There were few souls brave enough to bet against Brokeback Mountain winning Best Picture in 2006. Those who did were teased incessantly and seen as rather senile. For most it was a done deal. Ang Lee’s film had inspired an endless spiral of important moral discussion and celebrity parody. Everyone in Hollywood was busy ramming the film’s importance down people’s throats and every critic seemed more than happy to take the bait.
Brokeback Mountain had tightened its grip on popular culture in a devastatingly rapid fashion and on its road to inevitable Oscar glory had become the most honoured movie in history. In the months of January and February you would be hard pressed to find a film organisation that dared to think otherwise. And certainly if Brokeback Mountain was going to somehow be defeated in the Best Picture category then it wouldn’t be as a result of the incredibly low budget picture Crash which had received uneven reviews and surprised many by even being nominated in this category in the first place.
And yet on Sunday March 5th 2006, almost 39 million viewers watched in shock as the ultimate underdog triumphed over the gigantic favourite. David had slain Goliath and for a moment it was as if the world had stopped still as Paul Haggis and co took to the stage.
For now however let’s rewind the clocks back a year as we analyse how one of the biggest shocks in Academy Award history transpired.
Crash initially premiered at the 2004 Toronto Film Festival but didn’t hit theatres until May 6th, 2005 making it ineligible for that year’s Oscar spoils. Certainly a film with such an awkward release date appeared to have missed the boat as far as important critical awards were concerned but this didn’t appear to be an issue anyway as Crash did not exactly receive the overwhelming positive response that one might expect from a future Best Picture winner. Instead its reviews were rather wide-ranging in regards to quality and the critics who had enjoyed the film weren’t going out of their way to praise the multi-narrative drama. On Rotten Tomatoes the film earnt a solid 76% score which wasn’t exactly a great indicator for film awards success. To put it into perspective every Best Picture winner since Crash has received an RT rating that at least dipped into the 90% region.
Whats more of the eight reviews that had written by top critics three had been labelled as negative. Time Out’s Geoff Andrews had mocked the film’s “melodramatic implausability” and in his New York Times Review A.O. Scott also struggled to see past the elaborate contrivances that result in a range of ethnic types being brought together through a thematic plot device. Although he admitted the film was powerful in places and praised Haggis’ daring, he came to the conclusion that Crash crucially lacked a “credible narrative or psychological motive.”
Crash had performed well commerically going on to make ten times its budget in the States but by the time the end of year awards were announced the film had already been stacked on DVD shelves for a number of weeks. As a film lacking the necesarry buzz that comes from gaining a theatrical release close to the Oscar balloting, it was assumed that the film would be very much left on the shelf in regards to awards buzz also.
Certainly the end of year awards confirmed this. When Premiere Magazine and Entertainment Weekly both compiled a list of critics 2005 choices Crash was a mile behind the front-runner Brokeback Mountain. One critic who had stood up for Crash was Roger Ebert who positioned the film number one in his annual top ten list. Many people lambaseted Ebert for this decision and insisted that he had lost touch with the profession that he had been dedicated to for years. So much for having an opinion!
By a complete contrast, it would have been nearly impossible for Brokeback Mountain to receive anymore positive hype than it did upon its release in Mid-December.
The film which depicted the complicated sexual affair between two homosexual cowboys was showered with praise in the months that followed winning three of the big four American critics awards (Good Night and Good Luck won the other), and prevailing at the Producer’s, Director’s and Writer’s Guild Awards. Throughout January and February the film won more film honours than Schindler’s List and Forrest Gump combined and it seemed to all extent and purposes that Brokeback Mountain was pretty much Arsenal’s 2003/2004 premiership side i.e. unbeatable.
Meanwhile Crash could not even garner a Best Film nomination at the Golden Globes. Only once had a film not nominated for the Globes gone on to win Best Picture and that only occurred because in 1973 people were confused as to which category The Sting belonged in.
Things were not looking at all good for Crash but Lionsgate Theatrical President Tom Ortenberg had an unforseen trick up his sleeves. Rather than relfecting miserably on the fact that Crash was a year old picture lacking in hype, he cunningly used the film’s positon as a DVD as an advantage.
Although Steven Spielberg was adamant that no screeners be sent out for Schindler’s List it is common practice for producers of Oscar nominated films to send out in the region of 10,000, screeners to important critical organisations. Anymore than this however is not only expensive and exhausting but also comes at the risk of piracy which is a big threat when a number of the films are still running in theatres.
Given that their film had already been out in stores for months on end however Lionsgate suddenly realised that there was no harm in sending out as many screeners as possible.
In fact they thought, how about we just send screeners to everybody. And with this in mind, they did. It was a $4 million transaction but Lionsgate performed a landmark feat of sending out no less than 130,000 screeners which included every single member of the Writer’s and Director’s Guild. Although the film didn’t win either prize this innovative tactic had launched them back into the race and there was no longer any concern about whether a film that had been released on DVD in September 2005 could stay in the public conscience until early March of the follwing year.
