Monday, March 06, 2006

Did Brokeback Lose Because Hollywood Hates Gays? Or Maybe Because It Fears That America Hates Gays? Or Maybe... 

I watched the Oscars with team Teen Drama last night, chasing down pigs-in-blankets (provided by host DP Styles--mmm, thanks), barbequed antelope and bacon wrapped duck (provided by our resident game slayer, Southern Gent--double mmm) with three or four bottle of Anchor Steam Ale (do I even need to tell you that I brought the alcohol?). A New York City newspaper had asked me to write about the Oscars for a “second day” analysis piece, and I spent most of the night hoping someone would do something crazy so that I would have something to analyze. And I hoped they’d do it late enough to miss the deadline for Monday’s papers so my take would still be fresh on Tuesday morning. As you know nothing noteworthy happened, and this morning my editor and I agreed to kill the piece.

My favorite moment was when host Jon Stewart poked fun at Hollywood’s elitism at the Oscars Sunday night by turning to a giant Oscar statue looming over the stage and asking: "Do you think if we pulled this down, democracy would flourish in Hollywood?" No doubt he was alluding to famous image of Iraqi’s and American soldiers toppling the statue of Saddam Hussein a few years ago. He couldn’t have known that his remarks would turn out to be a prediction of the night’s final award, with underdog Crash toppling elite favorite Brokeback Mountain for Best Picture.

Hollywood’s elite wanted the Oscars to break new ground by awarding its top prize to the gay-themed Brokeback Mountain. If celebrating Brokeback made Hollywood seem out of touch with much of America, all the better. Much of the Hollywood elite imagines itself as iconoclastically progressive, shattering American icons such as cowboys and pressing for civil rights against recalcitrant American bigotry.

That probably sounds a little bit like a reactionary rant. But don’t take my word for it. Take theirs.

Here’s Best Supporting Actor winner George Clooney:
I would say that, you know, we are a little bit out of touch in Hollywood every once in a while. I think it's probably a good thing. We're the ones who talk about AIDS when it was just being whispered, and we talked about civil rights when it wasn't really popular. And we, you know, we bring up subjects."

And here is “Crash” producing Paul Haggis:
Bertolt Brecht said that art is not a mirror to hold up to society but a hammer in which to shape it, and so I guess this is ours.'

As soon as they announced the win by Crash, I knew it wouldn’t be long before someone started complaining that the loss by the gay-themed Brokeback Mountain demonstrates a lingering anti-gay prejudice in Hollywood. Sure enough, Los Angels Times critic Keneth Turan blamed “unspoken fears” and “unconscious prejudices” for thwarting “Brokeback Mountain” reach for the top prize. Reuters’s Arthur Spiegelman complained that Hollywood had shut “the closet door” on gay-themed films . There’s more of the same from Nikki Finke. Didn’t Mickey Kaus predict exactly this reaction to Brokeback’s loss?

I did a quick dash over to Kausfiles to see if he was gloating, which he was. But he was kind enough to offer the proponents of the “fear” hypothesis a slightly more plausible alternative explanation.
If the problem is really that Academy members let their fears win out over their better judgment--which I don't buy--isn't it more likely that the fears were not the Academy members own unspoken homophobic fears but fears of what their audience would think if they gave first prize to Brokeback? ... Fear of the audience--specifically, fear that the mainstream American audience will conclude you are a bunch of out-of-touch coastal liberal elitists--may in fact be the most pervasive fear in all of media.”

What makes even this alternative unlikely is that the director of the supposedly fear-inducing gay-themed film was awarded the Best Director prize and Phillip Seymour Hoffman garnered the Best Actor award portraying a famous homosexual. Is this how an Academy afraid of an anti-gay blacklash would behave? How can this be shutting the door on gay-themes?

Before conservative pundits start championing Brokeback’s loss as a victory for their side, they might want to note that Best Picture winner “Crash” is also a “topical” film centered on a cherished liberal obsession—American racism. Indeed, many critics praised the film for undermining racial stereotypes. (Although this might be a misinterpretation—Steve Sailer has argued that the film actually demonstrates how accurate those stereotypes can be.)

It seems to me that the most likely reason Crash won over Brokeback is that it has a far more appealing storyline. People would rather watch the story of a racist Irish cop heroically redeemed by rescuing a black woman than what one of my friends described as a “long, ponderous, gay march toward death.” If Crash is Homer’s Odyssey set in L.A., then Brokeback is Aeschylus’s Agamemnon. And when was the last time anyone staged Agamemnon?

(Update: Okay, okay. Stop with the emails. On reflection the reference to Homer and Aeschylus gives both movies too much credit. I only included the classical works to illustrate what different kind of stories they are, and that Crash's story is in some ways the more familiar kind. Crash does have serious problems. It is psychologically manipulative and it is topical--which is to say it seems to have a message but it really doesn't. It has topics--race and crime--but doesn't quite know what to do with them. This happens with a lot of contemporary films. They come close to having a message and then slink away from them.)

What’s more, I suspect that the “topics” involved in Crash—race, crime, prejudice—intersect with people’s lives far more than the topics—homosexuality and homophobia—raised in Brokeback. Even progressives who favor gay marriage and such things might connect more with Crash. Also, setting Crash in LA rather than in Brokeback’s rural west probably didn’t hurt.

Is it too cynical to suspect that one of the best ways to win an Oscar is to cast a lot of actors in your film? After all, a lot of actors are Academy voters and so creating a film with a large ensemble cast probably marginally increases your chances of winning.

None of which means that either film is any good. In fact, 2005 seems to have been a spectacularly bad year for big movies. Most people I talked with disliked both Brokeback and Crash. But that’s the problem with an annual award show—they have to give out the awards every year. And if it’s a year of stinkers, well, I guess they end up holding their nose while they vote for the winners.

So maybe Crash’s win didn’t exactly topple the power of the elite Hollywood Sunday night. But those who wanted the Oscars to be a celebration of the politics of Brokeback were dealt a rebuke by Academy voters not yet accustomed to following the orders commanding them to vote for this year’s pet cause. And to me, every little sign of resistance against settling in the mould of homogenous opinion is a reason to smile.