It doesn’t make sense to blame homophobia for the failure of “Brokeback Mountain” to win the Best Picture Award. There is a word to describe the difficult choices made by the Academy and it is seldom used these days—that word is “fair.” The Academy made a series of choices that spread the honors among a group of unusually excellent pictures.
The Academy acted fairly by giving “Crash” badly needed publicity while demonstrating that they considered the gay cowboy picture excellent. It won three substantive awards—Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Direction, and Outstanding Score. If homophobia ruled the Academy, Philip Seymour Hoffman would not have won best actor for his portrayal of Truman Capote.
This was a unique year—the year of niche pics. These films reach different audiences. Some flicks open wide for everyone, others for large target audiences likes young men. Niche pictures are aimed at smaller groups. Slasher pictures like “Texas Chain Saw Massacre” can have large cultural impact, but they seldom win prizes. Action pictures also have their niche as do children’s films when they are fun for the whole family.
Then there are art films, “cinema,” sometimes wryly labeled adult ignoring the more common association of the word with pornography. This year, art films dominated, placing first-rate movies in competition with each other.
Quality pictures are supposed to have limited audiences but lately they have broken through their boundaries. Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11,” the anti-Iraq War picture now available constantly on cable, is a documentary that attracted a large audience. “Brokeback Mountain” expanded from its initial limited release and found a national audience, but one that is still small in Hollywood terms. In fact, Michael Moore’s documentary grossed more money than did each of this year’s best picture nominees.
There were no blockbusters like “Titanic”—pictures that attract everybody regardless of demographic group. This is a trend, according to the Los Angeles Times. 2005 was the fourth year that “none of the major Hollywood studios could claim credit for making and releasing a best picture winner.” It is also explains an eight percent drop in the TV ratings for the Oscars from last year—the public hadn’t seen the movies and interest in the show was consequently muted.
Election victories have multiple explanations. Consider the veteran, even notorious Hollywood reporter Nikki Finke’s sage observation that “The forces that hate Hollywood salivated for ‘Brokeback’ to win Best Oscar.” Wise people don’t follow the opposition’s game plan. Hollywood’s enemies would have claimed the liberal elite endorsed homosexuality and adultery.
But I reject Finke’s other speculation that “Brokeback”’s defeat reflected Hollywood’s “distaste” for homosexuality—a homophobia that “could be on par with Pat Robertson’s.” Finke combines a finely tuned intelligence with a publicist’s love for extravagant statement. “Surely, you jest,” I thought and believe that is exactly what she is doing.
Distaste was a two-way street for this year’s Oscars. Some people may be made uncomfortable by homosexuality, others are discomforted by the exposure of racism. I deliberately didn’t see “Crash,” which I thought would just leave me angry. I have had my fill of Hollywood’s rednecks and Ku Klux Klanners. But after the Screen Actor’s Guild named it Best Picture, I turned on pay-per-view and watched. “Crash” surprised me and won my affection with its intelligence. The movie offers multiple explanations for racism while often denying that it has deep roots in the human psyche. At its heart, “Crash” is optimistic and intellectually satisfying. Its structure is more complicated and in my opinion superior to “Brokeback.”
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a “Brokeback” fan. The anguish caused by hiding love away evoked bitter memories of my years in the closet. I thought it a remarkable job of empathy and still believe that. Nonetheless, “Brokeback” is conventional in its presentation—deliberately so to heighten the accessibility of the picture. The fractured narrative of “Crash,” in contrast, laced with images foreshadowing the climactic ending, irritated some people. Its loose structure also illuminated how strangers are still connected in an urban society. Making sense out of urban life in my opinion is a priority task.
The picture’s organizing principle is the pairing of Ryan Phillipe as the idealistic police officer opposite Matt Dillon’s embittered racist cop. Though it flirts with melodrama, the movie verges into greatness when the racist cop performs a heroic deed and the idealist engages in a sordid cover-up. The movie rejects the common American delusion that good people do only good things and in an imperfect world an idealist can escape causing harm. In “Crash,” good people do bad things and bad people do good things. It is an adult view of the world and its makers deserve recognition.
The movie shows the myriad ways circumstance and self-interest affect character. Other racists “Crash” explores include African Americans who use their beliefs to justify crime and an angry woman whose unhappiness is vented on minorities. By refusing to make bigotry a monopoly of one group, the movie is a healthy start towards a new dialogue on race. This is a solid achievement and every bit as important as sympathy and understanding for homosexuality. The Academy had several deserving candidates for Best Picture and the choice of “Crash” seems reasonable.
The Hollywood Reporter wrote about how “Brokeback Mountain” hit a wall on its way to Best Picture, with the public saying they would wait for the DVD before seeing the picture. “Crash” never caught the public’s attention. It is now returning to theaters and hopefully will benefit from its award. If it doesn’t, it will show that racism is a more difficult subject for the public to handle than homosexuality.
The Academy showed its appreciation for “Brokeback” and gave its highest honor to “Crash,” helping both the LGBT movement and the civil rights movement. There is a word for helping two allies achieve their goal and that word is fairness.
FOOTNOTE: In February, I wrote that relations between the president and the vice president had chilled based on statements by the White House press office. Apparently, this is inaccurate. Dick Cheney is still the detail man on public policy. According to The New York Times, he negotiated the settlement on domestic surveillance with the U.S. Senate. The compromise permits the executive branch to conduct surveillance for up to 45 days without a search warrant.