It's Hard Out Here for a Gay Cowboy Movie
The truth is, I like and admire Crash and Brokeback Mountain about equally as films, and I think they're comparable as political platforms. Crash chases its human canvas of class- and race-based suspicion into some impressively bracing exchanges of dialogue, however much it veers at times into an almost embarrassing lack of aesthetic finesse. Brokeback Mountain distills its potent essence of sexuality- and class-based emotional prisons into some haunting tableaus of tragic reticence, however much it veers at times into an almost embarrassing surfeit of self-beatification. They both engender more than just devotion in their biggest fans, but a kind of epiphanic and deeply personal release; others are left utterly cold. I didn't feel more or less "manipulated" by either project, and I'm not sure that manipulation is such a terrible thing in art (or if it's ever even absent from art). Brokeback invests such compassionate confidence in its binding argument, that repressed desire wrecks not just couples but entire vicinities of people, that it permits itself some rather maximal emphases within its pretense of restraint. Crash also errs frequently on the side of exclamation, and occasionally, in its case, on the side of idiocy, though for all it can seem like self-flagellating liberal agitprop, I haven't yet heard a convincing one-line summary of the film's contentions, and some of the urban dismay it so amply uncorks more than justifies, to my mind, its tinniest rhetorical gaffes.
Everyone who cares about the Oscars will take his or her own measure of the films' respective merits, but even those who harbor no doubt, in either direction, about which is the better film do not seem to be responding to the Best Picture outcome in those terms. I know the theories that are probably flying, the ones that felt the most immediate and the most hurtful last night at Nathaniel's party, in a room literally full of gay men who were all expecting a watershed cultural moment. Even as one of the few who liked other movies better, I was surprised by how summary and instantaneous the loss of Brokeback felt, but at risk of willful naïveté or quietism about the perceived homophobia underlying Crash's win, I would like to submit the following, just as a partial tonic... not because I think I know better than anyone else, or because I doubt that homophobic discomfort with Brokeback's premise probably factored in, but just to assert that even if that's true, I don't think it's a full or even necessarily a primary explanation.
1. Two-for-One In the forty years from 1956 through 1995, the Academy only split the Picture and Director prizes five times, or roughly once every eight years. In the eight years since 1998, however, they've made the same split four more times, or once every two years. Clearly AMPAS voters are cultivating a taste for recognizing two films they love by divvying up their two top awards, virtually always by giving the more critically certified film the Director trophy: Saving Private Ryan, Traffic, The Pianist, and Brokeback, as compared to the more ephemeral but widely ingratiating Shakespeare in Love, Gladiator, Chicago, and Crash. Clearly there was strong Academy support for both Brokeback and Crash this year, and just as clearly, neither film appealed widely enough to power a sweep: Crash couldn't win a Song Oscar over a rap track about pimping, and the determinedly picturesque Brokeback couldn't swipe Cinematography over the disturbingly vacuous Memoirs of a Geisha, which won as many Oscars as Crash and Brokeback did (and King Kong, too, for that matter). I'm betting that both films inspired fierce factional support but not consensus enthusiasm. I seriously doubt Crash nicked the win by very much of a margin, especially as it wouldn't have required more than a few fence-sitters to lean the outcome in this direction. (I'm thinking that no one, no one, voted for Brokeback and Haggis.)
2. DVD Palooza Crash's early release date would have been a liability for a different kind of film, but for a word-of-mouth hit that friends pass to friends, and that sports easy points of entry for all kinds of viewers, it was surely a major asset. Academy members have had months, not weeks, to watch Crash on DVD, even before Lions Gate's carpet-bomb strategy with its DVD screeners during January and February, and not to mention that Crash retains its basic virtues on a small screen while Brokeback loses some of its own. For all the railing we heard last night against DVD culture, it's clearly shaping Academy tastes and behaviors as much as those of the public.
Note, too, that I am not necessarily arguing that voters who watched Crash, on DVD or otherwise, didn't watch Brokeback. But the chance to watch Crash earlier and more often; to have it be the film you watch because your friend or colleague exhorts you to, instead of the film you watch because it's a front-runner and it arrived in the mail; to have it be the film that seeps in and lingers, overriding the glut of movies you might be watching in the short space of awards season... this is a formidable advantage, especially for a film whose appeal rests entirely on empathetic connection, a gut-level response to contemporary life (and in the city where most voters are living and watching, no less).
