This year's Oscars looks set to be one of those rarest of Oscar years: the attempt at a statement.
[Editor's note: This piece was written before Crash staged an upset, winning Best Picture at the 2006 Academy Awards.]
If, as assumed, Brokeback Mountain wins the Best Picture award at the 2006 Oscar ceremony, it will be as much a victory for PR departments and studio timing as any ideals of objective artistic analysis. Only a true outsider totally uneducated in the tradition of the Academy Awards, and film history itself, would submit that the event is everything it claims to be. Granted, the celebration of creative merit is enthralling, emotional and worthwhile, but to truly appreciate the role the Oscars play in film circles requires something more than cynicism and less than adulation. In plain terms, it's a Super Bowl for pop culture junkies.
The 2006 edition of this annual media circus is quickly becoming something quite divorced from the past few shows. Two years ago, the Academy (and its 5,803 film professionals) took a year off to lavish Return of the King, Peter Jackson and the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy with statues years in the making. It was one of those ceremonies where the winner was known so far in advance, and was so dominant in every category, that any notion of suspense on the outcome gave way to apprehension at inevitable fashion faux pas and fringe stories about the rise to fame of a budding filmmaker from New Zealand. The Oscars reverted to one of their most recognizable roles: a celebratory party for epic filmmaking. The only thing that matched Hobbit fever was the style in which the Academy chose to recognize it.
A year later and the mood was very different. For almost 11 and a half months, The Aviator had appeared to be the inevitable film that Martin Scorsese would ride to success. Long burned by the Oscar roadshow, he was once again beaten to the statue-shaped gold by an actor turned director. Where Robert Redford and Kevin Costner once stood, Clint Eastwood Hollywood hero, living icon and creator of the late-blooming Million Dollar Baby now dwarfed over the diminutive Italian-American. In Scorsese's defense, he didn't seem to take it too badly. Inside, however, he was probably resigned to the fact that history is already penciling his name in alongside those of Welles, Hitchcock and Kubrick as filmmakers that are recognizable enough to score nominations but too esoteric to claim the ultimate prize. At the very least, he should take comfort in the fact that he has done one better, going into the game more times than the majority of filmmakers that make up the more critically assembled canon. Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer and Godard never even reached the grand final and it seems unlikely that Costner or Ron Howard will be remembered quite as reverently as F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang in a century's time.
Yes, the Oscars resemble the Super Bowl much more closely than the superficial stardust they both share. Both harken back 10 and 12 months to films and teams that were on people's minds weeks before. There's a yearlong buildup to a uniquely American sense of occasion that's both exciting and totally, well, foreign to foreigners. In many ways, the Oscars and their precursors, expert commentators and Vegas odds share much more with sports than they do with the films they exist to reward. But, then again, the Super Bowl is about more than simply American Football. It's the one opportunity the game has to be propelled to the forefront of the collective American consciousness and any concessions to the mainstream have to be understood in this context. The TV share would be a lot less if it was just a championship playoff without the icing. And far less Americans would care about the Oscars if they really set out to critically and objectively award the year's best films.
But apart from their sporadically timed rotations of lavish agreement and deep resentment within its own ranks, the Academy does seem to view its role as being one of a trailblazer and it's from this mode that the most obvious questions regarding the core worth of the ceremony arise. There still exists a media trend that wants the Oscars to act as a soapbox; the view being that, as the world's most visible film event, they serve as a pretty accurate barometer of the current state of world cinema. One only needs to look at 2001 and the press hyperbole surrounding Denzel Washington and Halle Berry combining to form the first African-American duet in the leading acting categories. Coupled with Sidney Poitier taking home the year's honorary statue, the media angle was plain for all to see: black filmmaking is finally on the map.
Of course, that wasn't strictly true. Take Poitier as an example. He had already won a leading actor Oscar (for 1963's Lillie in the Field) and his previous filmography was strong enough to guarantee a standing ovation even without that statue. Denzel Washington won the Supporting Actor award in 1989 for Glory and that's without diving into the rich (and rarely Oscar-hungry) history of African-American cinema. Less than two months earlier, the Super Bowl had made its own history back-to-back kickoff touchdown returns and the parallels continued. Never mind that, in brutal honesty, the Washington/Berry wins and the Dixon/Lewis returns were only shadows within a century of prior achievement. They were now American folklore and that, more than any glitz and glamour, is what links the two spectacles as companion pieces.
