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Bess Myerson’s ‘Ugly Daughter’ finds forgiveness onstage

Working through emotional dysfunction of early years

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‘Miss America’s Ugly Daughter: Bess Myerson and Me,’ starring Barra Grant, opens Feb. 8 at the Greenway Court Theatre, 544 N. Fairfax Ave., where performances continue through March 24.

Asked to describe her mother, actress and playwright Barra Grant marvels, “She was gorgeous!”

“She was 5’10, she had a beautifully sculpted face, and flowing black hair,” she continues, with a kind of awe.  “And she used her beauty, all throughout her life.”

Grant herself, in contrast, was a chubby child, with frizzy hair, buck teeth, and no immediately discernible talents. In other words, she was an “ugly duckling” – something to which many of us can relate.

What was different for her was that her mother was Bess Myerson.

Myerson was the first and only Jewish Miss America, reason enough for a claim to fame; but she was also an accomplished pianist, television personality, New York City’s first Commissioner of Consumer Affairs, an adviser to Mayor Ed Koch, a candidate for U.S. Senate, and a national spokesperson against anti-Semitism.  Then, in her sixties, she fell in love with Carl Andrew Capasso, a sewer contractor half her age with Mafia connections, and allegedly helped him to bribe a judge.  Though she was acquitted after a four-month trial, the highly-publicized scandal turned her fame to infamy.  She passed away in 2014 at the age of 90.

Growing up in the shadow of such a spectacular mother has its challenges, according to Barra Grant – who was Myerson’s only child, the product of her first marriage, to Allan Wayne, and who later adopted the surname of her stepfather, Arnold Grant.

“My mother always wanted me to be very pretty, so she could show me off,” she says.  “And I never was.”

“When you grow up,” she reflects, “even if you improve, you carry this picture of yourself as a little girl. I became OK looking, but the initial part of my spirit was very affected”

To help work through some of the lingering emotional dysfunction of those formative years with her famous mother, Grant – who is herself a veteran actress, producer, screenwriter, playwright and director – wrote “Miss America’s Ugly Daughter: Bess Myerson and Me,” which is now being remounted by director Eve Brandstein at Hollywood’s Greenway Court Theatre after a successful, sold-out run last summer in the Edye at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica.

In the show, Grant performs as herself, having a middle-of-the-night phone conversation with her mother, who is played by actress and stand-up, Monica Piper.  “We like to bill it as a one-woman show with two characters,” she says.

“I learned through a lot of people over the years,” she muses, “that their relationships with their mothers were not great.  They just don’t talk about it – it seems irreverent to do that.  But I found a way to talk about it through comedy – when you do that, it’s acceptable.”

“The two of us banter throughout the show,” she continues.  “It makes it way more interesting than just me standing there talking to myself.  It’s much more dramatic to have her enter my life, that way.”

Giving Myerson a presence in the play helps to ensure the audience will get the chance to connect with her side of the story, too; whatever difficulties may have arisen from being raised an iconic beauty queen, Grant has been able to find empathy for her mother’s struggles, too.

“She had a tough life,” she says.  “She was given her title during a time of anti-Semitism – people spit on her, there were signs saying, ‘No Jews No Dogs.’  She had a really tough experience, and after that she carried with her a kind of fighting mentality – which is great – but she didn’t really carry a sense of how to love, or how to parent.”

“And she was unlucky with men,” Grant continues.  “My real father drank too much, and he was an embarrassment.  My stepfather was extremely wealthy – but also an embarrassment.  And then she fell in love with the guy in the mafia – and that doesn’t help your life.”

“His friends were called ‘Manny the Fish’ and ‘Louie the Horse,’” she adds, chuckling.  “She was close to the Gambino crime family because she thought they were lovely people.”

To add perspective, Grant reminds us that, though her mother’s fame has faded from public consciousness in recent decades, at the height of her fame, Myerson was big news.