3. Critics Groups Are Not Crystal Balls Oscar voters are people who vote their minds and hearts, and who are largely sure they know movies better than critics do, notwithstanding annual embarrassments like the Narnia Makeup citation. That Brokeback swept so many critics' groups and even the Guild groups (minus, crucially, the enormously influential Screen Actors Guild) needn't imply a huge amount in terms of the film's Oscar destiny, though it sure seemed that way. Ang Lee, having missed a Director nod for Sense and Sensibility and a widely predicted Director trophy for Crouching Tiger, to say nothing of Oscar's unceremonious rejection of The Ice Storm, is clearly not a unanimous pet of AMPASwhereas, given Million Dollar Baby's triumphs last year, Haggis' writerly brand of morbid fatalism quite clearly plays to the group's appetites. It was always going to be close, even on grounds of artistic sensibilities. Moreover, the sheer number of critics' prizes won by Brokeback Mountain can be a misleading argument, both because there are so many more critics groups in existence now than there were even ten years ago, and because the smaller critics groups are even bigger copycats of each other than the Academy is of any of them.
4. And Yes, They Might Be Homophobic ...and anyone who is, or who just wasn't taken or moved by Lee's movie, wouldn't likely make the error of throwing a vote to certain bridesmaids Capote, Good Night, and Good Luck., or Munich. Anyone with a Brokeback beef could only look to Crash as a viable trump card.
So, adding all of this together, I don't know what, or whether, to make anything of Crash's come-from-behind Oscar coup except to say that in retrospectfully admitting that I was as dumbfounded as anyone in the moment of its victoryit doesn't seem quite so unaccountable, whether or not Hollywood homophobia is ascribed as a motivation. I am positive that Hollywood, and the AMPAS voters in particular, are appreciably more conservative than their popular-media reputation as bastions of political and sexual radicalism would have us believe. Then again, though, the kind of conservatism that I expect predominates in Hollywooda bottom-line conservatism eager for new niche markets, a self-congratulatory conservatism that enjoys the pathos of subversive subjects well-accommodated into benign and pretty packages like Brokeback'scould easily have endorsed Lee's film, if they really felt passionate about the picture. I'm just not sure that they did, and I'm not comfortable with assuming that sexual or political attitudes wholly explain the gulf between admiration (three wins, after all) and adoration (which no single film this year seems to have inspired).
And let's not forget, too, that even if we're totally displacing the myth that the Academy endorses the "Best" and focusing solely on their role as arbiters of the zeitgeistand yes, I realized on Monday night that I really wanted their seal of approval, however dubious and no matter the film, to grace an accomplished and popular gay moviethat those of us, God help us, who measure social progress in Hollywood by the yardstick of the Academy came away with quite a few victories. For all the hoopla when Halle and Denzel won their dual Oscars in '01, where's the excitement that a non-white filmmaker has finally won Best Director? And doesn't Crash possess by far the most multicultural cast of any Best Picture winner, making a strong case for more films to be written and cast across the spectrum of race? It's easy to see actors, that massive plurality of the Oscar voters, being eager to champion that kind of cause, and if, as a white gay man, I didn't feel so immediately partial to the plights of gay representation, I might have had a clearer head through the weeks of Oscar build-up that a film with white American, Asian-American, African-American, Latino and Latina, and Arab-American leads was a strong dark horse for the top prize. Yes, I'd like for Crash to be better: on my own gradient of historical Best Picture winners, it hovers alongside films like Marty, Terms of Endearment, The French Connection, and Rocky, which exert a certain kind of competent populist appeal within quite evident limitations of style and form. Brokeback would have fallen into just the same zone, even though I can see now that for personal and communal reasons, I would have been happier to watch it join the constellation. But honestly, the grudge I feel about this is not very large, and the homophobia that may or may not play into it has nothing like the degree or the weight of much more destructive homophobias that are evident in so many other places. This isn't to step on the toes of anyone else's hurt feelings, especially people whose hurt feelings matter a lot to me, and whose reasons for being hurt I so fully relate to. But this is just my 2¢.
More Oscar responses later.