Published March 7, 2006
Did Hollywood wimp out by not giving the Best Picture Oscar to Brokeback Mountain? Were the electors of the Motion Picture Academy quaking in their Gucci loafers at the thought that red-state America would rise up in fury at the insult to traditional American popular culture represented by a couple of gay cowboys — or, more accurately, sheep-boys? “Despite all the magazine covers it graced, despite all the red-state theaters it made good money in, despite (or maybe because of) all the jokes late-night talk show hosts made about it, you could not take the pulse of the industry without realizing that Brokeback Mountain made a number of people distinctly uncomfortable,” wrote Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times. “So for people who were discomfited,” he went on, misusing the word, “by Brokeback Mountain but wanted to be able to look themselves in the mirror and feel like they were good, productive liberals, Crash provided the perfect safe harbor.” Tom Shales of the Washington Post also questioned whether the award to Crash “was really for the film’s merit or just a cop-out by the Motion Picture Academy so it wouldn’t have to give the prize to Brokeback Mountain.”
This sounds improbable to me. Not that I have any very high opinion of the movie industry’s courage and daring in tackling the hard subjects or rewarding those who court controversy. But the controversy about Brokeback was mostly hype. The blue state liberals who make up most of the movie audience, certainly for films like this one, take it for granted that homosexuality is a perfectly valid “lifestyle,” while the red-state types who think that gays ought to be in jail don’t go to the movies anyway, or not unless Jesus is putting in an appearance. Anyway, the various controversies stirred up by gay rights advocates — the demand for same-sex marriage, for example — are hardly touched on by the film. In fact the gay theme is really incidental to the more mainstream (and pernicious) message about following your bliss, especially when it comes to sex, regardless of the damage to spouses and children.
Of course it’s true that this is a theme which Hollywood finds entirely congenial and to which it often returns, though perhaps not quite so often these days as in the boom years for “convention”-bashing of the 1970s and 1980s. In fact, the taking up of an ostensibly gay subject matter could be seen as the film-makers’ way of attempting to revitalize the otherwise moribund spirit of sexually “liberationist” triumphalism. If, once the novelty of the film had worn off and the self-congratulations of the tolerant and open-minded progressive film community had been reverberating for a couple of months, people began to think: “Been there, done that,” who could be surprised? Yeah, yeah, people ought to be free to love as their glands dictate. Where, even in the movie, are the conservative moralists saying otherwise? You’ve got your gays and you’ve got your gay bashers, but in between there is only dumb suffering.
In other words, the villains in Brokeback remain faceless and voiceless. In one way the picture benefits from keeping their shadowy threat almost entirely off-stage for, once made visible and articulate, it would have been sure to have turned into a caricature. Instead, director Ang Lee and writers Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana — all of whom did win Oscars — almost managed to create the impression that the villain was once again “society,” just as it was in the good old days when bourgeois respectability and puritanical sexual morality were still powerful enough to make it worth Hollywood’s while to attack them. His heroes, Ang Lee was quoted as saying, “taught all of us not just about gay men and women whose love is denied by society, but most importantly the greatness of love itself.” Ah, society. I remember that. I was very young, of course, but I can just about imagine what, back in the days of The Sound of Music, “society” (or what was left of it by then) would have had to say about a best song titled “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp.” Not nearly hard enough, apparently.
Anyway, “society” in that sense is obviously long gone. Just like Good Night, and Good Luck, another losing nominee Sunday night, Brokeback groped back more than forty years into the past to find a plausible bad guy who, as some of us dimly recall, wielded genuine power. Not, that is, just the accidental power of the gay-bashers or other criminals who catch their victim alone and unprovided with the means of defense but who, backed by “society itself,” must have been genuinely frightening. Munich and Capote were similarly set 30 or 40 years in the past. Was this just coincidental? Crash was the only Best Picture nominee set in the present day, and it too was more than a little tinged with nostalgia for the highly picturesque “urban jungle” world of the ’70s and ’80s when crime-ridden ghettos were no-go areas for whites and innocent blacks were routinely victimized by racist white cops. Oh, to have those days back again, when “revolution” was in the air! That’s why the performance on stage at the Oscars of the Best Song-nominated ditty “In the Deep” from Crash took place against a backdrop of fake burning cars.
But Crash had something more than nostalgia for the comforting moral and political certainties of that revolutionary time. It had the monumental smugness of those who, like the Academy itself this year, think it a virtue in itself to be “aware” of social problems and who, in thinking about such problems, fancy their own sophistication as moralists, their own concerns for “society’s victims,” than their less enlightened fellow picture-goers. Crash, like the Oscars themselves, blatantly appeals to the taste of the “movie community” for self-congratulation. Movie people swallow its intolerable preachiness and easy didacticism because they think it is good for them, not because it is good in itself, let alone entertaining. They watch themselves watching Crash and think, not for the first time, “What fine fellows we are for thus showing that we care about racial prejudice in society.” That word again! In Crash, as much as in Brokeback Mountain, they want “society” back so that they can have something to rebel against. Until then, they have to play at being rebels and revolutionaries as well as serious moralists and political activists. Each pose is as false as the others, but by handing out awards to themselves for their serious-mindedness, the progressives of the movie community are able to sustain themselves — and quite a lot of other people too — in the illusion for just a bit longer.
—James Bowman, The American Spectator‘s movie critic, is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and media essayist for the New Criterion.