LOS ANGELES -- One of the mysteries of the 2006 Oscar season is the virulence with which lovers of "Brokeback Mountain" savaged "Crash." When the film about racism actually won the Oscar for best picture Sunday, there was no grace in their response. As someone who felt "Brokeback" was a great film but "Crash" a greater one, I would have been pleased if either had won.
But here is Ken Turan in the Los Angeles Times, writing on the morning after: "So for people who were discomfited by 'Brokeback Mountain' but wanted to be able to look themselves in the mirror and feel like they were good, productive liberals, 'Crash' provided the perfect safe harbor. They could vote for it in good conscience, vote for it and feel they had made a progressive move, vote for it and not feel that there was any stain on their liberal credentials for shunning what 'Brokeback' had to offer. And that's exactly what they did."
And Nikki Finke, in the LA Weekly: "Way back on Jan. 17, I decided to nominate the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for Best Bunch of Hypocrites. That's because I felt this year's dirty little Oscar secret was the anecdotal evidence pouring in to me about hetero members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences being unwilling to screen 'Brokeback Mountain.' For a community that takes pride in progressive values, it seemed shameful to me that Hollywood's homophobia could be on a par with Pat Robertson's."
Yes, and more than one critic described "Crash" as "the worst film of the year," which is as extreme as saying John Kerry was a coward in Vietnam. It means you'll say anything to help your campaign.
What is intriguing about these writers is that they never mention the other three best picture nominees: "Capote," "Good Night, and Good Luck" and "Munich." Their silence on these films reveals their agenda: They wanted "Brokeback Mountain" to win, saw "Crash" as the spoiler, and attacked "Crash." If "Munich" had been the spoiler, they might not have focused on "Crash." When they said those who voted for "Crash" were homophobes who were using a liberal movie to mask their hatred of homosexuals, they might have said the same thing about "Munich."
This seems simply wrong. Consider Finke's "anecdotal evidence" that puts Hollywood's homophobia on a par with Pat Robertson's. Pat Robertson? This is certainly the most extreme statement she could make on the subject, but can it be true? How many anecdotes add up to evidence? Did anyone actually tell her they didn't want to see the movie because it was about two gay men?
My impression, also based on anecdotal evidence, is that the usual number of academy voters saw the usual number of academy nominees, and voted for the ones they admired the most. In a year without "Brokeback Mountain," Finke, Turan and many others might have admired "Crash." Or maybe not. But it's a matter of opinion, not sexual politics.
It is not a "safe harbor," but a film that takes the discussion of racism in America in a direction it has not gone before in the movies, directing attention at those who congratulate themselves on not being racist, including liberals and/or minority group members. It is a movie of raw confrontation about the complexity of our motives, about how racism works not only top down but sideways, and how in different situations, we are all capable of behaving shamefully.
"Good Night, and Good Luck," "Capote" and "Munich" were also risky pictures -- none more so, from a personal point of view, than "Munich," which afforded Steven Spielberg the unique experience of being denounced as anti-Semitic. "Good Night, and Good Luck" was surely a "safe harbor" for liberals, with its attack at a safe distance on McCarthyism -- although it carried an inescapable reference to McCarthyism as practiced by the Bush administration, which equates its critics with supporters of terrorism.
"Capote" was a brilliant character study of a writer who was gay, and who used his sexuality, as we all use our sexuality, as a part of his personal armory in daily battle.
It is noticeable how many writers on "Hollywood's homophobia" were able to sidestep "Capote," which was a hard subject to miss, being right there on the same list of best picture nominees. Were supporters of "Brokeback" homophobic in championing the cowboys over what Oscarcast host Jon Stewart called the "effete New York intellectual"?
Of course not. "Brokeback Mountain" was simply a better movie than "Capote." And "Crash" was better than "Brokeback Mountain," although they were both among the best films of the year. That is a matter of opinion. But I was not "discomfited" by "Brokeback Mountain." I chose "Crash" as the best film of the year not because it promoted one agenda and not another, but because it was a better film.
The nature of the attacks on "Crash" by the supporters of "Brokeback Mountain" seem to proceed from the other position: "Brokeback" is better not only because of its artistry but because of its subject matter, and those who disagree hate homosexuals. Its supporters could vote for it in good conscience, vote for it and feel they had made a progressive move, vote for it and not feel that there was any stain on their liberal credentials for shunning what "Crash" had to offer.