by by Maggie Lange

If states received Academy Awards for Most Nominated, the Ocean State might take home a gilded statuette in 2009. The committee nominated two Rhode Islanders for Best Acting awards, while three films screened at the Rhode Island International Film Festival received nominations in the Best Shorts category. For once, Rhode Island is off to Hollywood.

Usually, Hollywood comes to Rhode Island. Because of tax benefits passed in 2006 by the RI General Assembly, the Ocean State has played host to a wide range of television and film productions. These tax credits make filming here financially competitive with filming in Canada or overseas. The littlest state has been an inspiration--usually used for its sprawling mansions in films like Lolita, The Great Gatsby, Evening and Meet Joe Black. Showtimes' The Brotherhood used the backdrop of Providence industry to give grit to their show, while in the summer of 2007 a parade of imported yellow taxicabs transformed downtown into SoHo for the filming of 27 Dresses.
But the age of LA in RI is on the outs. In the wake of The Brotherhood wrapping up for good, Adam Short, producing director of the Rhode Island International Film Festival, explained to the Independent, "Hollywood isn't coming here anymore." The qualifying budget for tax credit is $300,000, which excludes many filmmakers. Even so, the RI General Assembly is reconsidering the existing credits. Short told the Indy "The tax benefits are slowly disappearing. We have filmmakers that like Providence--they like the architecture and how it looks and they want to do a project but the tax incentive is gone."
While Hollywood suns itself in California, the Rhode Island International Film Festival (RIIFF) ventures to bring in foreign imports. Three of the films that RIIFF selected received Oscar nods this year. The nominees picked up by the Oscars include a UK film, This Way Up, nominated for Best Animated Short. The winner of best short film overall at the RIIFF awards has received a nomination as well, an Irish live action short entitled New Boy. The other film nominated for an Oscar, Spielzeugland ("Toyland"), is an entry sent from Germany.
These three films join the 16 others that have made their way from RIIFF to the Oscars since 1999. The RIIFF selected these winning films from nearly 3,000 submissions. Of the 63 film festivals that are qualifying festivals for the Oscars, the RIIFF is the only one in New England.
As the producing director, it's up to Mr. Short to create editorial teams that determine criteria for winning films. "When it comes time to give awards, we're not necessarily looking for the film that looks the best. These are independents so we understand they don't have access to the same type of budget that bigger studios do," Short said. "We're not looking for necessarily the slickest film, but something that's original. We're looking for something that sparks our interest, that sparks controversy, or is a reinvigoration of an old idea."
This year, Rhode Island has been recognized for its creative ability as well as its editorial picks. Richard Jenkins, a former Artistic Director at the Trinity Repertory Theater downtown, garnered a Best Actor Academy nomination for his role in The Visitor. In that Tom McCarthy film, Jenkins plays a widowed college professor who encounters foreign squatters in his Manhattan apartment. The relationship between the mathematician and the Syrian drummer and his Senegalese girlfriend creates a compelling portrait of immigration in post-9/11 New York. Jenkins worked extensively with McCarthy to create this contemplative and alienated character, whom he plays seamlessly. This is Jenkins' first role as a leading man on the big screen; until now he has played supporting roles in a number of productions: the deceased family patriarch in Six Feet Under, the absent-minded psychiatrist in There's Something About Mary, three Coen brother's creations and Woody Allen's doctor in Hannah and her Sisters.
Despite his success in the movie world, Jenkins hasn't left Providence since he moved here in 1970 to join Trinity Rep. After 20 years of acting, he rose to the position of artistic director. He and his wife, who is a Trinity Rep choreographer, choose to remain in Providence to raise their two children.
Current Artistic Director Curt Columbus has only kind words about his predecessor: "We're thrilled that two of our former colleagues are being honored in this way. Both Richard Jenkins and Viola Davis are world-class talents, and we're proud to call them a part of our Trinity family. Richard Jenkins, in particular, shaped Trinity as artistic director for four seasons, and his work is still felt in what goes on stage today."
Viola Davis, Rhode Island's other contemporary claim to fame, played in several of Trinity Rep's shows before continuing to New York and Hollywood. The committee nominated Davis for an Academy Award for her performance in Doubt as a mother who learns that her son may have been molested. Davis is no stranger to awards. She won a Tony in 2001 for her Broadway performance in King Headley II and the National Board of Review named her 2008's Breakthrough Performer of the Year. And even though Davis has achieved a high level of success, like Jenkins, she is still true to her roots.
Davis described her childhood in Central Falls in no light terms, using the phrase "abject poverty" in an interview on The View. She credits the Upward Bound program at Rhode Island College for lifting her above her circumstances, and encouraging her onto secondary education.
Mariam Boyalia, Director of the Upward Bound Program at RIC told the Independent, "Viola was powerful, she was very focused. People might of [sic] said she should come up with a backup plan, but she convinced them her passion was strong and she pursued every opportunity available." Upward Bound has certainly received as good as it gave. These efforts included the creation of a scholarship program and a one-woman show fundraiser. Boyalia mentioned fondly that, "Throughout the years that have followed, Viola has never forgotten her family, her high school, her mentors, Upward Bound, or Rhode Island College."
The 81st Oscars will be held February 22 in Hollywood, but watching from Rhode Island now has almost as much glamour as watching from LA. Well, maybe not the glamour. But the Ocean State certainly shares a pint size portion of fame this year.

Don't turn the music on until MAGGIE LANGE B'11 is done with her speech.