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Sunday, March 05, 2006

deconstructing oscar

Brokeback Mountain went into the Academy Awards as the prohibitive favorite to win Best Picture, having won the New York and Los Angeles film critics awards, the Golden Globe for Best Drama, the Producers, Directors, and Writers Guild awards, the British Academy award, and even the Independent Spirit award. It also grossed the most of all the nominated films, had the most nominations, and won Best Director. Plus I really liked it. So how did it manage to lose to Crash? Aside from the "peaking too early" tautology, there are a few common arguments that people will make:

1) Crash is set in Los Angeles. One of the "rules" of Oscarwatching is that the Academy loves movies about their town.

2) Crash is an ensemble piece starring half of Hollywood. The degrees of separation between your average academy member and Crash are probably significantly lower.

3) Brokeback Mountain is about gay cowboys.

I don't think 1) is that persuasive. L.A. movies may do fairly well (see, e.g., Mulholland Drive, L.A. Confidential, The Player), but they haven't managed a win in at least a couple of decades. 2) is more persuasive, and the concept helps explains travesties like A Beautiful Mind beating Fellowship of the Ring and Gladiator beating Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. 3) is almost certainly a big factor. Despite their public liberalism, the Academy is still full of old men who are probably uncomfortable with homosexuality. Plus Crash is about race, which is a much less polarizing social issue that everyone can get behind, and it provides conscience cover for closet homophobes.

There's one other issue that may have tipped the balance, and that's Brokeback's bipolar Oscar campaign. I think it had two opposite problems: First, it tried way too hard to hide the gayness of the movie in its marketing. Since the initial poster which showed Ennis and Jack as Titanic-style doomed lovers, there has been almost no hint of homosexuality in any of the t.v. commercials or trade ads, which have all favored visuals of both main characters with their wives or herding sheep rather than with each other. To me, this demonstrated a lack of guts on the filmmaker's part, as it ran away from a compelling relationship between the two male leads. If the filmmakers can't buy it themselves, why should we? Second, the movie was pushed by its promoters as being a vitally important social message about intolerance. This caraciture may have distracted from the film's better qualities, or even fomented resentment among voters who felt they were being blackmailed. Not only would a less political message perhaps have been more palatable to people with some degree of actual homophobia who may have been willing to recognize the film on its merits, but the more political message may have turned off many voters who are quite tolerant themselves, but who don't think that society is really out to lynch every homosexual. By highlighting the film's "importance" rather than its quality, it becomes a referendum on an issue, and you lose a lot of support from Academy members unwilling to vote for the entire homosexual agenda. Of course, the movie really IS about humanizing homosexuality and promoting tolerance, but it does this by using old-fashioned characters and storytelling to show the viewer that the love between Ennis and Jack is both very difficult and very real. The marketers should have let people see this, and let the message speak for itself.

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