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What's the real reason for Crash's Oscar upset?

At this point, I figured I'd be through with the Oscars and ready to concentrate on upcoming summer popcorn flicks such as the X-Men and Mission: Impossible sequels. After all, my annual modus operandi is to cover the nominations, offer predictions and then be done with it -- leave the reviews of the actual broadcast, the acceptance speeches and the cleavage-enhancing gowns to the rest of the media world. But that was before Crash upset Brokeback Mountain for the Best Picture Oscar at last week's ceremony.

In the decades that I've been following the Academy Awards, I have never before seen a Best Picture selection generate such immediate controversy as this year's selection. Of course, there have been upsets before -- Shakespeare In Love over Saving Private Ryan -- as well as plenty of dubious selections -- Titanic over L.A. Confidential. But in all past cases, the choices could be rationalized with the usual reasons: box office too great to ignore, a movie tapping into the national zeitgeist, bullying campaign tactics by Harvey Weinstein, etc. One of the reasons that arguably influenced this year's choice is different from usual -- and far more disturbing.

We're talking, of course, about the love that dare not speak its name -- apparently even in open-minded Hollywood. Homosexuality. At a time when anti-gay initiatives are spreading like wildfire across the US, here comes the Academy -- with its headquarters in the bluest of Blue States, no less -- to smack down a groundbreaking drama as if it were a pesky gnat there for the sole purpose of causing the members irritation and discomfort. Instead of Brokeback, the Academy awarded a different "message" movie, one that wouldn't ruffle anyone's feathers.

First, a confession: I didn't hate Crash like so many other critics and audience members did. Yes, it was easily the weakest of the five Best Picture nominees and didn't deserve its lofty nomination. But despite its flaws, I gave it a soft 3-star review, stating that it "would be even better had [writer-director Paul Haggis] eased up on the gas every once in a while: For all its relevant themes and clever plotting, the film's overly didactic nature and moments of whopping coincidence dilute some of its impact."

For people passionate about cinema, Oscar season becomes tricky when movies we somewhat enjoy inexplicably become top-tier award contenders, beating out more deserving titles and souring our own memories. Gladiator was a decent example of popcorn escapism, but watching it take the Best Picture Oscar over the likes of Traffic and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was infuriating. Similarly, while Life Is Beautiful devolves into an extended episode of Hogan's Heroes, I enjoyed the first half of the film (pre-concentration camp material) enough to give it a modest recommendation; today, in the wake of its Oscars for Best Actor (Roberto Benigni) and Best Foreign-Language Film, I can't hear the title without doubling over with stomach pains. Now, Crash has joined this dubious company.

Thinking back to this year's Oscars, most people will recall the names of winners like Reese Witherspoon and George Clooney. Yet the two names that for me will always be synonymous with this year's contest are Roger Ebert and Nikki Finke.

Ebert, of course, named Crash the best picture of the year and tirelessly championed the film. A veritable one-man publicity machine, he wrote extensively about the movie -- even comparing Haggis to Charles Dickens -- and pooh-poohed the opinions of those who didn't share his enthusiasm. In one of his columns, he stated, "More than one critic described Crash as 'the worst film of the year,' which is as extreme as saying John Kerry was a coward in Vietnam." (Huh?)

While practically every critics' group was handing its top prize to Brokeback, Ebert and his sycophant/TV co-host Richard Roeper were presumably strong-arming the Chicago Film Critics -- tellingly, the sole critics' organization to name Crash the best film of 2005. And the ink wasn't even dry on the Oscar nomination list when Ebert proclaimed Crash would upset Brokeback for the Best Picture Oscar. I can't help but believe his blessing helped steer some Academy members afraid to vote for Brokeback (more on that later) to check Crash on their ballots. As for now, Ebert's continuing post-Oscars tirade against the Crash critics marks him as the biggest "sore winner" since James Cameron watched his Titanic earn 11 Oscars and still felt the need to lambast those who didn't jump on his bandwagon.

