The Motion Picture Academy held its annual Chuck Workman tribute last evening (he the editor of the increasingly tired and endless series of clips screened for hostages, I mean viewers), taking time out to hand out awards to Crash, a melodramatic and baldly manipulative film with lots and lots of actors, and March of the Penguins, a Discovery Channel nature special writ large.
Awards were also given out to beloved Hollywood stars George Clooney & Reese Witherspoon, as well as indie favorites Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Rachel Weisz. Ang Lee won for Best Director for the highly favorited film Brokeback Mountain, which ended up taking home just 3 awards, tying the total for Crash, as well as the universally-disliked Memoirs of a Geisha (but it sure is pretty) and Peter Jackson's King Kong.
Most people seemed to think the Penguins would (sorry) march home with the Oscar (although I thought there might be an Enron upset), and some had predicted a come-from-behind win for Crash, but most were still surprised to see Paul Haggis' race-relations-in-west-LA pic win the top prize.
While many (see below) point to the Crash win as anti-gay or pro-westside-Los Angeles, I think that it may be about something more specific - the David E. Kelley factor.
Remember back in the late 1990s when The Sopranos premiered on HBO and it went to the Emmy's that year with the most nominations - rightly expecting to dominate the night. As the night wore on, it lost award after award - even Nancy Marchand for God's sake - and it ended up going home almost empty-handed, save Best Actress Drama for Edie Falco. Then came the final award of the night - Best Drama Series. Certainly it had to go to this innovative and amazing look at the mafia, but no, it went to the completely average David E. Kelley legal drama The Practice.
There was such an uproar, they changed the way the Emmy's are handed out.
Yet, to this day, you'll still find the David E. Kelley factor at the Emmy's - as people like William Shatner and Camryn Manheim and James Spader win for their eccentric characters' off-the-wall scenery chewing. The theory that goes around Hollywood is that Kelley's shows and thespians win because he has employed so many actors for so long (and is generally thought of as a good guy) that other actors are pre-disposed to voting for him. But it's also because Kelley writes big flourishing monologues and meaty, sometimes goofy, yet still uncomplicated (often courtroom) scenes that actors love to play.
Cue Crash - with its contrived collisions and manufactured (yet somehow still affective) emotion, well, it's basically the film David E. Kelley never made, but would have had he thought of it. Lions Gate knew this was an actors' movie, and they took the unprecedented step of sending a copy of the DVD to every single member of the Screen Actors Guild. Never before done. Suddenly, Crash, a film thought to be "out-of-competition" for Best Picture, wins the Screen Actors Guild Award for Best Ensemble (Brokeback Mountain is completely shut out) and everyone declares it a two-film race.
(Screen Actors Guild members - you will now receive DVDs in the mail for every single film that hopes to have a chance at Best Picture in the future. Lucky, lucky you.)
As a corollary, Brokeback Mountain was thought to be such a favorite (after Munich debuted to little fanfare) that everyone was looking for the film that might beat it. After the Golden Globes, that film was supposed to be Walk The Line. When it failed to get a nomination, suddenly a new competitor was needed. For whatever reason, there was a push for a film to upset Brokeback. The SAG win made that Crash that film. (Unlike last year, when a win by Sideways was thought to signify nothing at all.)
A round-up of reactions across the indie film blog-o-sphere (including many of my fellow Indiewire bloggers) captures some of the shock and awe:
From Anthony Kaufman:
"(W)ith the "Crash" win (still I can't bear to write it), it only
confirms what the Academy has represented for the last
couple decades: sentimentalist, nauseating, embarrassingly
stupid movies for the lowest common denominator."
From Amanda Nanwana:
"How could they have voted for Crash (a mediocre pic with
a less-than-memorable ending) over Brokeback Mountain?
The Academy had a chance to prove that it can make
smart choices, but last night it didn't. The bastard dropped
the ball at mid-field, it didn't finish the layup, couldn't
perform the hat trick, was out on a fly ball -- oh, I can keep
throwing sports analogies but you get what I'm saying."
Reverse Shot gets right to the point:
"Crash" is not the best movie of the year, but its joined the
elite company of such mediocre best picture winners as
"Driving Miss Daisy", "Forrest Gump", "The English Patient",
"Shakespeare in Love", and "A Beautiful Mind". Were they
the best movies of those years? These things happen. I
don't see it as an anti-"Brokeback" message, but rather a
skillfully orchestrated pro-"Crash" campaign that worked
Critics, guilds, and audiences propelled "Brokeback" to
unimaginable heights, helping it reach people who may
never have seen it otherwise, its made nearly $80 million
and is still going. Its a winner whether The Academy gives
it the top trophy or not."
