Monday, March 06, 2006

Crash vs. Brokeback

Never can I remember the words "Oscar upset" being more accurate than they were at the end of last night's Oscars, and I think some things need to be said about it.

First of all, I loved all five of the Best Picture nominees. I thought this was one of the strongest years in quite a while. I would have loved to have seen at least four of the five nominees take the "top" prize (Capote was the weakest, in my opinion, and that's saying a lot for the other four, because Capote was awesome). Brokeback clearly had all the momentum going in last night, but I knew Crash would be the dark horse.

There are a lot of things that go into whether a movie wins Best Picture or not, and many of them have nothing to do with the quality of the film. There are a lot of political machinations, campaigns, and what not, and if your movie peaks at the wrong time, it could mean people voting for something else.

I detest ranking art against art, but personally, if I had been given an opportunity to vote for the Oscars, I would have gone with Munich for Best Picture. I think it was the strongest "total package" of the five. Well written, well acted, beautifully shot, and very timely. But that's just me, and I knew that it was probably the least likely to take home anything, because it was so under-advertised. However, when it came to the two frontrunners, I felt there was a strong possibility for Brokeback NOT to win. In fact, if I had only had those two movies to choose from, I would have picked Crash over Brokeback myself (though it would have been a difficult choice).

For one thing, I think "Brokeback-mania" reached its saturation point too early and people were sick of it. "Brokeback" as a word is now a part of the cultural lexicon. You couldn't go anywhere without hearing a gay cowboy joke. In some ways, it kind of played itself out. Also, as great as I thought it was, it just didn't seem that revolutionary to me.

Crash was a different kind of underdog. It came out early in the year, and it's very rare for the Academy to remember anything that came out before Thanksgiving. It was a very divisive movie - there were people who really loved it and people who thought it was the cinematic antichrist. I think a few things put it ahead of Brokeback (though, I'd bet money that the race was quite close, if we could see the vote percentages).

1) It was an L.A. picture. Most Academy members are Angelinos, so this picture was bound to resonate with them.

2) It had a huge cast, many of them well-respected actors. Naturally, everyone in it who got to vote would vote for it. And - as a friend of mine pointed out - by voting for Crash, Academy members no doubt felt that they were rewarding as many of "their" people as possible.

3) As an "issues" movie, it was both more pointed and more universal. Preconception is perhaps the most basic problem we face as human beings. Brokeback dealt with this on a small level with homosexuality (i.e., the image of gay men was very non-stereotypical), but it was by no means the focus. This movie shook people and forced many of them to look at their own preconceptions of people. Even the casting of the movie was clearly designed to achieve this.

I'm not saying there aren't some homophobes in the Academy who thought the world wasn't ready for a Best Picture that put homosexuality front and center. But I seriously doubt they're numerous enough to have affected the vote that much. I find accusations that the Academy is somehow sending a message to the gay community - and even more incredibly, that they are condoning and perpetuating homophobia - by not rewarding Brokeback with Best Picture to be utterly ridiculous. And I'm saying this both to the people who are gloating that this is supposedly the case and the people who are angered by it. It's just. Not. True. Would anybody be saying the Academy was perpetuating racism if Crash had not won? Is Kanye West going to go on television and say that the Academy doesn't care about Jewish people because Munich didn't win?


It just means that there was another movie that people - people who make movies for a living, by the way - thought was better.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

[Oscars] The Academy's Position on Groundbreaking Films

With all five of this year's Best Picture nominees being "issues" films and the fairly well-established frontrunner (Brokeback Mountain) being touted as "groundbreaking cinema," I found this article in USA Today to be particularly interesting.

I've heard several people say "Oh, I hope Brokeback doesn't win." There seems to be an implicit assumption that if it does win, it will simply be because of the issue - a mere gesture on behalf of the Academy at legitimizing the homosexual lifestyle. There's a Greek word for that attitude ... horses**t. The reason Brokeback is getting so much attention from these award shows is not because it's a "token gay movie," but because it's an amazing film that tackles a delicate subject in a wholly new way. Just like Good Night, and Good Luck is being recognized for taking issues that are very sensitive - and which usually cause people's characters and patriotism to be called into question - and looks at them through the filter of a similar event in the past. Just like Crash takes one of the oldest problems in human relations and gives us a rich tapestry of character interactions in which most of us can see something of ourselves. Much like Munich takes an extremely volatile and timely topic and handles it in a sensitive and yet brutally honest way. And like Capote deals with the ethics of writing and shows both sides of the story honestly and movingly.

These are well-made movies that make you think and help you to see things in a different way. That's what great films do, in my opinion. And it's nothing new for the Academy to reward films that handle modern issues well and try to change people's perceptions. Looking at the article linked above, I find it amusing to wonder what audiences of the time thought of those films (and others that broke new ground and were rewarded by Oscar) when they were released. Not to mention what people must have thought about the stand the Academy seemed to be making by honoring them...

The Lost Weekend - a thoroughly adult drama about a problem that had not been seriously dealt with in film. Alcoholism.

Carmen Jones - Dorothy Dandridge's nod preceded Poitier's for The Defiant Ones by four years.

Baby Doll - Kazan tells a story about a lascivious man and his child-bride. The film was condemned from pulpits and the Catholic Legion of Decency called for a nationwide boycott. It got four Oscar nominations.

Tom Jones - Made almost as big a scandal as Fielding's novel, with cries of "Won't someone think of the children?????" Yet it still was named Best Picture of 1963.

Dr. Strangelove - It's a classic now, but can you imagine if such a movie were released today? A movie that makes fun of the president and the military and nuclear war that wasn't even that big a hit in theaters? Probably would still have gotten the recognition from Oscar. :P

Network - A frighteningly prescient look at the creeping cancer of showmanship in the news. Part of this story involved the development of a show centered on a real terrorist group - The Mao Tse-Tung Hour.

The Silence of the Lambs - Very controversial at the time, for several reasons, not the least of which was its depiction of the sexually ambiguous Buffalo Bill.

The Crying Game - Boy howdy, do I remember the stir this caused, both when it was released and when Oscar recognized so extravagantly.

I always crack up when people talk about the Academy as though it were a committee of six people, sitting in a room somewhere and deciding who gets an award. There are over 6000 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences - actors, directors, producers, writers, technicians - and all of these people are eligible to vote on the awards. I just don't see how a win for a controversial movie is some kind of statement, other than that the film impressed a lot of people who know a lot about movies.

Also, it's not like the Oscars are some kind of Nobel prize. As much as I love them, they are essentially self-congratulatory nonsense, meaning little in the grand scheme of things, except to people who are intensely passionate about movies. So really ... who cares if the "gay cowboy movie" wins? According to Hollywood's grapevine, virtually no one has seen it (or any of the other nominees) anyway.

Although, I have to say that I'm quite sad that so few people seem to have seen any of the nominated films and that there is a staggeringly low interest in what happens Sunday night. 2005 was a great year for films, and each of the Best Picture nominees is worth a look, no matter what side of their issues you're on.