Nikki Finke, meanwhile, is a writer for LA Weekly, and she predicted a Brokeback loss and Crash victory all the way back in January, before the nominations were even announced. She insisted both then and in a post-nom column that, based on her conversations with various industry insiders, Academy members weren't nearly as liberal as they pretended to be and that there was no way in heaven, hell or Hollywood that people would vote for a movie about homosexuals. At the time, it appeared that maybe Finke was just fulfilling the expected role of an alternative journalist and trying to stir things up; now, she looks like a psychic. After the Oscars, Finke noted that "Brokeback lost for all the Right's reasons."

Is Finke correct? Did Brokeback lose because of homophobia lurking deep within the Academy's bowels? It's one of several theories and, sad to say, it's the one that makes the most sense to me. Other theories have been advanced, some more credible than others. The most absurd is that the Academy voted against Brokeback because it didn't want to vote for the front-runner. Come on. The Academy has a history of voting for the front-runner: Schindler's List, Chicago, The Return of the King, you name it. In fact, it's rare when the group doesn't vote for the odds-on favorite.

Easier to accept -- though also filled with holes -- is that Crash won because it's set in Oscar's hometown of Los Angeles, and members could more easily relate to its story about big-city travails than to a story about sheep-tending cowboys in the middle of nowhere. Of course, by that logic, movies set in distant times or distant lands -- The Last Emperor, Out of Africa, The English Patient -- should have lost to their respective years' more geographically friendly flicks, while non-nominated titles like The Player, Short Cuts and L.A. Story should have been automatic winners.

Easiest to accept is the long-standing argument that Academy members prefer bombast to subtlety. While the other four Best Picture nominees are far more low-key in terms of either shooting style or the presentation of narrative themes -- even Munich, for all its Spielbergian flash, remains morally ambiguous and therefore immune to easy absorption -- Crash is about as subtle as a hatchet to the forehead, repeatedly shouting its hardly revelatory message that Racism Is Very, Very, Very Bad.

What these arguments ignore, and what makes homophobia the most likely reason for Brokeback Mountain's Oscar loss to Crash, is the overwhelming support Brokeback got before the ceremony. It isn't as if Brokeback and Crash were neck-to-neck throughout awards season, in the manner of, say, Million Dollar Baby and The Aviator the previous year. Brokeback completely dominated. It won a dozen critics' awards. It won the Golden Globe (Crash wasn't even nominated). It won the Producer's Guild and Director's Guild awards. It even won top honors from the BAFTAS (the British Oscars) and the Independent Spirit Awards, two groups that often deviate from the norm. As the cherry on top, it grossed the most of the five nominees.

I'm not saying the Academy should adopt a pack mentality (though the irony is that it always has in the past). But that Brokeback won everything but cinema's most visible prize says less about the merits of the movie than the hypocrisy of the Academy. It looks like the organization especially went out of its way not to honor the cowboy flick, giving credence to the rumors that some members not thrilled by either Brokeback or Crash voted for the latter simply because it had established itself as the most likely candidate to topple the former.

A constant complaint about the Academy is that because members are there for life (like the Supreme Court), the fogies in the establishment tilt the awards toward more conservative choices. Every once in a while, something hip wins ("It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp," anyone?), but for the most part, it's the old-timers who control the debate. This year apparently was no exception. Tony Curtis, now 80 years old, doubtless spoke for this vast voting bloc when, during an interview with FOX News, he stated that he had no intention of watching Brokeback Mountain and that he knew most of his friends in the Academy also had no plans to pop the screener into the DVD player. He objected to the idea of gay cowboys ("Howard Hughes and John Wayne wouldn't like it"), and this strain of intolerance is especially disappointing since it comes from a man who starred in that classic cross-dressing comedy Some Like It Hot. (For the record, Curtis' favorite movie of 2005 was Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.) And Entertainment Weekly quoted 89-year-old Ernest Borgnine as saying, "I didn't see it and I don't care to see it ... If John Wayne were alive, he'd be rolling over in his grave." Forget Borgnine's muddied thinking for a moment (if Wayne were alive, he wouldn't be in a grave suitable for rolling): This time around at least, it appears Curtis and Borgnine -- two presently irrelevant actors hardly typical of the current Hollywood scene though probably typical of Academy membership -- are the organization's poster boys.

