A Tone-Deaf Oscar Snubbed the Best Song Winner

Paulo Prada, a Colombian American, is a freelance writer based in Rio de Janeiro.

When Penelope Cruz and Salma Hayek took the stage at the Academy Awards ceremony on Sunday night, most viewers -- once they had taken in the merits of the stars’ slinky dresses and their physical attributes -- grasped the obvious: The Spanish and Mexican actresses were there to give the show a touch of Latin flair.

Indeed, one of Hayek’s chief responsibilities was to introduce Jorge Drexler’s “Al Otro Lado del Rio,” the haunting song from the Spanish-language film “The Motorcycle Diaries.” It was the first song in Spanish ever to receive an Oscar nomination for best original song.

But what followed was a travesty. Apparently, the show’s producers deemed Drexler, a respected Uruguayan songwriter, too much of a nobody to sing his own song live. Instead, they asked two famous Latinos -- Latinos, that is, with a substantial base of white, mainstream fans -- to perform it in his place. Never mind that the singer they chose, Antonio Banderas, isn’t really known as a singer. Or that his accompanist, Carlos Santana, is better suited to performing the wailing power-pop of his recent career than the subtle, acoustic dynamics that made the song poignant.


Gil Cates, the show’s producer, presumably approved Santana and Banderas as safe, viewer-friendly crossover alternatives capable of lending further glow to the show’s marquee. Ratings, after all, reign at a time when the public suffers from awards fatigue.

But by inserting two token Latino stars in place of the artist who wrote the music (and who sang it in the film), Cates insulted the song, the songwriter and the multicultural ideal the academy supposedly sought to toast. By presenting a makeshift, middle-of-the-road substitute, the ceremony belittled the very value of the song it was honoring.

Santana and Banderas, Mexican and Spanish by birth, struggled to perform a song whose roots lie in the slow, pulsating rhythms of folk music from southern South America. Imagine a Scotsman trying to wrap his brogue around hip-hop from Brooklyn or South Los Angeles.

Not surprisingly, Latin American media have been all over the story for a week. They noted that Hayek introduced the song only because Gael Garcia Bernal, the Mexican star of “The Motorcycle Diaries,” backed out of the ceremony in protest. The film’s Brazilian director, Walter Salles, last week issued a statement calling the exclusion “unethical,” “disrespectful to the author” and “ignorant of the cultural diversity that exists in Latin America.”

And Drexler himself told Clarin, an Argentine daily, that some of the singers suggested by producers filled him with “literal dread because they have no connection to what I do.” Among them, shockingly, was teeny-bopper icon Enrique Iglesias. What were these people thinking?

The hubbub is not about envy, egos or camera time: It’s about the inability of the ceremony’s producers to see beyond their broad-brush perception of ethnic difference.


When Drexler finally climbed onstage to accept the Oscar -- cameras earlier showed him cringing in his seat throughout the rendition -- he was defiant but noble. He sang a capella lines from his song and then muttered “gracias” and “thank you.”

Sure, the trophy means something. But in their scramble for blockbuster appeal, the producers undermined the academy’s recognition of his work and, by extension, the worth of the Oscar itself.