Twice Is Nice

Documentarian contends for a second Oscar with a story of a salon that helps cancer patients.

January/February 2013

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Twice Is Nice

Image: Courtesy Cynthia Wade

When Cynthia Wade got news of her latest Oscar nomination, the glitz of Hollywood’s biggest night could hardly have seemed farther away.

A winter windstorm had knocked out power and heat to her home in snowy western Massachusetts. So Wade, MA '96, spent the early morning making peanut butter sandwiches for her kids by candlelight, her cell phone propped against the window in hopes of getting a text.

The good news arrived around 8 a.m. via a one-word message from her publicist. “Yes” was all it said, but that was enough. Wade had a nomination for Best Short Documentary—her second in five years.

It was a fittingly unglamorous moment for a documentarian fascinated with life’s unvarnished struggles. Wade won an Oscar in 2008 for Freeheld, the story of a dying policewoman’s battle to allow her girlfriend to inherit her benefits, a right not granted to same-sex couples.

Her latest nomination is for Mondays at Racine, a 39-minute HBO film that takes its name from a Long Island beauty salon that provides free services once a month to women dealing with the ravages of cancer. Wigs, false eyelashes, all in the name of feeling pretty . . . and normal. As the movie’s tag line goes: “When your life is at stake, why is losing your hair so hard?”

The movie focuses on two of the salon’s clients as they fight breast cancer. One of the women has battled the disease for nearly two decades.  Just watching the trailer can make you tear up, but Wade says she isn’t a glutton for heartache. There’s plenty of humor in Racine, too. 

But as a filmmaker she is drawn to stories where the stakes are high—otherwise, why even bother? “If I am going to take an audience somewhere, I really want to take them somewhere.”

Cynthia Wade stands with Lina Hart and Cambria Russell, who is sitting.TOUGH SUBJECTS: Wade (top) followed Hart (right) and Russel (bottom) during their most trying moments. (Photo: Courtesy Cynthia Wade)

Making the film required following the women through some of their most intimate moments. Cambria Russell received a double mastectomy and Linda Hart saw her relationship with her husband grow so frayed that he refused to take part in the movie—or even answer Wade’s phone messages—for nine months.

Eventually, though, Wade won him back with polite persistence: “She brought everything out gently and took her time,” says Warren Hart, who is reunited with his wife. “She knows how to get it out of you.”

Russell, who endured the surgery and radiation treatment while mothering her young children, says Wade’s questions became a sort of therapy, her crew a source of friendship. “She has a sense of when to back off and when to push ahead,” Russell says.

Wade is explicit about the role the Farm played in her career—outside of lessons learned in the field, she says everything technical she knows about documentary filmmaking comes from Stanford’s master’s program. Learnings from professor Jan Krawitz, director of the Program in Documentary Film and Video, stuck with her. “Her voice is in my head every time I shoot,” Wade says.

One doesn’t get rich making short documentaries—even Oscar-caliber ones. The 2008 award opened many doors, but Wade still attends to commercial projects to help pay the bills.

She’s working on a documentary set in Indonesia, though she doesn’t reveal details for fear that publicity may reduce access. Wade is also a producer on the feature-film adaptation of Freeheld, slated to star Ellen Page (of Inception and Juno fame).

Her return to the Oscars comes with one negative: What to wear? As a director, Wade says, she is much more comfortable behind the camera than in front of one, especially on such a scrutinized night. “It’s way safer to be in your pajamas ragging on somebody’s looks than to be in that fishbowl,” she says. There’s also the anxiety of what to say. Freeheld was championed by gay rights groups, and Wade felt a responsibility to use her 30 seconds on stage to press the issues of equality at the core of the movie.

This year, Wade plans to enjoy the Oscars more—and the pleasure of sharing it. She and the movie’s producer plan to bring the sisters who run the salon as their dates. “These sisters who have given up Mondays for years and years and years unpaid to care for these women, it’s only right to bring them,” she says.

Sam Scott is a senior writer at Stanford.

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