Which brings us to the 2006 Oscar ceremony and its two-fold media angle. The first concerns the large number of smaller, issues based, almost independent films that were in the running. The main category alone tackled international foreign policy (Munich), free speech and the freedom of the press in relation to corporate pressure (Good Night, And Good Luck) and racial prejudice (Crash). In addition, Capote was the smallest film (both in terms of budget and box office) to be nominated for the big prize in quite some time. The Constant Gardener, a cautionary tale of African socioeconomics, could have won up to three awards and A History of Violence, Match Point and The Squid and the Whale were part of the screenplay shortlist on the back of stellar critical success.
Many pundits sought to theorize on the lineup as either an overdue acknowledgment by the Academy of the films that have for so long been resigned to its fringes or, with more frequency, a sign of the increasingly liberal Hollywood power base. The latter argument has little historical precedent. Even during the Reagan era, the best the Oscars could come up with in opposition was Platoon's 1987 Best Picture win so it seems a little overstated to argue that this year's ceremony (even allowing for host Jon Stewart) is a watershed for the American activist movement. Had the Academy really wanted to stick it to Bush, they had the chance to lavish attention on Fahrenheit 9/11 last year but passed it up to award the Republican Eastwood. So while it's probably not entirely coincidence that so many "liberal" films end up in the final five during the most denigrated presidential term of the modern era, it actually has much more to do with simple circumstance.
Barring Walk The Line (which I will assume just missed out on a Best Picture nod anyway), 2005 was simply a dry year for the kind of films that traditionally win Oscars. Amongst the epics, Cinderella Man failed at the box office and Kingdom of Heaven was critically ignored and largely forgotten. Memoirs of a Geisha gained none of the expected buzz, while Cameron Crowe's Elizabethtown sunk under critical weight and The Producers and King Kong simply failed to match their pedigree in any measurable terms. Most of the year's blockbusting films were unnominateable in the main categories by virtue of their genre, content or both. Therefore, the final lineup was pretty bottom-heavy, but to argue that it was the result of a collective Hollywood movement doesn't account for the total lack of competition that this year's critical darlings had from traditional Oscarbait. Nor does it take into account the increasingly savvy campaign practices of the smaller studios. But that's the angle, and the major factor in its creation remains Brokeback Mountain, and not its four competitors.
When Brokeback was being touted to win the two biggest awards, the media angle had the potential to be predictably blunt: Gay filmmaking is finally on the map! It had been the success story of the last six months, coming from outsider status to all but claim the prize before the nominations were even announced. There was still a school of thought (Roger Ebert included) that saw the film's dominance as a detriment and that has was slowly being overtaken by Crash but this is fairly typical of a one horse race. In 2004, there was a similar feeling that Mystic River could upend Return of the King and everyone remembers how that turned out.
So 2006 looks set to be one of those rarest of Oscar years: the attempt at a statement. Just as Halle and Denzel were honored in 2001, Brokeback looks set to, at least in their own eyes, rectify the Academy's consistent aversion to the oeuvres of Gus Van Sant (excepting, of course, his most mainstream film: Good Will Hunting) and Todd Haynes, amongst others. There's unlikely to be any overt disappointment and Brokeback's wins won't be enough to place it amongst the grand Oscar parties like those for Return of the King or Titanic. If nothing else, it's a welcome throwback to the days of Annie Hall and, fittingly enough, Midnight Cowboy. It's not as relevant or groundbreaking as a win for My Own Private Idaho would have been but if the Academy feels the time is right to propel an openly gay film into the pantheon of Best Picture winners, they could do a lot worse.
And if, like me, you often get frustrated with the Oscars, the compromise they inherently represent or choices of films to award and ignore, bear in mind that they need quality films far more than the inverse. Remember the favorite you cheered (I was backing Munich). Maybe you at least had fun dissecting the fashion and knowing that, no matter who won or lost, it represents little more than a footnote in the artistic terms that really matter.