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.