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Oscar snub of Brokeback shameful

What do the Oscars tell us about life? Nothing, of course. “Winning the Academy Award,” as Paddy Chayefsky once famously told Vanessa Redgrave, “is not a pivotal moment in history.” Yet, there is no denying that the Oscars generate a great deal of interest, catching the attention of tens of millions of Americans, including many gay Americans, if only for a few hours. The results are studied by film buffs and trivia lovers for years to come, and become a part of the Zeitgeist.

While unimportant in the great scheme of things, the Oscars are a national institution. They highlight trends in the culture, serve as a milepost in mainstream American film, and provide a glimpse of what the top professionals in one of our countries’ most significant industries perceive as the best they and their colleagues have produced in the prior year. As a result, the Oscars serve as a seal of approval for many infrequent film-goers, who are more likely to watch a film on DVD or video, or will watch it when it later on television, if the film has earned the Academy Award.

The Oscar reflects and bolsters Hollywood’s bottom-line: an Oscar win in a major category can produce millions of additional dollars for a film, and the best picture Oscar can generate tens of millions in additional revenue — Million Dollar Baby took in an additional $35 million after taking home the Oscar last year — while also serving as a green-light for films with similar themes in the future. For example, the best picture Oscar for Dancing With Wolves revitalized the Western genre, while the award for Chicago did the same for musicals.

It is for that reason that Sunday night’s Oscars have some importance to the gay community. The Academy’s decision to award the Best Picture Oscar to Crash rather than Brokeback Mountain says that we have a way to go before films with gay characters at their core will receive Hollywood’s highest honor. How far, it is difficult to say. The defeat of Brokeback Mountain was a serious blow, one that suggests that Hollywood feels unable to endorse a gay love story with its highest honor, even if it means overturning years of Oscar precedent to do so. Make no mistake, the motion picture academy used a tire iron on Brokeback Mountain Sunday night, a fact that seems to be lost on a few leaders in the gay community, including Neil G. Giuliano, the clueless head of GLAAD, who sent out an e-mail on Monday morning highlighting Brokeback and Capote’s four wins and stating that “our community has cause to celebrate.”

A positive spin is often appropriate, but not after a setback such as this. Surely the academy members who told the press they would not even see Brokeback Mountain, yet alone vote for it, deserved some criticism from GLAAD. Instead, the organization put the Oscar-produced gay cowboy montage from Sunday’s broadcast on their website. Given the end results of the evening, there was little humor to be found in a second viewing of the clips.

None of the press coverage I have seen reflects how much precedent has been broken. It is substantial. No film in history that has won the best picture award from both the Los Angeles and New York Film Critics Association has ever lost the best picture Oscar, until Brokeback Mountain. No film that has won the producers’, directors’ and writers’ guild awards has ever lost the best picture Oscar, until Brokeback Mountain. No film that has won the Golden Globe, the directors’ guild award and led in Oscar nominations, has ever lost the best picture Oscar, until Brokeback Mountain. I am at a loss to explain why GLAAD thinks this is something worth celebrating.

To its credit, Crash overcame significant obstacles to win best picture. It is only the second film in history to win without having been nominated for the Golden Globe. It is the lowest grossing film to win since The Last Emperor in 1987. It is the first film since Rocky in 1976, 30 years ago, to win best picture with only two other Oscars to its credit. It is the first ensemble drama to win since Grand Hotel in 1931. And it broke more than 75 years of non-parochial voting by Academy members to become the first film set in Los Angeles to take home the golden statue.

Some of us thought that this was the year that a gay-themed film could break through in the top category. And, clearly, it almost did. Ang Lee became the first non-white director to be honored as best director. (I’m sure he earned the respect of every director in Hollywood when he pointedly forgot to individually thank his cast.) Oscar voters may have thought that by giving Lee his Oscar, and rewarding Phillip Seymour Hoffman with the best actor award for his lisping, negative portrayal of Truman Capote, they had insulated themselves from charges of homophobia. They were wrong. The decision to honor Crash with the best picture award, coming after a long, unprecedented season of wins for Brokeback Mountain in critics’ and guild polls, leaves a bitter taste, reflected in most of the entertainment industry press.

The shock is perhaps most notably expressed by the LA Times film critic Kenneth Turan who berated Academy voters in a major article in Monday’s paper. “In the privacy of the voting booth, as many political candidates who’ve led in polls only to lose elections have found out, people are free to act out the unspoken fears and unconscious prejudices that they would never breathe to another soul, or, likely, acknowledge to themselves,” he wrote. “And at least this year, that acting out doomed Brokeback Mountain.”

Others report widespread distaste for Brokeback among the academy’s older members, a distaste expressed by Tony Curtis, who told Fox News that he would not even see the film before voting against it. The New York Times on Monday quoted an attendee at an Oscar party who noted, without irony, that older academy voters opposed Brokeback Mountain because it “diminished” cowboys as iconic figures in movies. (Remarks like that suggest that the branding of Brokeback Mountain as a “gay cowboy” film, and the attendant jokes from late-night comics, defined the movie as something other than a serious cry from the heart.)

Turan’s opinion, that anti-gay prejudice led to the defeat of Brokeback Mountain, has clearly hit a nerve. Roger Ebert, one of the few public voices of support for Crash in the pre-Oscar campaign, has already responded with a defense of the winner, arguing that the film was superior. That judgment seems to have lost in the initial press reports, where the defeat of Brokeback Mountain is being reported as one of the biggest upsets in Oscar history, and a decision that is being seen as a stain on Hollywood’s liberal conscience. To be fair, support for Crash among the actors in the academy appears to be widespread. It won the Screen Actors Guild award for best ensemble (an award given to The Birdcage 10 years ago), and actors make up over 20 percent of the academy’s voters. And its appears to have been the choice of the Scientologists in the industry, who provided funding for the film — which also explains why the ensemble story set in contemporary Los Angeles contained not a single gay character.

Of course, this is only about Oscars and the movies. Despite George Clooney’s absurd assertion in his acceptance speech on Sunday night that Hollywood is a leader in the social arena — an assertion later endorsed by the Oscar producers with another ridiculous montage of films on social issues, a montage that inexplicably included films such as Something’s Gotta Give — Hollywood has never been a leader in social causes. It never leads; rather, it reflects. Clooney’s claim that the movie industry was out front on AIDS issues was perhaps his most far-fetched notion. Despite its loss of the best picture Oscar, Brokeback Mountain has already become a cultural phenomenon, and it has earned more than $130 million world-wide at the box office, making it one of the most financially successful westerns or gay dramas in history.

It is too early to know what impact the defeat of Brokeback Mountain will have on other films that have recently been green-lighted as a result of it’s box office appeal. It will be a shame if projects such as The Mayor of Castro Street and The Dreyfuss Affair are now shelved. One certain result will be the loss of many gay supporters at Oscar parties next year. Rather than a time for escapist fun, Oscar-time for several years in the future will bring back memories of the night Brokeback Mountain was denied the top prize to a vastly inferior film. As one who has viewed the annual program with enthusiasm for decades, I know I will not be tuning in next year.

Gregory J. King was the communications director of the Human Rights Campaign from 1988 to 1995 and has been an Oscar-watcher since childhood.

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