“People followed her scandal in the same way they followed Marilyn Monroe – it was so profound,” she says.  “Her whole world collapsed because her reputation was ruined.  Her life was changed drastically.”

Though Grant’s experience as the child of a famous icon might seem a bit specific for the rest of us to relate, she thinks it strikes a chord with anyone trying to measure up to the image presented by a role model.  By way of explanation, she tells a story about listening to a radio interview with filmmaker John Waters one day while she was driving.

“He said, ‘Look, all I wanted was to be Bess Myerson when I was growing up – she was my hero, I wanted to look like her, I wanted to be her – but somebody else was her, so I couldn’t be.’”

Myerson’s name on the lips of one of America’s biggest queer icons speaks volumes about her appeal and relevance to a certain generation of gay men – who traditionally have embraced the stories of strong, powerful women who struggle to rise above the obstacles in their lives.

Still, “Miss America’s Ugly Daughter” is not the Bess Myerson story – rather, Grant says, it’s the story of how to grow up and move on.

“One of the themes is that it’s okay for your mother not to be your role model,” she says.  “You can pick someone else, like your kindergarten teacher or a sweet-looking lady on the subway.”

“And of course,” she hastens to add, “you have to try and forgive the trespasses that your mother may have inflicted on you – because she is your mother, and it’s healthier to love her.  It’s too hard to continue with a chip on your shoulder.”

“Underneath the struggle, unless you have it really bad, there is always love,” she stresses.  “You can’t help but love your mother – you just have to figure out how.”

Ultimately, though, Grant wants people to know that her show is, above all, “very funny.”

“It’s a chance to laugh at all this,” she says.  “That’s important, to try and step back and see things comedically.  People love to laugh, and what I love to do is to find that humor – that’s the essence of the show.”

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For better and for worse, Oscar makes history again

The biggest queer moment of the night was Ariana DeBose’s historic win as the first out woman to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress

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Jessica Chastain accepts the Oscar for Lead Actress (Screenshot/ABC)

HOLLYWOOD – By the time you read this, the biggest moment from this year’s Oscars will already be old news – but before we can move on to a discussion of what the wins and losses reveal about the state of LGBTQ+ representation, inclusion, and acceptance in the Hollywood film industry, we have to talk about it anyway.

When Will Smith stepped up onto that stage at the Dolby Theatre to physically assault Chris Rock – a professional comedian, doing the job he was hired to do in good faith that he would be safe from bodily harm while doing it – for making an admittedly cheap and not-very-funny joke, it was a moment of instant Oscar history that overshadowed everything else about the evening.

There’s been enough discussion about the incident that we don’t need to take up space for it here – tempting as it may be – other than to assert a firm belief that violence is never a good way to express one’s disapproval of a joke, especially during a live broadcast that is being seen by literally millions of people.

Smith, whether or not he deserved his win for Best Actor, succeeded only in making sure his achievement – which could have been a triumphant and historic moment for Black representation in Hollywood, not to mention an honorable cap for his own long and inspiring career – will be forever marred, and the palpably insincere non-apology that replaced what could otherwise have been his acceptance speech was only a textbook example of putting out fire with gasoline.

Yet that polarizing display also allows us a springboard into the much-more-important subject of queer visibility in the movies, thanks to another Smith-centered controversy (and there have been so many, really) from the early days of his career that sheds a lot of light on the homophobic attitudes of an industry almost as famous as playing to both sides of the fence as it is for the art it produces. 

Back in 1993, riding his success as a hip-hop artist-turned actor and springboarding from his “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” fame into a movie career, Smith appeared in the film adaptation of John Guare’s critically-acclaimed play “Six Degrees of Separation,” playing a young con artist who preys on a wealthy Manhattan couple (played by Donald Sutherland and Stockard Channing), convincing them to give them money and even move into their home before they eventually discover the truth after coming home to find him in bed with a male hustler.

