20 Feb THE BEST PICTURE PROJECT – ‘Crash’ (2005)
In 2006, the 78th Academy Awards ceremony was held at the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles. Honouring the films released between January 1, 2005, and December 31, 2005, the awards were held on March 5. The ceremony was hosted by actor and talk show host Jon Stewart.
With his win for Best Director for Brokeback Mountain, Ang Lee became the first non-Caucasian to win this category. For the first time since 1962, all four acting winners were first-time nominees. With nominations for acting, directing, and screenwriting, George Clooney became the fifth person to achieve this honour. However, his directing and screenwriting nominations were for Good Night, and Good Luck, while his acting nomination (and win) was for Syriana, making him the first person to achieve these three nominations for two different films.
With two nominations in the Original Score category for Memoirs of a Geisha and Munich, composer John Williams took his total nominations to 45, making him the second most-nominated individual in Oscars history, behind Walt Disney with 59. He has since been nominated a further six times, edging him closer to equally Disney’s incredible record.
Leading the way this year with 8 nominations was Ang Lee’s groundbreaking love story Brokeback Mountain. In one of the biggest upsets in Oscars history, Crash beat the heavily-favoured Brokeback Mountain to take home Best Picture, as well as Best Original Screenplay and Best Film Editing. Crash became the first Best Picture winner since Rocky in 1976 to only win three Academy Awards. The film also became only the second film (after The Sting) in history to win Best Picture without having been nominated for Best Motion Picture at the Golden Globes, in either the Drama or Comedy/Musical category.
Good Night, and Good Luck
Writer-director Paul Haggis interweaves several connected stories about race, class, family and gender in Los Angeles in the aftermath of 9/11. Characters include a district attorney (Brendan Fraser) and his casually prejudiced wife (Sandra Bullock), dating police detectives Graham (Don Cheadle) and Ria (Jennifer Esposito), a victimized Middle Eastern store owner (Shaun Toub) and a wealthy African-American couple (Terrence Dashon Howard, Thandie Newton) humiliated by a racist traffic cop (Matt Dillon).
Why did it win?
The biggest Best Picture upset in Oscars history. One that still confounds and angers people to this day. Even presenter Jack Nicholson couldn’t contain his shock. Upon opening the Best Picture envelope, he raised his eyebrows and said “whoa!” after announcing the Oscar went to Crash. It was a decision by the Academy which disgusted, confused, and infuriated many in the industry, particularly those who cover the awards race. Now, I’m not one to cry homophobia lightly. It’s a serious call to make to say something as disappointing as homophobia was the reason Brokeback Mountain did not win Best Picture. And yet, it’s almost inescapable and undeniable to rationalise that as the main reason as to why Crash won over Brokeback Mountain.
In the lead up to the ceremony, several prominent Hollywood figures made their disgust of Brokeback Mountain known. Veteran actor Tony Curtis told Fox News (surprise, surprise) he hadn’t seen the film and had no intention of doing so, stating “This picture is not as important as we make it. It’s nothing unique. The only thing unique about it is they put it on the screen. And they make ’em gay cowboys.” Another veteran actor, Ernest Borgnine, went even further by stating, “If John Wayne were alive, he’d be rolling over in his grave.” Reports also came through that many Academy members shared Curtis’ sentiments and were openly bragging they wouldn’t even watch the film, let alone vote for it for Best Picture. It was clear Brokeback Mountain made the old, white men of the Academy extremely uncomfortable. This was a time when homosexuality was still a taboo subject in Hollywood. Brokeback Mountain broke down barriers in cinema, and brought homosexuality to the mainstream like never before. And while in public, many were openly praising the film, it’s clear when they were given the privacy of a voting ballot, they no longer had to pretend they loved this film.
In an odd way, the surprise victory of Crash feels like Donald Trump’s presidential win. The potential to choose an option unlike anything before it was there (Hillary Clinton and Brokeback Mountain). And that daring new choice becomes the overwhelming favourite. But the fear of something so boldly different can tend to truly terrify traditionalists. At this point, the Academy was still dominated by traditionalists. In all the polls and precursor awards, Brokeback Mountain dominated. People were afraid to voice their fear and prejudice over such a confronting and honest piece of gay cinema, and so they put on a public persona to seem more agreeable and less controversial. Few were willing to actively be seen as potentially homophobic by openly sharing their distaste for the film. When it came time to vote, this was no longer a problem, and Crash provided the perfect alternative, and the explanation as to why it ultimately won.
