Picture it: 1973, at the 45th Annual Academy Awards ceremony, attended by the most celebrated filmmakers, actors and creators in the world.
Two cherished living queens in black history, Diana Ross and Cicely Tyson, sat in the audience awaiting the result as Raquel Welch and Gene Hackman rattled off the Best Actress nominees that year.
The complete list of nominees for the Academy’s favorite leading lady included Liza Minnelli (Cabaret), Ross (Lady Sings the Blues), Maggie Smith (Travels with My Aunt), Tyson (Sounder), and Liv Ullman (The Emigrants). The coveted golden Oscar statuette would end up being awarded to Minnelli for her portrayal of Sally Bowles in Cabaret.
Recently on Twitter, writer, actor, and comedian @NinaSerafina posted a picture of Ross and Tyson in the audience and added a key fact in the resulting thread: it was the first and only time two black women were nominated for Best Actress in the same year.
Let’s marinate on that like fresh plate of ribs: first and only. We’re not talking wins, but simply for your consideration. It is 2019, and we are nipping at the heels of the upcoming 91st Academy Awards. In fact, as the LA Times pointed out, 1973 marked a beginning of the mission of what we now know as #OscarsSoWhite—it was the first time so many non-white actors were nominated in acting categories, period.
And as Logo’s New Now Next pointed out, the fact that three black actors were up for leading acting awards in the same year wouldn’t happen again until 2002, when Denzel Washington (Training Day), Will Smith (Ali), and Halle Berry (Monster’s Ball) were all up for awards. As we know, Washington and Berry won that year, in a historic triumph.
The reminder tweet was timely for two reasons: February is Black History Month, as well as the month of the 91st Academy Awards telecast. Looks like BHM = Black History Month and Black History Movies.
“Forty-five years ago, I was offered a movie entitled Sounder. It was the first major movie that I would have done in my career,” said Tyson at the 2018 Governors Awards.
As staff columnist Monique Judge mentioned when she attended the historic event, Tyson’s honorary award acceptance speech was preceded by a salutation montage of the iconic actresses’ work and provided a look into her role as Rebecca Morgan in Sounder. Judge noted the Academy highlighted the historical moment of Ross and Tyson being nominated in the leading category at the 1973 ceremony.
As for Ross, one of my mom’s favorite movies is the very same Billie Holiday biopic that earned the diva a nomination—and as such, sat my little butt down in from of the television as she popped in the VHS tape. I was entranced by Ross’ portrayal as she breathed a unique life (and voice) into the late jazz singer, whose unmatched voice crooned through the speakers of my mama’s stereo. It was like Lady Day... and night, yet the portrayal was proper.
This Black History Month, I honor these two women who undoubtedly birthed a tradition of black excellence. It’s been 46 years since they made Oscar history; let’s hope it doesn’t take much longer than that to open up the space our black talent deserves.