Unsurprisingly (it was 1993, after all), some of the play’s homosexual content was “softened” for the film version, but Smith was still called upon to perform in a scene depicting a kiss between himself and co-star Anthony Michael Hall. After initially agreeing, he abruptly changed his mind (due to advice from friend-and-mentor Denzel Washington, who warned him that kissing a man onscreen could negatively impact his future career) and refused to do the kiss, necessitating the use of camera trickery to accomplish the scene.

Decades later, Smith expressed regret at the choice, saying it was “immature” and that he should have gone ahead with the kiss – but the story nevertheless provides some insight about the pressure placed on actors in Hollywood to appear heterosexual for their audiences, no matter what.

Despite advancements, that pressure continues today – and Smith, whose unorthodox and publicly rocky marriage already has put him under an arguably unfair microscope, has also been alleged (most notoriously by trans actress Alexis Arquette, who made controversial comments about the couple shortly before her death in 2016) to be participating in a sham marriage in an effort to conceal both his own and his wife’s queer sexuality, may well have been feeling it when he was moved to assert his masculinity at the Academy Awards.

True or not, such rumors still have the potential for ruining careers in Hollywood; and while it may be a facile oversimplification to assume that homophobia was behind Smith’s ill-advised breach of decorum, it’s nevertheless a topic that goes straight to the heart of why the Academy, even in 2022, has such an abysmal track record for rewarding – or even including – openly queer actors on Oscar night.

Granted, things have improved, at least in terms of allowing queerness to be on display at the ceremony. On Sunday night, out Best Actress nominee Kristen Stewart attended with her fiancée, Dylan Miller, with the couple sharing a public kiss on the red carpet as they arrived for the festivities; the trio of female hosts – which included out woman of color Wanda Sikes alongside fellow comedians Amy Schumer and Regina Hall – called out Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill with a defiant joke during their opening presentation.

Jessica Chastain – who won Best Actress for playing unlikely LGBTQ ally and AIDS advocate Tammy Faye Baker in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” – made an emotional speech decrying anti-LGBTQ legislation and advocating for all people to be “accepted for who we are, accepted for who we love, and to live a life without the fear of violence or terror.”

Numerous participants in the evening, whether male or female, queer or straight, took the opportunity to push gender boundaries with their couture for the evening (thanks for that, Timothée Chalamet). Elliot Page, joining Jennifer Garner and JK Simmons for a “Juno” reunion, became the first trans man to be a presenter at the Academy Awards. Finally, two beloved queer icons shared the stage for the evening’s finale, as Lady Gaga was joined by wheelchair-bound Liza Minnelli, frail but full of obvious joy at being there, to present the award for Best Picture.

The biggest queer moment of the night, of course, was also one of the first: Ariana DeBose’s historic win as the first out woman to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Accepting the award (for which she was considered by far the front-runner), De Bose proudly highlighted her queerness alongside her other intersecting identities, saying “You see an openly queer woman of color, an Afro-Latina, who found her strength and life through art. And that is, I think, what we’re here to celebrate.”

The evening’s other queer nominees did not fare so well. “Flee,” the Danish documentary about a gay Afghan refugee’s escape from his homeland as a teen, made history by scoring triple nominations as Best Documentary Feature, Best International Feature, and Best Animated Feature, but it went home empty-handed. Stewart – the only other openly queer acting nominee – lost to Chastain for Best Actress, and the divisive but queer-themed “Power of the Dog” lost its bid for Best Picture to “CODA,” as well as all of its multiple acting nominations – though its director, Jane Campion, already the first woman to be nominated twice for the Best Director Prize, became the third woman to actually win it.

Of course, the Oscar, like any other award, should be bestowed upon the most deserving nominee regardless of sexuality, gender, or any other “identity” status, and it seems unreasonable to expect all the queer nominees to win – though some might feel a little reparative favoritism wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing when it comes to balancing the scales. Even so, nobody has a chance to win if they’re not even nominated, and that’s where Oscar has repeatedly and persistently fallen short.