With it’s stark and blunt depiction of racism in America, Crash stood as the alternate “groundbreaking” film which Academy members could vote for over Brokeback Mountain, yet still feel as if they were still picking something daring and bold. By picking it as their alternate choice for Best Picture, it became a case of homophobia distraction. Perhaps they truly thought people wouldn’t call out their homophobia because they’d be too busy congratulating the Academy for picking the racially-charged film instead. For the liberal members of Hollywood, Crash was simply the safer option. They hoped to still maintain an image of progressiveness by picking a film which highlighted racial and social issues, as opposed to the one focused on the tragic and devastating experience of many gay people in America. As brilliant as the other nominees were, none of them provided an alternative feel-good option quite like Crash. It was a chance for the Academy to still pat themselves on the back, and hopefully receive that praise back from the general public. As we know, it didn’t work, and the reaction was instant and brutal.
Immediately following the ceremony, the response from the majority of the film community was shock, anger, disappointment, and fury. Numerous articles were written calling out the Academy’s terrible mistake, with many labelling it a blatant case of homophobia. This was a time before social media, but you can only imagine how Twitter would have responded. #OscarsSoHomophobic, perhaps? For an industry which seemingly prides itself on being progressive, inclusive, and liberal, the Academy’s decision had exposed how many in the industry were clearly still stuck in the past.
Was there anything else to the victory of Crash besides being the default, fall-over-the-line winner? Well, the film was a modest success, in terms of profitability. On a tiny budget of just $6.5 million, Crash would earn $53 million at the U.S. box-office, placing it inside the 50 highest-grossing film of 2005. The film added a further $43 million internationally to bring its worldwide total to just under $100 million. This made Crash the lowest grossing Best Picture winner since The Last Emperor in 1987.
Despite its low regard today, Crash was well-received by critics, upon its initial release. Entertainment Weekly called the film “stunning,” a “must-see,” and “proof that words have not lost the ability to shock in our anesthetized society,” the New Yorker hailed the film as “hyper-articulate and often breathtakingly intelligent and always brazenly alive,” and L.A. Weekly decreed the film was “one of the best Hollywood movies about race” and “one of the finest portrayals of contemporary Los Angeles life period.”
Adding to the shock of Crash taking out Best Picture was how little attention the film received during the precursor awards season, particularly given the dominance of the assumed frontrunner. Brokeback Mountain was winning practically everything along the way. It took home three Golden Globes for Best Motion Picture – Drama (Crash wasn’t even nominated in this category), Director and Screenplay. It won the all-important trifecta of PGA, DGA, and WGA (the previous six films to win these three awards had all gone on to win Best Picture). It even won Best Picture, Director, and Screenplay at the BAFTAs. And, leading into the ceremony, it led the field with eight Academy Award nominations. The film seemed unstoppable.
The first sign something was wrong happened at the Screen Actors Guild Awards. In one of its only major wins during the entire precursor season, Crash scored an upset win for the SAG Ensemble prize. Many dismissed this by assuming the film scored more votes simply by virtue of a larger ensemble than Brokeback Mountain, and therefore it was always likely to win. But it showed the actors loved this film, and ultimately marked the beginning of the end for Brokeback Mountain and the first step on the path to one of the most shocking and unlikely Best Picture wins in the history of the Academy Awards.
I don’t like to oversimplify the Best Picture race. Behind almost every winner, there is a complex and complicated narrative which explains how the film found its way to being the one chosen by the Academy. But, in the case of Crash, it’s fairly simple. It won by default because Hollywood was still stuck in the grips of homophobia. That’s really all there is to it. Call it like you see it, but this is simply how I see it. And it’s not a summation I come to lightly. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the Academy’s most shameful and despicable decision in the 89-year history. For shame.
Did it deserve to win?
“Was it the best film of the year? I don’t think so,” he said. “There were great films that year. Good Night, and Good Luck – amazing film. Capote – terrific film. Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, great film. And Spielberg’s Munich. I mean please, what a year.”
