Sandra Bullock deserved her Oscar; not so much for acting (most Oscar winners don’t win for their acting), but for avoiding the Meg Ryan trap. When you make your bones in Hollywood playing perky, adorable dormice, it can be murder (as Meg found out, to her cost) trying to leap into lead actress terrain. Meg’s downfall from America’s Sweetheart to America’s Bitchy Ex came about for many reasons (e.g. bad plastic surgery, marital infidelity, poor choice of roles), but mainly it was because you just couldn’t believe in her playing a grown-up. She lacked huevos (as the Spanish would say). Sandra, in contrast, looks like she could chop the huevos off a bull.
This story needs a strong woman at its centre. It’s about motherhood, not sports. Based on true events, it’s about how Leigh Anne Tuohy, a rich white resident of Memphis, Tennessee, decided to become legal guardian (i.e. “mom”) to Michael Oher, a poor black kid from the Memphis housing projects. In 2009, Michael Oher was a first-round pick for the Baltimore Ravens in the NFL draft (for non-sports fans; that means he now plays American Football). He is, in all ways, an ambitious and impressive man. But: 1) Sandra Bullock can’t play him. 2) There are a lot of sports movies where guys overcome adversity. 3) There’s nothing “heart-warming” about football.
If anyone knows what it’s like to be the real Michael Oher, it’s Sandra Bullock. A woman over forty in Hollywood has the same options as an African-American male in “the projects” (i.e. die, or start using drugs). Ok, so perhaps that’s exaggerating a bit, but between about 2002 and 2009, Sandra was more likely to be killed in a drive-by than to land a decent starring role. Her triumph in The Blind Side is not that she gets Leigh Anne’s barbequed accent right, or that she side-steps the patronising, plantation-owner aspects of Leigh Anne’s story, but that she – and not Julia Roberts – plays Leigh Anne Tuohy. Sandra has re-made herself (the way Julia has yet to) as a sexy, forty-plus, crowd-puller. Here, she looks like a lioness. When she squares up to Big Mike, it’s loud and clear who would eat whom.
The movie has the nuanced racial politics of The A-Team, but no-one’s pretending it’s anything other than Sandy’s show. There is a framing device where Michael is pressed by a young black woman to at least consider whether he’s being exploited. Mike, however, is hardly likely to raise a Black Panther fist. Instead, he blithely tells the young black woman that he’s “doing it for [his] family” (implying she should take a post-racial look at America). Leigh Anne’s motives aren’t to be questioned by a movie where the star is playing Leigh Anne Tuohy, but it would have been interesting to see what Spike Lee would have done with the same material.
As Michael, Quinton Aaron is asked to play-down the idea that Michael has a penis. He makes Hollywood’s usual Faustian pact for a black man to play lead opposite a white woman (i.e. no sex, and definitely no sex with the white woman’s daughter). Other than that, he’s allowed a reasonable interior life (though it’s interesting to note that Sandra’s reaction shots last longer than Big Mike’s tales of inner-city woe). Big Mike is there to tell us that he grew up around poverty and drugs, but that he prefers white people, thank yuh mam. Ok, so I exaggerate again, but if Big Mike was any more non-threatening to white people, he’d be a loaf of Wonder Bread.
Winning Oscars is about having clout in the movie business. It’s not enough for an actor to play a retarded alcoholic roller derby champion; he (or she) has got to be somebody. That’s why new kids don’t win Best Actor or Best Actress; they win in the Best Supporting category. When Sandra Bullock won her award, she won it because, like the real Michael Oher, she’s seen things that would give most grown-men nightmares, and she’s prevailed. Like Big Mike, Sandy has faced intolerance; she’s been in failed “projects” too; and she’s had men walk out on her. But Sandy is bigger for her ordeals. The lesson of her true-life story is: be your own Big Mike.