According to a recent report from Professor Russell Robinson, Faculty Director of Berkeley Law’s Center on Race, Sexuality & Culture, analysis of more than half a century of Academy Award acting nominations reveals that out of 68 nominations (and 14 wins) for performers playing LGBTQ roles, only two nominees – neither of whom went on to win – were LGBTQ-identified in real life.

While actors like Tom Hanks (“Philadelphia”), Sean Penn (“Milk”), Penélope Cruz (“Parallel Mothers” and “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”), and the late William Hurt (“Kiss of the Spider Woman”) garnered career-boosting acclaim along with their Oscars for playing queer characters, there are no equivalent success stories for queer actors playing straight roles – indeed, only eight openly queer performers have gotten a nomination for ANY role, queer or otherwise, in the entire history of the Oscars, and no transgender performers have ever received one at all.

While one might believe statistics like this are at least beginning to change, bear in mind that both of Benedict Cumberbatch’s two Oscar nods so far were for playing gay men, including this year’s “Power of the Dog” (the first was for playing real-life queer hero Alan Turing in “The Imitation Game”).

The topic of whether straight actors playing queer characters is appropriate at all is of course a hotly-debated one, with reasonable arguments – and queer voices in support of them – on both sides. We won’t attempt an in-depth examination of that issue here, but what is obvious even without the above statistics is that the Academy – or rather, looking at it from a wider scope, Hollywood itself – has a deeply-ingrained prejudice against queerness, regardless of how loudly it proclaims itself to be an ally.

Yes, progress has undeniably been achieved, especially within the last few years; the strong showing of films like “Moonlight,” “Call Me By Your Name,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and other LGBTQ-oriented titles on recent Oscar nights has gone neither unnoticed nor unappreciated.

Yet the Academy – as well as the industry it represents – has a pattern of responding to criticism over its inclusiveness in half-measures. It takes more than a hashtag to end sexual harassment of women in the workplace, no matter how many times it’s flashed on the screen during an awards show, and it takes more than a token nomination every few years to give an underrepresented population a fair place at the table, too.

This year’s ceremony was not without its missteps. The choice to bump awards from the broadcast for time while simultaneously devoting minutes to a James Bond tribute or a performance of a song (“We Don’t Talk About Bruno” from Disney’s “Encanto”) that wasn’t even nominated; accompanying the annual “In Memoriam” tribute to the year’s dearly departed with a choreographed dance and vocal performance; the insensitivity of rushing some winners (like “Drive My Car” director Ryusuke Hamaguchi, accepting when his film won for Best International Feature) to finish their speeches while letting others continue uninterrupted; these and other ill-considered decisions had already blemished the show before “the slap heard ‘round the world” ever happened.

Nevertheless, this Oscar show felt more authentic than many in recent memory. There was a raw, unpredictable quality to it, perhaps rooted in the Academy’s controversial choice to relegate several “lesser” awards to a pre-show presentation, that manifested itself in the uncomfortable response of the audience to the often sharp humor of hostesses Sikes, Schuman, and Hall – who mercilessly skewered Hollywood’s say-one-thing-do-another approach to sexism, racism, homophobia and more throughout the show, often with visible apprehension over how their jokes might land.

Nervousness notwithstanding, their presence and their comedic calling-out of industry hypocrisy, along with the willingness of the celebrities in the house to laugh about it, was an element that lifted the proceedings enough to make them not only bearable, but sometimes even enjoyable.

That doesn’t mean the Academy can rest on its laurels. While it’s become common for their awards show – and all the others, for that matter – to serve as a kind of celebrity roast, where jokes are made and laughed at about the industry’s hot-button issue of the day, the persistent problems in Hollywood can’t be corrected just by allowing its workers to blow off steam by making fun of them once a year.

The film industry thinks that by going along with self-mocking humor about its own misogyny, racism, and homophobia, it gets a pass to continue ignoring the growing demand from the public to eliminate those same toxic ingredients from its standard recipe.

