Brokeback Mountain
Ang Lee
Focus Features

Paul Haggis
Lions Gate Films

The only surprise at the Oscars came at the end of the evening. Everyone expected Brokeback Mountain to win best picture, a vote that would demonstrate the Academy’s solidarity with the gay community. The favorite had already won a British Academy of Film and Television Arts award, a Golden Globe, and all the critics’ awards. In fact, it had garnered more best-director and best-picture awards coming into Oscar night than Schindler’s List. And earlier that evening, it had taken best original score, best adapted screenplay and best director.

Then Jack Nicholson walked out to announce best picture. When he tore open the envelope and, with his trademark sardonic grin, named Crash the winner, it was possible for an instant to believe that Nicholson was giving Brokeback Mountain and the Academy the finger. Indeed, outraged fans rumored on the Web that Nicholson had actually perpetrated a hoax. But watched closely, Nicholson’s familiar grimace dissolves into an unrehearsed smile of surprise as he leans down to the microphone and says again: “Crash. Whoa.” He seemed as taken aback as everyone else in the Kodak Theater, and later, backstage, he insisted that he himself had voted for Brokeback Mountain.

Everyone has his own explanation of how the defeat of Brokeback Mountain and not the victory of Crash became the headline of this year’s Oscars. Annie Proulx, whose short story published a decade earlier in The New Yorker became the jilted film, heaped scorn on the 6,000 “out of touch,” “Heffalump” members of the Academy who could not see beyond their own walls and who therefore voted for “Trash—excuse me, Crash.” One Academy member who might fit Proulx’s description is Ernest Borgnine, an octogenarian who earned his best-actor Oscar in the 1950s. Asked about Brokeback Mountain, he said, “I know they say it is a good picture, but I don’t care to see it. If John Wayne were alive, he would be rolling over in his grave.”

Crash premiered in the spring of 2005, long before the season for Oscar hopefuls, and was already available on DVD when its nomination was announced, to the dismay of critics. Turning a handicap into an advantage, the makers of Crash deluged Hollywood with more than a 100,000 complimentary copies of the DVD. One can imagine members of the Academy who, in memory of John Wayne or for whatever reason, would not vote for the “gay-cowboy movie” picking up the Crash DVD and discovering an alternative. They might well conclude that the film was better than they expected.

And it’s true: although Crash is not in the same class as Brokeback Mountain, it is better the second time. Not only that—Crash is a dyed-in-the-wool Hollywood movie, filmed on location in Los Angeles, with an ensemble cast that gave jobs to more than 70 actors.

The Academy’s voters rejected Brokeback Mountain, but the film marks an important moment in Hollywood history. It gives mainstream audiences a story of two young men who fall passionately and irrevocably in love, a love they must keep closeted in the homophobic world of Wyoming and Texas, circa 1963.

When the film first opened, in selected theaters with demographics that guaranteed sophisticated moviegoers and a sizable gay community, audiences and critics were swept away. Reviews described it as the modern day Romeo and Juliet, the tragic love story of contemporary America. Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger as the lead actors gave the kind of extraordinary performances that will, for better or worse, indelibly color their future careers. But Ang Lee’s direction enabled this love story about two men to make it out of selected urban theaters to large, attentive audiences throughout the country and around the world.

In the film neither character has any doubt about his masculinity, but Jack (Gyllenhaal) is more accepting of his own homoeroticism; Ennis (Ledger) is drawn against his will to submit to Jack’s overtures. In their first sex scene we watch Jack spit in his hand, and director Ang Lee discreetly lets us imagine what follows. With the visual equivalent of euphemism, Ang Lee portrays this cinematic episode of anal intercourse. For a straight man in the audience even this euphemism can be a psychological challenge. What is he supposed to think, and how is he supposed to feel? Lee’s answer seems to be that he should be able to suspend his sexual taboos and accept with tolerance what he sees on the screen. As for what he should feel, there are only two and a half minutes of sex and no frontal nudity in this slow-moving film that lingers over the beauty of the mountains and the pristine wilderness. Lee treads a fine line, enabling heterosexual men to feel neither arousal and attraction nor dismay and disgust.