Those are the words of Paul Haggis, the writer, director, and producer of Crash. Even he doesn’t think his film deserved to win Best Picture. Enough said, really. In what still stands as the most undeserving victory in Oscars history, Crash had no place winning Best Picture. None. Not even a shred. Even putting its victory over Brokeback Mountain aside, its victory over the other three nominees is equally as baffling and infuriating. Good Night, and Good Luck is a stone-cold masterpiece and perhaps the year’s finest film. Munich is Spielberg’s most underrated film with a gripping and captivating narrative ripped from its historical inspiration. And Capote features one of the greatest performances of all time in a sublime film which doesn’t get the kudos it deserves. How on earth do you call a film like Crash the best film of the year over these three? But, more importantly, how do you award it Best Picture over a film like Brokeback Mountain?
How does one even begin to describe Brokeback Mountain? It’s one of the most beautiful love stories in the history of cinema, featuring one of the most devastating and shattering endings you will ever see. It’s led by the impeccable and revelatory performance of Heath Ledger, steered by the masterful direction of Ang Lee, and supported by a glorious ensemble cast of Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Williams, and Anne Hathaway. The cinematography is utterly stunning. The screenplay is a dream. The score is iconic and beautiful. It is a true work of art. There are few films I consider to be truly perfect. Brokeback Mountain is one of them. It’s cinematic perfection. How that did not equal Best Picture is a notion which still infuriates me to this day.
Is Crash a bad film? Well, not necessary. It’s a decent film which unfortunately has the look and feel of a straight-to-video melodrama. It begins promisingly enough with a series of sequences which introduce the main players and highlight their plight with race, class, and stereotypes. But when these characters’ stories begin to intertwine, the film really does lose the damn plot. There’s a way to craft such a multi-layered, multi-story narrative like this. Unfortunately, Haggis is no Robert Altman or Paul Thomas Anderson, and has no idea how to successfully create such a piece of cinema. There’s a genuine implausibility to the narrative of Crash that’s hard to ignore. The co-incidence factor of these characters existing in a major metropolis like Los Angeles, and yet somehow still manage to cross paths numerous times, is laughable.
And then there’s Haggis’ attempt at commenting on the serious topic of race which is as subtle as a sledgehammer. Every single character spends the entire film talking about racism. Literally, that’s all these people talk about. The entire film. Nothing else. Just race. I get that racism is a serious issue, but who in reality spends their entire life talking about it? It’s admirable Haggis was determined to craft a film which didn’t shy away from such a sensitive issue. However, there’s no sensitivity shown in his depiction of that issue. There’s so much promise in the premise, but its constantly undermined by the horrendous character arcs of its main cast.
One scene involving a black male pointing out the racist hypocrisy of white people feeling afraid of him in their safe and well-lit neighbourhood is terrifically written…until the point that same black man carjacks a white couple, at gunpoint, thus proving everything he has just said to be entirely irrelevant. Right. The cast all try their utmost, particularly the sublime and underrated Thandie Newton, but none are able to rise above the woeful screenplay they’re burdened with. Perhaps that explains their SAG Ensemble win. The actors felt sorry so many great actors found themselves in such a disappointing film.
Despite the hatred it suffers, Crash is not the worst film of all time. The worst film of all time to win Best Picture? Perhaps. One of the worst screenplays to win an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay? Definitely. A default Best Picture winner by the way of latent and shameful homophobia? Absolutely. But had it not won over Brokeback Mountain and three equally-terrific films, it might have sailed on by with at least some admiration and reverence. That doesn’t mean the film gets let off the hook, but it’s not entirely the fault of Crash that it found itself on the Oscars stage that night.
The Academy played their most shameful card in their esteemed history. Crash was the wrong choice for Best Picture, plain and simple. It’s a decision an Oscar watcher like myself will never forgive them for. A decision that still angers the blood and causes many of us to scream in anger and cry in disappointment. Nothing takes away the beauty and majesty of Brokeback Mountain. Not even the film losing Best Picture. It’s just hard to see such a deserving winner be robbed because of such bigotry, fear, and hatred. We will never forget this decision. And Crash winning Best Picture will always stand to be considered a decision of utter nonsense by the Academy.