Post-Oscar Thoughts

Observations on the Oscars:

The Academy pulled a “Shakespeare in Love” maneuver by giving Crash the Best Picture award over Brokeback Mountain, which is to say that the Best Picture Award went to the inferior film, while the manifestly better picture has to make do with the Best Director award — which is what happened to Saving Private Ryan, which got the Best Director but should have gotten Best Picture over Shakespeare. I don’t think Crash is a bad film, mind you (neither was Shakespeare), it’s just clearly not the best film of the year. Hell, it’s not even the second-best Best Picture nominee. In fact, were I to rank the nominees, it’d go Brokeback, Munich, Capote, Good Night and then Crash. But then I don’t vote in the Academy.

What you saw here tonight was the Academy going out of its way to make political statements with its votes, and simultaneously performing some interesting Oscar-swapping calculus. Crash won best picture in part because voters felt like Brokeback would be sufficiently honored with a Best Director win, and the Academy members felt like they wanted to make a statement about racism too, and not just stand tall with the gay cowboys. Crash director Paul Haggis made it easy for the Academy not to give him the Best Director award by co-writing his movie’s script; he got the screenwriting award instead.

George Clooney’s award for Syriana was a general acknowledgment of his body of work this year, including Good Night and Good Luck, which had no chance of winning anything, but for which Clooney was nominated for in the directing and screenwriting categories — and it also allowed the Academy to award a politically-charged flick for being politically-charged (if not particularly coherent to most viewers). Rachel Weisz’s win was also for a politically-charged film. The Best Actor and Best Actress awards were pretty much politics-free, however; Hoffman was a case of a good actor being recognized and Witherspoon was a case of a pretty young actress playing a beloved icon in a weak nominee field.

(Bear in mind that all this suggests that “the Academy” is some sort of monolithic hive mind that votes in concert; it’s not. But the voters certainly trend in certain ways; this year, they were trending toward making political statements.)

I may be mis-reading the tallies, but I don’t think any film won more than three awards: Brokeback, Crash and King Kong each got that number. You have to go back 29 years to find another Best Picture which won as few awards as Crash did — Rocky, which also got three (but not the same three), and which was manifestly not the best Best Picture nominee of its year either (other nominees that year included Network, All the President’s Men and Taxi Driver).

What is true is that Crash, whatever its quality as a film, is the least financially successful Best Picture in decades, if not ever. I took in $53 million domestically, and of the Best Pictures of the last 20 years, only The Last Emperor took in less with $44 million. But that was in 1987 dollars; adjusted for inflation Emperor took in more than $75 million, which kicks Crash’s ass (it also won 8 awards; Rocky, the last Best Picture with just 3 awards; grossed $117 million in 1976 dollars). This was a bad year for Best Picture economics no matter who would have won, of course; even so this win confirms this year’s disconnect between “art” and mass culture come movie awards time (although — and this should not be neglected — Crash cost but $6.5 million to make, meaning that even without being a big hit it was almost certainly profitable).

I think over the course of time the selection of Crash as Best Picture will be one of those head scratchers for film historians, and will simply be chalked up as being the result of a certain combination of political and social off-stage influences in Hollywood rather than for the inherent quality of the film itself. Like I said, it’s not a bad film; in fact, it’s a rather good film. But it’s not a great film, nor the best film of 2005, or even the best film of the nominees. It is, however, a very lucky film, and this year that’s good enough.