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.

27 Comments on “Post-Oscar Thoughts”

  1. a few thoughts on the oscars

    Quick thoughts after the Oscars: Best. Opening. EVAR. I loved Jon Stewart, even if most of the audience didn’t until halfway through. This crowd takes itself very seriously, and they tend to sit on their hands for the new

  2. Memoirs of a Geisha also won three — costume, art direction, cinematography — which seemed to me a polite way of saying “terrible film, but doesn’t it look nice?” (See also King Kong’s three technical wins — visual effects and sound: “yes, Peter, very clever.”)

    Also among the robbed: March of the Penguins won while the far superior Grizzly Man wasn’t even nominated?

  3. I imagine a film which features both a man eaten by bears and Werner Herzog might have been a little much for your average Academy member. No disagreement about it being the better film, however.

  4. Actual exchange:

    Me: You know, I really have no desire at all to see Brokeback Mountain.

    Kim: I know what you mean. What’s the big deal? It’s just a love story.

    My guess is, that’s why it didn’t win. If the Academy clled it best picture, they’d be saying there’s something -special- (read: unusual, read: deviant) about homosexuality. If they believe that homosexual love is, well, just love…then a movie that’s pretty much just about that shouldn’t be anything really remarkable, should it?

    Of course, as you’d note by reading the above, neither of us saw it, so make of that what you will.

  5. The Los Angeles Times did an extensive story on the Grizzly Man screw-up.

    I’m leaning towards the theory that (a) Crash being on DVD since September helped out a LOT in terms of getting voters to see it and (b) enough of the gay-sympathy vote went to Capote to enable Crash to inch past Brokeback.

  6. I would have gone with Huffman not only for the Hoffman-Huffman combo but because I really do think her performance was phenomenal.

    Your observations are spot-on, regardless :-)

  7. whilst this is in no way a criticism, i just wanted to make the irrelevant point that this is probably the most typographical errors i’ve ever seen you allow to slip past your screening process.

    tired from a long day of award show watching?

  8. I have to disagree with you about the Best Actress category being weak this year. Both Charlize Theron in North Country and Felicity Huffman in Transamerica put in killer performances. Although, Reese Witherspoon did put in a phenomenal performance in Walk the Line. Probably one of my favourite movies of the year.

  9. I’m just glad Wallace and Gromit got the best animated award. Not just because it was great film, but because it managed to cram in a reference to just about every single horror film ever made.

  10. Because Grizzly Man aired on The Discovery Channel last year it was not eligible for an Oscar. Stupid rule, but a rule nonetheless…

  11. dan:

    “tired from a long day of award show watching?”

    Hey, give me a break, everyone here is sick. My copy-editing skills degrade with illness. Anyway, I went back and fixed most of the errors.

  12. Loved the opening to the ceremony last night, especially Whoopi Goldberg’s “Hell no!” I think Jon Stewart did a pretty good job. People were worried he’d be disrespectful or something, which, whatever…but he was good and I hope to see him back again.

    Because I am a good wife, I called my husband into the room so he could see Salma Hayek.

    Frankly, I was rather annoyed by the “the best place to see a movie is in the theater” stuff. Make something I want to spend $20 for me and the hubby to go see, something he’ll actually agree to see, and we’ll go.

  13. What was up with cutting off the speech for best picture? They let six guys talk in a row for best special effects in a German sitcom, then cut off speaker number two for the award of the night.

  14. John H: Not true–Grizzly Man didn’t air on the Discovery Channel until long after its theatrical release. It was absolutely eligible for the documentary feature prize, but the committee in charge of the shortlist, for whatever undisclosed reasons, didn’t feel it was good enough for consideration.

  15. What about that pimp song winning over Bird York? Granted I have no ear for rap-hop or whatever it is the kids call it these day but still thought Bird’s song was better than the other two.

  16. Yeah, “There’s nothing like sitting in a darkened room, with a screen bigger than life, and sound coming from all around you, with lots of other people.”

    …who just WONT. SHUT. UP. I’ll tell you what, Mr. Movie-man: you start devoting as much effort to keeping people from talking on their friggin cell phones in your movies as you do to keeping people from bringing in videocameras and we’ll talk about the moviegoing experience.