The Alt Film Guide's Andre Soares puts the Crash win in geographic perspective
"(B)efore bandying about the word "homophobia," one
should also remember that Crash is both set in and about
Los Angeles, where many - probably most - of the
Academy members reside. Like the Sandra Bullock
character in that film, most Academy members have surely
had problems with their Hispanic maids. My point: Academy
members can much more readily relate to the Crash
characters than to the two Wyoming sheepherders of
Like Anna Karina's Sweater writes that worse than Crash's win for Best Picture was its prize for Best Original Screenplay:
When judged by any standards (even in a McKee-dominated
world), Haggis' screenplay is a poorly written, insulting,
pedantic exercise in one-dimensionality that incorporates
dramatic tricks that might be considered acceptable
coming from a twelve year-old. Are we truly meant to
believe that the Academy members felt that dialog such as:
"But if a white person sees two black men walking
towards her and she turns and walks away, she's a
racist, right? Well I got scared and I didn't do anything
and ten seconds later I had a gun in my face. Now I
am telling you, your amigo in there is going to sell our
key to one of his homies and this time it would be
really fucking great if you acted like you gave a shit!
was actually better than Good Night, and Good Luck, Match
Point, The Squid and The Whale or Syriana? Or were Crash's
wins due to the votes it received from its cast of thousands
(and their friends)?
And even though Crash was critically at the bottom of the
list (as per Metacritic), its best picture win shouldn't come
as that much of a surprise -- of the five nominated films, it
is (by far) the most Hollywood of the bunch, and is as
smarmy and self-congratulatory as the Oscars itself.
"I do know that the selection of "Crash" as best picture --
plus other irritations, such as the near-total shutout of "The
New World," the saccharine elevator music that played
under acceptance speeches and the telecast's bored
contempt for foreign film (read more about it here)--
confirms that in Hollywood, the word "artist" no longer
means "a stubborn or pretentious person," but has instead
evolved to mean "a person who sends out prosocial,
preferably liberal messages." As both a liberal and a critic,
that worries me because it means liberalism really is in
hopeless disarray, and that people at the highest level of
the film industry have lost even a cursory interest in
aesthetics and are interested only in getting rich and
publically reassuring themselves that they're still good
Anne Thompson theorizes (briefly) that Crash's win says a lot about Academy members discomfort with the gay romance, but David Poland, who for weeks has been predicting a Brokeback-lash, writes that Mountain's vociferous defenders may have been its downfall:
"(K)eep in mind.... I don't like Crash. If forced to vote
between Crash and Brokeback Mountain, I would have
voted BBM. But I do sitll understand, as an American, that
others are alowed to have opinions. And if there is an
important lesson in the Crash win, it is becoming that
people with good intentions can be more McCarthy-like
than the phantom censors in their heads.
Poland's frequent adversary, Jeffrey Wells, who had championed Brokeback for months, disagrees:
"Most of the pundits are going to try to sidestep or soft-
pedal what happened, and if you're looking for that kind
of thing you know where to find it. This wasn't a replay of
Shakespeare in Love beating out Saving Private Ryan. It
was worse...a whole lot worse.
Crash is a good film -- an emotional, well-tooled,
sometimes profound look at several racist and heavily
bruised Los Angelenos who somehow manage to listen
now and then to the better angels of their nature. They
do this infrequently and haphazardly, but just enough at
the end of the day (and the film) to earn our compassion.
Nice movie massage -- now welcome to real life. The fact
is that last night a lot of good-hearted people, bottom line,
were essentially cheering the fact that a bunch of retro-
graders and hang-backers in the Motion Picture Academy
voted for Crash for the wrong reasons.
Is anyone besides me seeing the irony here...the irony that
howled and flooded the skies above Los Angeles last night?
The very thing that Crash laments -- prejudice against
people of different stripes and persuasions -- is what tipped
the vote and delivered the Big Prize.
Hell, this might have been more than a tipping factor. It
may have been a friggin' landslide for all anyone knows.
So let's all keep it going and dig into our hearts this
morning and extend some of that Crash compassion to the
small minds and timid souls who voted against (and in
many cases probably didn't even see) Brokeback Mountain.