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
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
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
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
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
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.