Best Picture: How Far Will Hollywood Go?

September 1, 2006
Alan A. Stone, MD

Volume 23, Issue 9

Did homophobia and other resentments have an influence on the outcome of the Academy Awards?

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.

Lead actors Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger gave the kind of extraordinary performances that will, for better or worse, indelibly color their future careers. In the film, neither character has any doubt about his masculine gender, but Gyllenhaal as Jack is more accepting of his homoeroticism whereas Ledger, as Ennis, is drawn against his will to submit to Jack's overtures. In their first coupling we watch Jack spit in his hand and director Ang Lee discreetly lets us imagine what follows.

But for straight men in the audience, even this euphemism can be a psychological challenge, if not a threat. What is the male audience supposed to think and how are they supposed to feel? Director Ang Lee's answer seems to be that they should be able to suspend their own sexual taboos and accept with tolerance what they see on the screen. As for what they should feel, there are only 2 minutes of homoerotic activity and no frontal nudity in this slow moving film that lingers over the beauty of the tree-capped mountains and the pristine wilderness. Hopefully, heterosexual men will feel neither the excitement of arousal and attraction nor the repulsion of dismay and disgust. That, at least, seems to be Lee's directorial formula and perhaps that is why Brokeback Mountain was able to make it out of select theaters in urban America and continue to draw large attentive audiences in the red states and around the world.

When Ang Lee received the Oscar for Best Director he saluted his lead characters Ennis and Jack, "they taught us all so much, not just about the gay men and women whose love is denied by society, but just as importantly about the greatness of love itself." This emphasis on "love itself" was certainly how Lee directed the film. What one sees are 2 men falling in love, and it is this love that ruins their conventional marriages and inexplicably binds them together. "Why can't I quit you, Ennis?" has become the tagline of the movie. This attachment to a doomed love that lasts their lifetime, rather than a celebration and display of the "differences" in homoerotic Eros, is the spin of the movie. For some in the gay community this lack of display was "covering"--suppressing the free expression of sexual identity to reassure the heterosexual majority. They complained about Lee's euphemistic restraints, about the fact that neither the lead actors nor the director were gay, and about the "love itself" marketing of the film. But for mainstream audiences, Brokeback Mountain was gay enough, and its star-crossed lovers evoked compassion and tolerance.

Although Ennis and Jack actually herd sheep and not cattle, the film passed into popular culture as the "gay cowboy movie." Cowboy movies are, of course, a uniquely American genre that shaped the American identity--they gave us the paradigm of masculinity, and put us all into blue jeans.

If the tragic love story of Brokeback Mountain allowed audiences to experience a new attitude of empathy and tolerance, as a gay cowboy movie mocking the icon of Hollywood Westerns it was an irresistible invitation to locker room humor. Every talk show host and stand-up comedian had a "gay cowboy" routine. The cultural legacy of tolerance that Ang Lee's film aesthetic gave us was rapidly replaced by derisive humor. The New Yorker, which had published the original Annie Proulx story, delivered the coup de grace in February of this year after the Vice President's infamous hunting accident. The editors could not resist their derisive impulse so they put Cheney and Bush as Ennis and Jack on the cover.

Woody Allen--in one of his moments of wacky genius--has a character in his film Crimes and Misdemeanors who says "Comedy is tragedy plus time." This could describe the cultural fate of Brokeback Mountain since there are already over a million gay cowboy jokes referenced on Google and "brokeback" has entered our vocabulary as a new derisive euphemism for gay.

Crash is neither tragedy nor comedy and certainly it is no landmark in film or in American culture. Indeed it has the same title as David Cronenberg's 1996 cult film starring James Spader and Holly Hunter, in which automobile crashes were meant to be a source of sexual excitement. Apparently 1-word titles cannot be copyrighted, and so Paul Haggis, who cowrote and directed the Oscar winning Crash, was able to borrow Cronenberg's title, just as he borrowed almost everything else he put into the film.

