Ruby Dee keeps a list of the awards that she and her late husband, Ossie Davis, have won on a sheet a paper. Part of the reason she does that is so she can keep track of them. And part of it is because after more than 60 years in the business she’s still humbled by the honors — big and small.
Yet despite all the accolades she’s received — an Emmy, a Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement award, a Women in Film Crystal Award and a couple of NAACP Image Awards — Dee, 83, has never won or even been nominated for an Oscar.
Given the length of her career and the depth of her talent, that’s something that needs to be corrected.
Although most of the Oscar buzz surrounding her latest film, “American Gangster,” has been swirling around Denzel Washington’s head — and rightfully so — Dee’s performance as the mother of Harlem drug lord Frank Lucas (Washington) was brief, but memorable and noteworthy.
But when the O word is mentioned in connection with her performance, Dee initially let loose a low groan during a telephone interview from her home in New York and asked: “Who? Oh no, I don’t think so.”
Dee later said, however, that she would be honored. Like that long list of awards she’s already won, an Academy Award would be “meaningful in terms of encouragement and affirmation. It’s like your peers patting you on the back and saying ‘I like you Ruby, you’re OK.’
“An Oscar nomination? That would be a very satisfying thing I’m sure. I would appreciate the thought. It would be like taking your hat off as an actor to all the people who walk through you.”
She’s especially fond of Mama Lucas. Playing a real-life character who is no longer living can be daunting, but Dee aptly tapped into all of the nuances of a woman who bought into the theory that ignorance is bliss. And she really brings it in the moment she confronts her son about his illegal activities.
“She wanted so much for him to be successful that she turned her head to what she suspected but couldn’t do anything to control,” said Dee when describing her character, Mama Lucas. “She did let him know, however, that she disapproved when it became apparent to her that they all were in danger and that Frank had influenced his brothers and involved them in his criminal activities. I think she even knew then that it was too late. All she could do at that point was hope and pray.”
Considering that Dame Judi Dench got an Oscar for the few minutes she appeared on screen in “Shakespeare in Love,” there’s no reason why Dee’s performance as Mama Lucas should be overlooked in January when the Academy nominations are announced. If not for this role, than for her collective body of work that includes such classics as “Raisin in the Sun” and “No Way Out,” as well as for her work with Spike Lee in “Jungle Fever” and “Do the Right Thing.”
She’s due. Overdue.