When Ang Lee received the best-director Oscar he saluted his lead characters, Ennis and Jack: “They taught us all so much, not just about the gay men and women whose love is denied by society, but just as importantly about the greatness of love itself.” And “love itself” is what we see: two men find the love of their lives, which ruins their conventional marriages and binds them together. Jack’s “I wish I knew how to quit you” is the film’s great signature line. But focusing on the theme of doomed love rather than exploring or celebrating the difference of homoerotic eros was Ang’s choice. Some in the gay community saw this as a reassuring message to the straight majority at the expense of a vision of the free sexual expression. They complained about Lee’s euphemistic restraint, about the fact that neither the lead actors nor the director were gay, and about the “love itself” marketing of the film. But for mainstream audiences Brokeback Mountain was gay enough, and its star-crossed lovers evoked compassion and tolerance.

If the tragic love story of Brokeback Mountain gave us a new cultural legacy of tolerance, as a take-off on the American Western, it was an irresistible invitation to locker-room humor. Every talk-show host and stand-up comedian had a gay-cowboy routine. The coup de grace was delivered by The New Yorker in February when—in the wake of Dick Cheney’s infamous hunting accident—the editors put Cheney and Bush as Ennis and Jack on their cover. Lenny Bruce said, “Satire is tragedy plus time.” This could describe the cultural fate of Brokeback Mountain: you can already find a million gay-cowboy jokes through Google, and Brokeback has entered our vocabulary as a new derisive term for gay.

Crash is neither tragedy nor comedy, and certainly it is no landmark in either film or American culture. It happens to carry the same title as David Cronenberg’s 1996 cult film about people for whom automobile crashes arouse sexual excitement. Co-writer and director Paul Haggis borrowed the title and almost everything else he put in his film.

Haggis, a long-time writer and director for television, likes to tell the story of a recurrent nightmare. He would wake up in a cold sweat having seen his own tombstone inscribed, “The creator of Walker, Texas Ranger.” But then he wrote the screenplay for Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby and proved that he is a man who knows how to find new life in old clichés. He has done it again in Crash. On first viewing, Crash looks like a pastiche of episodes from a TV police series set in Los Angeles. Instead of a linear plot, it is a tapestry composed of narratives that turn back in time and characters who intersect over a two-day period. Although the film breaks no new ground, offers no new insights, and presents no psychological challenges, the second viewing does reveal nuances and ironies. At its best, Crash is a meditation on racial stereotypes in Los Angeles.

Crash shows us the racist aspect of American character: we deploy stereotypes as we face the challenges of living in a diverse society. Unfortunately, Haggis does little to challenge our stereotypes. The two young black men who seem out of place in a white neighborhood are in fact about to carjack a couple at gunpoint; the politically correct white district attorney will suppress the evidence to make a crooked black undercover officer a hero and the white detective who kills him a racist. These vignettes only add to our fears and cynicism.

The two central characters in the ensemble cast are Jack Ryan (played by Matt Dillon), a hardened, lower-middle-class policeman, and Christine Thayer (played by Thandie Newton), an emotionally intense yuppie wife of an assimilated black director. They first cross paths when Ryan and his young partner spot Thayer and her husband in their car and Ryan concludes that Thayer, who he thinks is white, is performing oral sex on the driver. Miscegenation may be legal in the United States, but in the mind of the racist cop it is a provocation. As Ryan will soon discover, they are husband and wife, both light-skinned African-Americans, and Thayer—who has had a few drinks—is doing exactly what Ryan imagined. Ryan, over his partner’s objection, stops the car and asserts his white supremacy by sexually molesting the woman in front of her husband under the guise of doing a “body search.” Ryan’s racism and misogyny seem essential to his character, and this is reinforced in other scenes. Later, Thayer, who has displaced her rage and resentment onto her husband for tolerating her humiliation, is trapped in her overturned car after a crash and within minutes is in danger of being burned to death. Ryan is the first police officer on the scene, and he risks his life to save the woman who despises him. Once again we see the unwanted physical intimacy as Thayer’s screams of hatred turn into cries of desperation. Ryan, of course, saves her life, and as she is led away she looks back at the man who both abused and saved her.

How do we put the two aspects of Ryan’s character together? Haggis has no idea; he only wants to show us that our stereotypes can be a veil of deception, that they cause fissures in our character. He leaves unanswered how we get past stereotypes and judgments of other people. Certainly the answer is not in another character’s epiphany that her much disdained Hispanic cleaning lady is her best friend, but that may be as far as Haggis can take us. Although more bleak, Crash is a short step from the Hollywood feel-good movie Driving Miss Daisy, in which an elderly Jewish woman and her black chauffeur discover that they are each others’ best friends. That film also won an undeserved Oscar.

Proulx may be right about what pleases the Heffalumps in the Academy; they want to be reassured, not threatened. Crash proves yet again that stretching clichés without breaking them is the formula for success on Oscar night.