Oscars: 'Alone Yet Not Alone' Singer Dismisses Critics of Surprise Nomination

A shot from "Alone Yet Not Alone"
A shot from "Alone Yet Not Alone"
 

As a mini-controversy develops about an Oscar-nominated song from a microbudget Christian film called Alone Yet Not Alone that few people saw, the singer, Joni Eareckson Tada, is confessing that she's as surprised as anyone that the Academy has recognized such an obscure song.

Eareckson Tada is a 64-year-old quadriplegic who runs a charitable organization that distributes wheelchairs to kids in developing nations. She's a devout Christian who has little to do with the entertainment industry and rarely goes to the movies. She grew up singing hymns but has no professional training. And her lung capacity is just 51 percent of what it ought to be -- so weak, in fact, that her husband needed to push on her diaphragm while she recorded the Oscar-nominated song to give her enough breath to hit the high notes.

"I'm the least likely candidate to record a song for a movie, I'll tell you that up front, so it's amazing," she tells The Hollywood Reporter. "It's amazing enough that a family-friendly movie with a Christian theme is nominated in any category for an Academy Award. Besides The Blind Side, which was wonderful, it's just not the norm."

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The Academy hasn't said whether it intends on inviting singers of nominated songs to perform during the March 2 telecast, as it has in the past, but even if it does she may turn them down for fear her physical condition would keep her from performing at her best.

As the singer, Eareckson Tada isn't nominated for an Oscar -- that honor belongs to songwriters Bruce Broughton and Dennis Spiegel -- but she nevertheless is aware that there's a contingency that objects to such an obscure work being nominated alongside songs from big-budget Hollywood productions that audiences saw in the millions, while Alone Yet Not Alone earned just $134,000 during its 21-day release.

"I read some of the blog posts and the negative responses, but I don't blame those people. I'd be scratching my head, too," she says. "I don't even know how this occurred. I don't know how the nomination process works, but I'm grateful. I think I give a good performance but not a great one, and I think that the Academy recognizing this humble, good little song is rather wonderful."

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One aspect of the controversy she had been unaware of is the charge that Broughton's nomination is somehow tainted because he served on the Academy's board of governors for the music branch for nine years. One songwriter who didn't get a nomination told THR that the Alone Yet Not Alone nomination was "disheartening to a lot of artists." The Week magazine called the situation "shady." Others who are questioning the Academy's choice include The Wire, Spin and HitFix. And Broughton's involvement is not the song's only connection to the Academy, as its arranger, William Ross, was the musical director for last year's Oscar show and he will reprise that role again this year.

But conspiracy theories and sour grapes from those not nominated this year don't impress Eareckson Tada.

"There are always films up for Oscars that Americans never heard of … and words like 'allegations,' 'clandestine' and 'twisting arms' aren't ever associated with those other nominations, so why this one?" she asks. "Yes. it's unusual, but somebody must have liked the song very much. I don't know how the process works, but I do know nobody twisted arms or pushed their influence."

See her sing the nominated song in the video below.

"If he could influence the Academy in that way, he should have got a lot more nominations over the past 30 years," quips Ray Costa, who helped Broughton promote the song to Academy members. "There were 75 songs being considered, and this one was different. It was inspirational and integral to the movie."

Eareckson Tada grew up in Maryland in a home where her parents regularly sang hymns. Today, she lives in Calabasas, Calif., and runs her charitable organization, Joni and Friends, in nearby Agoura. She has been a quadriplegic for 47 years.

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"When I was 17, I went swimming in the Chesapeake Bay and didn't check the depth of the water. My head hit the sandy bottom and my neck snapped back and I crunched my spinal cord at the fourth cervical level," she recalls. "I was deeply depressed. I cannot tell you how suicidal and despaired I was to know that I'd never use my legs and hands again. Suffering is something that either drives you away from God real fast or drives you to Him. I just happen to be one of those people who was driven to Him."

She says she got involved with Alone Yet Not Alone when she sang at a Christian broadcaster's conference in Nashville and reunited with some "distant friends" who were raising money for the project. Her only professional experience until singing the film's title song has been the recording of a couple of records where she sang religious hymns.

"Music and that whole realm is just so far from my everyday life today, so to wake up and see that something I did was up for an Academy Award just had me giggling," she says. "I thought, 'What? This is incredulous.' This is something that happens to Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood, not me!"

Alone Yet Not Alone is based on a true story about two sisters captured by hostile American Indians around 1755. Since the song's nomination, some are attacking the film for its negative portrayal of Native Americans. "They give out Oscars for racism now?" asks the website NativeAppropriations.com, for example.

"Hollywood always talks about the dark horse film, and man this horse is so dark," says Eareckson Tada. "This is such an out-of-left-field thing. The God of the Bible delights in using ill-equipped, unskilled and untrained people in positions of great influence, everyone from Joseph to David. It's all to show that it's not by human prowess or brassiness, but all by God's design. I don't know if that's what he's doing here, but it's worth giving pause and considering."

Email: Paul.Bond@THR.com

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