.
“Holy crap,” was all I could manage as I stared, slack-jawed at the screen.
It’s incredibly surreal watching someone you know win an Oscar. As a veteran of the music industry, I’ve had my share of celebrity run-ins, and quickly learned the sheen of fame is usually a gloss covering up some seriously insecure, broken people. I’m no star-struck naif. But the shock of seeing someone you watched grow through adolescence excitedly swear as he clutches an Oscar in front of all of Hollywood, is palpable.
Better yet was the response from his friends and family. Within seconds, his Facebook page was crowded with congratulations so genuine and unguarded it was moving and hilarious to watch. There were no couched, media-slick soundbytes--just friends excitedly, sometimes inarticulately sharing in the moment with heart-felt love. Everyone was so proud of him and so pleased at his success--something I’m not sure many of the seasoned vets can count on when they win.
At a certain point, though, the inevitable question loomed: What have you done since high school? For me, and most of my friends that know TJ, that answer is, “um...” Straddling that line between early and mid-adulthood, we early thirties-types are suddenly being confronted with the idea that we’re bona fide grownups. Many of us have children. Most of us are functional adults, with jobs and the usual milestones of success to look back on. But we’re not, you know, famous.
I’d like to say that’s completely ok. My mature side is horrified at any inklings of envy I might have. But the truth is, we live in a society that values fame, money, and power above all else and rewards it accordingly. There are no Oscars for being a dedicated parent or working a mundane job in order to keep your family fed. Most of us are never going to be famous. Or rich. Or powerful.
TJ worked his butt off for that Oscar. He didn’t waltz in off the street and get it for being pretty (although you might notice he’s awfully cute). He and his partner spent nine months in Memphis filming it, collecting 500 hours of footage they then meticulously edited to tell the story. And this, after a career working on other documentaries and projects that few people saw. He earned that Oscar.
But wouldn’t it be nice if there were Oscars for teachers and fire-fighters and stay-at-home parents? Wouldn’t you like to get all dolled up in your re-purposed JC Penney prom dress and walk the red carpet through a throng of adoring fans? Maybe in an alternate universe. Until then, I'll just be happy that a really nice guy won a huge honor for making something beautiful.