In the cold, harsh light of day, I’m probably even more upset at Brokeback Mountain losing Best Picture than I was last night, when I was too stunned at Jack Nicholson intoning “Crash” to do much more than go out afterwards and get drunk at an empty gay bar. I’m disappointed not just because Brokeback was the better film (and in fact, of the five nominees, I may have even preferred Capote) — but because I get a real sense of satisfaction when the result that history will best remember (Best Picture Oscar™ winner) accurately reflects the zeitgeist. I mean, I could really care less about the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but its victory at the 2003 ceremony was the result of a three-year swell of admiration and thus inevitable. But in a year when Brokeback Mountain swept most of the precursor awards and became a veritable cultural phenomenon — the most talked-about film of the year — it galls when a film like Crash sneaks up to take the top prize.
Granted, the win wasn’t completely out of left field. Crash did win the Screen Actors Guild Award for best ensemble, which is a frequent predictor of Oscar glory (the last underdog Best Picture winner, Shakespeare in Love in 1998, also won the SAG over front-runner Saving Private Ryan). And online prognosticators like the insightful Nathaniel Rogers at The Film Experience had been bracing themselves for a Brokeback vs. Crash face-off for weeks.
In this column from last month, Rogers maintains that if Brokeback were to lose, considering the vast amount of support in its corner leading up to the big day, homophobia would have to be a factor. Upon first reading that, it seemed to me like a facile explanation, but Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan makes a sharp point in his post-Oscar column today:
Despite all the magazine covers it graced, despite all the red-state theaters it made good money in, despite (or maybe because of) all the jokes late-night talk show hosts made about it, you could not take the pulse of the industry without realizing that this film made a number of people distinctly uncomfortable.
Further, the fact that Crash also tackled a hot-button issue was a point in its favor:
…for people who were discomfited by “Brokeback Mountain” but wanted to be able to look themselves in the mirror and feel like they were good, productive liberals, “Crash” provided the perfect safe harbor. They could vote for it in good conscience, vote for it and feel they had made a progressive move, vote for it and not feel that there was any stain on their liberal credentials for shunning what “Brokeback” had to offer. And that’s exactly what they did.
I’m reminded of LA Weekly critic Scott Foundas’s note about Crash, in the Slate Movie Club: “Welcome to the best movie of the year for people who like to say, ‘A lot of my best friends are black.’”
More commentary and speculation can be found on the impressively comprehensive site Oscar Watch, which is also ruminating today on the Academy’s conservatism. Although I’m not sure I completely buy editor Sasha Stone’s analogy between Crash and Rocky (was Crash really a “tearjerker”?) — the most salient point of comparison between the two films is a piece of trivia she didn’t name: Rocky (1976) was also the last Best Picture winner to nab as few total Oscars (three) as Crash did this year. Which is especially odd when it seemed like another film was going to run away with it.