Perhaps the Smith incident, based as it seems to have been in a show of masculine dominance, will prompt some soul-searching within the entertainment community over its own rampant hypocrisy. Let’s hope so, because if the Academy Awards are ever to be truly inclusive in their representation of every segment of our society, no matter who they are or who they love, that’s something that has to happen first in the movies their prizes are meant to honor.

We’ve come a long way, to be sure, but we’re not there yet.

******************

Jessica Chastain Accepts the Oscar for Lead Actress:

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First openly queer woman of color, Ariana DeBose wins an Oscar

It was DeBose’s first academy award nomination and Oscar. The awards ceremony was held at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood

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Ariana DeBose in 'West Side Story' courtesy of Amblin Entertainment & 20th Century Studios

HOLLYWOOD – North Carolina native Ariana DeBose, who identifies as a Black-biracial queer Afro-Latina, won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress Sunday for her portrayal of Anita in Steven Spielberg’s film adaptation of West Side Story.

The film was based on the 1957 Tony award-winning Broadway musical production directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins with music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and a book by Arthur Laurents.

DeBose in the category for Best Supporting Actress has previously won a Screen Actors Guild Award, a Golden Globe and a BAFTA. She was awarded the Oscar over her fellow nominees in the category including Aunjanue Ellis for King Richard, Kirsten Dunst for The Power of The Dog, Jessie Buckley for The Lost Daughter, and Dame Judi Dench for Belfast.

“Imagine this little girl in the back seat of a white Ford Focus. When you look into her eyes, you see an openly queer woman of color, an Afro Latina, who found her strength in life through art. And that’s what I believe we’re here to celebrate,” DeBose said in her acceptance speech.

“So to anybody who’s ever questioned your identity ever, ever, ever or you find yourself living in the gray spaces, I promise you this: There is indeed a place for us,” she added.

It was DeBose’s first academy award nomination and Oscar. The awards ceremony was held at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood and were hosted by Out lesbian comedian Wanda Sykes, actors Regina Hall and Amy Schumer.

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The Associated Press: Oscars Special, editor’s picks

For the first time in two years, the Academy Awards are rolling out the red carpet at Hollywood’s’ Dolby Theatre

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Los Angeles Blade graphic

NEW YORK – As the entertainment, motion picture and film communities gather in Los Angeles for the 94th annual Oscars ceremony at the Dolby Theater in Hollywood Sunday evening, the editors of the Associated Press have curated the news agency’s top six stories prior to this evening’s gala.

Oscars set for return to normal, except all the changes

LOS ANGELES (AP) — For the first time in two years, the Academy Awards are rolling out the red carpet at Los Angeles’ Dolby Theatre for what the film academy hopes will be a…Read More

The Oscars are tonight. Here’s how to watch or stream live

The 94th Academy Awards are right around the corner with just enough time to squeeze in watches of some of the 10 best picture nominees before the lights go down in the Dolby…Read More

Oscar Predictions: Will ‘Power of the Dog’ reign supreme?

Ahead of the 94th Academy Awards, Associated Press Film Writers Lindsey Bahr and Jake Coyle share their predictions for a ceremony with much still up in the…Read More

List of nominees for the 94th Academy Awards

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Nominees for the 94th Academy Awards, which were announced Tuesday via a livestream. Winners will be announced on March 27 in Los Angeles. Best actor:…Read More

Oscars to celebrate ‘Godfather,’ ‘Bond’ anniversaries

LOS ANGELES (AP) — James Bond didn’t get an Oscar nomination this year, but that doesn’t mean that he won’t be part of the ceremony. It’s the 60th anniversary of the first…Read More

Oscars celebrate May, Jackson, Ullmann and Glover

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Elaine May was the last to arrive and the first to leave at the Governors Awards on Friday in Los Angeles. Her fellow honorees, Samuel L. Jackson, Liv…Read More

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