  17. For the most part, I have the utmost respect for your opinions, John, but Brokeback a better movie than Capote? Huh? Did you see Capote? Such a better film. I’m just saying…

    Of course, it’s not like Oscar is ever about the best. Here’s a nice little list of Director’s who’ve never won, starting with Altman, who at least got his honorary Oscar last night, correcting many years of stupidity on the Academy’s part (list is far from comprehensive, just rattling off the travesties I know):
    Robert Altman, King Vidor, Howard Hawks, D. W. Griffith, Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, Stanley Kubrick, Alan J. Pakula, Peter Weir, Akira Kurosawa, Cecil B. DeMille, Fritz Lang, Sam Peckinpah, Brian De Palma, and Martin Scorsese. The last five were never even nominated for an Academy Award.

    Any wonder why viewership is declining? Almost as bad as the Grammies…

  18. I *knew* that “good night and good luck” wouldn’t win it. But I sure do wish it had.

    There were times in that movie that I wanted to stand up and cheer – and I gather from other people that it DID get applause in cinemas elsewhere. It was a brave movie to make, it told some hard truths which are as applicable today, if not more so, than they were all those years ago. It makes me ache for the caliber of journalist which we just don’t seem to have these days. These days, the august New York TImes gets told by the powers that be to hold a story… and *they do*. For a year. [shaking head]

  19. “It was a brave movie to make, it told some hard truths which are as applicable today, if not more so, than they were all those years ago. It makes me ache for the caliber of journalist which we just don’t seem to have these days.”

    Too bad it wasn’t quite true. I think there is a good Salon article about the accuracy of the movie.

  20. Can you find a link? I’ve just gone to Salon and read three articles about it: a Clooney interview, a review of it and an article about “Liberal Guilt Awards” for the Oscars…and none of them reference a lack of authenticity. They all praise the film a great deal.

    I know when I heard Clooney on XM’s NPR-like station, they were adamant about how they’d been pretty meticulous in some of their details and actually played down some of the material…and they mentioned a few things they did change for the benefit of the movie…but nothing that sounded significant.

  21. A movie about true events that was modified to accommodate the limitations of the medium? Surely this is unprecedented.

  22. john: that was completely tongue-in-cheek. my apologies if i irked you. i did, in fact, mean to imply that watching award shows can be very, very tiresome…

  23. I think it’s pretty simple: Crash won because most Academy voters actually bothered to see Crash, and never bothered to look at Brokeback. A lot of those selfsame Academy members don’t vote on Best Director and so the voting there is usually more sensible.

    Most Academy members aren’t film critics the same way most waiters aren’t food critics. I don’t think there’s any deep message here aside from “Hey, Crash wasn’t too boring yet it was pretentious, and therefore must be Oscar-worthy.”

    P.S. Loved Ghost Brigades. Finished it one setting. Wish I could write like that.

    P.P.S. Bastard.

    P.P.P.S. I take it back. Please write more books.

  24. Wiz,

    From what I remember the basic point was that ERM was pretty late to the party and not all that influential in stopping JM. That other publications did more and that point is minimized in the movie.

  25. Hallelujah, John – I couldn’t agree more.

    I’ll also add that the Oscars have always lived on the precipice of common sense (they are, after all, an event where an industry congratulates itself on how wonderful it is). We watch because we want to see the beautiful people in all their beautifulness, to hear the host say something funny, or to see a “classic moment” where someone does something embarrassing.

    In a good year, I might go see a movie that won something if I haven’t already seen it. The second the whole thing becomes a political commercial for a specific social agenda, it takes a big step toward total uselessness.

    Finally, I think someone needs to remind these people that they make movies so people will go and see them. I hate to make the whole thing about box office, but if no one went to see these movies, then by definition, they weren’t the best pictures of the year. As for this concept of “brave choices in moviemaking,” movies about homosexuality and racism are not brave in an environment like Hollywood – they’re almost expected. If you want brave, talk to Mel Gibson about how the whole Jesus thing worked out…

  26. Saving Private Ryan better than Shakes in Love? You’re nuts. SPR had fantastic battle sequences and good actors and that’s as far as it went. Aside from the opening and closing framing sequences being horribly painful, they manage to make a HUGE blunder in continuity within 10 minutes – the now older Ryan fades into his memory… of a battle he was not a part of. If you don’t accept the whole thing as his flashback then the fade in makes no sense.

    Then the amazingly convenient and completely implausible perfectly mixed troop that Hanks leads… ugh.

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