Other industry insiders lend support to the anti-gay initiative. LA Weekly's Nikki Finke wrote, "I found horrifying each whispered admission to me from Academy members who usually act like social liberals that they were disgusted by even the possibility of glimpsing simulated gay sex ... Turns out Hollywood is as homophobic as Red State country." LA Times critic Kenneth Turan noted that "you could not take the pulse of the industry without realizing that [Brokeback] made a number of people distinctly uncomfortable." And in David Carr's wrap-up in the New York Times, filmmaker David Cohen was quoted as saying that "Brokeback took on a fairly sacred Hollywood icon, the cowboy, and I don't think the older members of the Academy wanted to see the image of the American cowboy diminished."

"Diminished." Cohen's selection of this word speaks volumes as to the Academy viewpoint: Homosexuals are viewed as less than human, and by opening up a classic American genre to new interpretations, the makers of Brokeback Mountain were forcing LA faux-liberals to confront their own buried prejudices.

Clearly, it's the Academy's standing that's been "diminished" by this controversy. As I noted in a column two weeks ago, a victory by Crash would immediately place the film on the list of the all-time worst Oscar choices, sharing space with the likes of The Greatest Show On Earth, Around the World in 80 Days and Gladiator. Yet, what's lost in all the brouhaha is that the subject they did honor -- the specter of racism -- is one which does warrant serious attention. Yet as usual, the Academy's effort is too little, too late.

In his acceptance speech, George Clooney, an outspoken liberal whose sincerity I don't doubt, eloquently stated that the supposedly "out of touch" Hollywood industry -- and, by extension, the Academy -- was among the first to raise its collective voice on the issues of AIDS and civil rights. He also noted that the Academy gave an Oscar to Hattie McDaniel (for 1939's Gone With the Wind) during a time when blacks were forced to sit at tables in the back of the room. What Clooney didn't mention was that at the very ceremony at which she was honored, she wasn't allowed to sit with white co-stars Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, but instead had to (yup) sit at a table in the back. (Additionally, the studio had written her acceptance speech beforehand rather than allow her to speak in her own words.)

McDaniel's victory hardly meant that the film industry suddenly surged ahead of the rest of the nation in terms of equal treatment for blacks: Many performers of color who had been forced to perform under degrading monikers like Stepin Fetchit (real name Lincoln Perry), Sleep 'n' Eat (Willie Best) and Snowflake (Fred Toones) continued to do so, and even McDaniel was frequently criticized by other blacks for what they viewed as demeaning portrayals (the poor woman countered in her defense that she had to make a living). And while the Academy loves to honor old-timers with career achievement awards, where were the Oscars for Afro-American pioneers like Oscar Micheaux (who died here in Charlotte in 1951) and Gordon Parks (who passed away last week at the age of 93)?

As for honoring films that touch on race relations, 1967's solid In the Heat of the Night did manage to snag a Best Picture Oscar -- yet for all its merits, that movie was as interested in its standard murder-mystery as in making headway in racial matters. And as I noted in my Oscar story a couple of weeks ago, the patronizing (if well-made) Driving Miss Daisy won the Best Picture prize in the same year that the more challenging films Do the Right Thing and Glory weren't even nominated.

Also not nominated in the top category were John Sayles' sprawling 1991 drama City of Hope and Tony Kaye's 1998 American History X (with a fabulous performance by Edward Norton as a reformed neo-Nazi), two titles whose treatment of the racial divide resonates far more deeply than the button-pushing antics of Crash. Oh, but in its infinite wisdom, the Academy did nominate 1967's Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, an especially shameless and simplistic piece of progressive enlightenment masquerading as serious cinema.

So here we are in 2006, and the Academy finally decides to take a stand against racial intolerance ... by honoring a film that, as its critics argue, reduces all of its characters (black and white) to easily digestible stereotypes. Who knows, maybe a movie like Brokeback Mountain -- or, more likely, a movie inferior to Brokeback Mountain -- will eventually break through the anti-gay climate and win the top award. But when that time will come, no one can say. In its typically irreverent style, slantmagazine.com previewed the ceremony and wrote, "Everything's coming up homo at this year's Oscars." Maybe they were looking ahead and commenting on the 2025 Oscar race.

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