Haggis, a long time TV writer/director, likes to tell about the recurrent nightmares he used to have. He would wake up in a cold sweat having seen his own tombstone inscribed, "The creator of Walker, Texas Ranger." He feared that was to be the measure of his artistic talent. But that measure changed when he wrote the screenplay for Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby--last year's Best Picture. In it Haggis demonstrates that he is a man who knows how to find new life in old clichés. That is what he has done again in the Oscar-winning film, Crash.

When one first sees the movie, it seems like a pastiche of episodes from a TV police series set in Los Angeles. Instead of a linear plot, it is a tapestry of narratives that turn back in time and characters that intersect with each other over a 2-day period. The second viewing allows one to recognize the nuances and ironies that constitute Haggis' artistic ambition.

Still, at best, Crash is a meditation on racial stereotypes in Los Angeles. The film breaks no new ground, offers us no new insights, and presents no psychological challenges. Crash is a bleak film, but it takes us only a short step from the Hollywood feel good of Driving Miss Daisy, another film on race relations that was awarded an undeserved Oscar in the same year Spike Lee made the groundbreaking film Do the Right Thing.

Crash shows us the racist aspects of the American character: the stereotypes we deploy as we make our way through the challenge of living in a diverse society. Haggis' narrative does not teach us that our stereotypes are false, the 2 young black men who seem out of place in a white neighborhood and are therefore threatening are, in fact, about to car-jack the District Attorney and his frightened wife at gunpoint. In order to be re-elected, the same "politically correct" white District Attorney will suppress evidence to make a crooked black undercover officer look like a hero and the white detective who kills him look like a racist killer.

The 2 central characters in the ensemble cast are Matt Dillon, a hardened Los Angeles policeman from the lower middle class, and Thandie Newton, the emotionally intense yuppie wife of an assimilated black director. The first interaction of these 2 is when Dillon and his young partner spot the couple in their car and Dillon concludes that Newton, who he thinks is white, is performing oral sex on the black driver of the car. Miscegenation may be legal in the United States but in the mind of this racist cop it is a provocation that demands instant retribution. As Dillon will soon discover, they are husband and wife, both are light-skinned and Newton's character, who has had a few drinks, is doing exactly what Dillon had imagined. Dillon, over his partner's objection, stops the car and proceeds to assert his white supremacy by sexually molesting the woman in front of her husband as he does a "body search." Dillon's portrayed racism/sexism seems to be an essential element of his character, and that view is brutally reinforced in other scenes.

In a later interaction, Thandie Newton's character, who has displaced her rage and resentment onto her husband for tolerating her humiliation, is trapped in her overturned car after a "crash" and is within minutes of being burned to death. Dillon is the first police officer on the scene and risks his life to save the woman who despises him. Once again we see the unwanted physical intimacy as Newton's screams of hatred turn into cries of desperation. Dillon, of course, saves her life and as she is led away she looks back at the man who abused and saved her. She can only think that the racist bigot who was capable of the grossest indecency was, in this desperate situation, ready to risk his life.

How do we put the 2 aspects of Dillon's character together? Haggis has no idea; he only wants to show us that our stereotypes can be a veil of deception, that they cause cankering fissures in our character. The question that needs answering is how do we get past these stereotypes in our judgments about other people's character? Certainly the answer is not in Sandra Bullock's epiphany that her much disdained Hispanic cleaning lady is her best friend, but that may be as far as Haggis could take us and as far as the Academy is prepared to go. That epiphany has the very same poignancy as Driving Miss Daisy, where the elderly Jewish woman and her black chauffeur discover that they are each other's best friends.

Proulx may be right about what pleases the Heffalumps in the Academy; they want to be reassured but not threatened. Crash affirms yet again that a film that stretches clichés but does not break them is the formula for success in Hollywood, and this was proved on Oscar night.

Dr Stone is Touroff-Glueck Professor of Law and Psychiatry in the faculty of law and the faculty of medicine at Harvard University, Boston. He currently teaches a course called Law, Psychology and Morality: An Exploration Through Film. His collection of film reviews, Reel Insights, is to be published by the MIT Press.