The only surprise at the Oscars this year came with the last award of the evening. Brokeback Mountain was predicted to win the Oscar for Best Motion Picture of the Year in a vote that would demonstrate the Academy's solidarity with the gay community. Everything seemed to be on track--Brokeback Mountain had already won for Best Picture in the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, in the Golden Globes, and in all of the critics' awards. In fact, the film had garnered more Best Director and Best Picture awards coming into Oscar night than Schindler's List had. British bookmakers had placed odds on it as the favorite. When the film took the Oscar for Best Original Score, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Director, it seemed the Academy was on its predicted course.
Then out walked Jack Nicholson, wearing tinted eyeglasses and his trademark satanic grin to announce the nominees for Best Picture. When he tore open the envelope and read the winner, Crash, it was possible to believe for an instant that a demonic Nicholson was giving Brokeback Mountain and the Academy the homophobic finger. Indeed, outraged fans of the film circulated a rumor on the Internet that Nicholson had actually perpetrated a hoax. But, when watched closely, Nicholson's practiced grimace dissolved into an unrehearsed smile of surprise as he leaned down to the microphone and spoke again, "Crash, whoa." He seemed as taken aback as everyone else in the Kodak Theatre and backstage later insisted that he himself had voted for Brokeback Mountain.
We will never know how anyone actually voted, but the defeat of Brokeback Mountain--not the victory of Crash--was the headline of this year's Oscars. Everyone had their own explanation of how it happened. Annie Proulx, whose short story published a decade earlier in the New Yorker was adapted to create the film, had nothing but scorn for the 6000 "out of touch" and "Heffalump" members of the Academy who could not see beyond the walls of their gated communities or their assisted living facilities, and therefore voted for "Trash--excuse me--Crash" (quoted from her March 11, 2006, article printed in The Guardian).
Proulx could have been describing Ernest Borgnine, an octogenarian who earned the Oscar for Best Actor in Marty in the 1950s. When asked about Brokeback Mountain, he opined, "I know they say it is a good picture, but I don't care to see it. If John Wayne were alive, he would be rolling over in his grave." Proulx, herself a septuagenarian, was polite compared with the enraged howls of homophobia and Hollywood sell-outs to "Red State America."
Industry insiders concede that homophobia and other resentments may well have had an influence on the outcome of the awards. All living members of the Academy are able to vote for best picture, and many of them may have been fed up with all of the "gay cowboy movie" hoopla. It could be that they were looking for a different choice and that in the weeks leading up to the vote the producers of Crash gave them an alternative. Crash premiered in the spring of 2005, long before the season for films aiming at Oscars. In fact, Crash was long gone from the theaters and already available on DVD when nominees were announced. Many critics were astonished that it was even nominated for a best picture Oscar.
Every studio with a nomination mounts a public relations campaign for Oscar votes, and the makers of Crash had the bright idea of converting their handicap into an advantage. They deluged the Academy and everyone else in Hollywood with more than 100,000 complimentary copies of the DVD. While Crash is not in the same class as Brokeback Mountain, it is a film that gets better the second time you see it. One can imagine members of the Academy who, in memory of John Wayne or for whatever reason, did not want to vote for the "gay cowboy movie." They might well conclude while watching the Crash DVD that "this is better than we thought." Furthermore, Crash is--for the Academy--a dyed-in-the-wool Hollywood movie: it was filmed on location in Los Angeles, it had an ensemble cast, and it gave jobs to more than 70 actors.
Although the Academy's voters rejected Brokeback Mountain, the film remains an important milestone in Hollywood history. Aimed at mainstream audiences, it presents a story of sexual attraction between 2 young men who fall passionately and irrevocably in love, a love they must keep closeted in the homophobic world of Wyoming and Texas circa 1963. When the film first opened in select theaters where the demographics would guarantee sophisticated moviegoers and a sizable gay community, audiences and critics were swept away. Reviews described it as the modern day Romeo and Juliet--the tragic love story of contemporary America.