Although Crash’s marketing campaign had every Hollywood tongue waggling and every watercooler drowned in excitement, Brokeback Mountain was still the heavy favourite. As February 2006 arrived, every Oscar analyst in sight was hedging their bets on Ang Lee’s film. No-one it seemed had caught wind of the cruel dramatic foreshadowing when in 1998 the apparently insurmountable Saving Private Ryan had lost to Shakespeare in Love in part thanks to an expensive marketing campaign. Surely however Brokeback’s form was just too solid for such a shock to occur again?
And so Oscar night arrived. The 2006 ceremony took place at the Kodak Theatre and had been moved to March owing to the Winter Olympics that were taking place in late February. The move did little for ratings however as an estimated 38.9 viewers made it the third least watched Oscar event of all time. This may have been due to the seeming inevitability of the major prize or because this was seen as the year of the Indie, with very few Box Office hits nominated. All Best Picture nominated films were story driven and artistic in tone with Brokeback Mountain and Crash competing alongside Steven Spielberg’s Munich, Bennett Miller’s Capote and George Clooney’s political, black and white drama Good Night and Good Luck. In a rather rare occurrence all five Best Director contenders saw their films nominated for Best Picture.
On the night itself awards were very evenly split amongst the contenders and no single picture dominated. King Kong triumphed with a few technical prizes, Memoirs of a Geisha swooped up the art awards and Crash and Brokeback both shared writing honours although Ang Lee crucially took home the Best Director award. As soon as the Taiwanese filmmaker made his way to the podium there was an even greater feeling of predictability amongst those in attendance and people watching on their screens at home. Best Picture and Best Director honours are very rarely split as it is, not least with Brokeback Mountain’s incredible awards form heading into the big night.
Then out of nowhere it happened.
In spite of the fact that it was lacking crucial awards in directing and acting categories, that it was made for just $6 million, that it was a film-festival acqusition, that three Oscars would make it the least dominant winner since Rocky – Crash had won Best Picture. Heads must have exploded and hearts momentarily stopped beating. Legs no doubt shaking, the Crash squad headed to the stage and before he knew it Paul Haggis was thanking the Academy for “embracing our film about love, and about tolerance, about truth.” It was amazing that he was able to be so composed because it would have taken an extremely confident man to sleep comfortably the night before in thinking that such a feat was possible.
And so after all the shock had died down talk about Brokeback Mountain became all the range again. Although this time it wasn’t how Brokeback Mountain was going to prevail at the Oscars but rather how on earth Brokeback Mountain didn’t triumph at the Academy. Although all five nominated films were perfectly solid efforts some reporters began defending Ang Lee’s film as it was their own mother who had been robbed of Oscar glory.
Kenneth Turan writing for The Los Angeles Times went on a bitter tirade in which he audaciously claimed that prejudice had clouded voters judgement. Writing passionately as if he had all the evidence in his hands, Turan claimed that ““you could not take the pulse out of the industry without realizing that this film made people distinctly uncomfortable.” He had no qualms about leaving his point ambigious by continuing to shine a big, bright light on his persepective:
“In the privacy of the voting booth… people are free to act out their unspoken fears and unconscious prejudices that they would never breathe to another soul, or likely, acknowledge to themselves. And at least this year, that acting out doomed ‘Brokeback Mountain.’
Some people were inclined to agree with Turan and thought that Crash was the politically friendly alternative for voters who felt uneasy with Brokeback Mountain’s subject matter. This way they could still feel good about the fact that they had rewarded a film that dealt with important racial prejudices.
Other camps argued that the film’s setting of Los Angeles was hugely beneficial with it being the home of the majority of Academy voters and apparently lending weight to this opinion was the fact that previous Best Picture winner Million Dollar Baby had been set in ‘their city.’ Further arguments were made about Academy voters being too old and not up to date with the new, politically and moraly savvier generation. One argument that received little support however was that voters just happened to think Crash was the better film. This conclusive theory would have left no room for precious newspaper inches and we all know how much Hollywood loves a good debate.
A number of gay activists didn’t believe that the subject matter had anything to do with Brokeback Mountain being snubbed with Joe Solomnese, the president of the Human Rights Campaign coming forward to claim that both films dealt with “tough issues like indifference and intolerance.” Backing up Joe’s words were campaigners who all shared the sentiment that an Oscar win would have paled in comparison to the important, mature message that Brokeback Mountain made about the nature of homosexual relations that had helped to inspire a number of socially important debates.
Crash evoked the achievements of previous shock Best Picture winners such as Shakespeare in Love and Chariots of Fire and stands as proof that nothing is ever one hundred percent when it comes to the Academy.
Thank-you for reading.
This article was first posted on February 14, 2011