Crashing the Academy Awards: five years later

Corey Wackel

Corey WackelNews Editor

The fight between Crash and Brokeback Mountain remains one of the biggest Oscar upsets.

Five years ago, on March 5, 2006, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences made one of its most controversial choices for Best Picture when they awarded the top prize to Crash over the odds on favorite Brokeback Mountain. Many accused the Academy of being homophobic and questioned whether they were oblivious to the changing face of cinema. Now that some time has passed, it’s a great time to reflect back on the two films.

Crash was actually released in 2004 so the fact that it stayed around long enough to win the top prize in 2006 is astounding. Last year’s “The Hurt Locker” is the only other recent movie I can think of that has accomplished the same feat.

Crash features an impressive ensemble of Hollywood players and it weaves their stories together in an impressive, if not convenient, way. Where Crash excels is in its storytelling. The film examines the racial and social tensions that are present in an era when many seem to think that racism is a thing of the past. It’s an intriguing film because it doesn’t play it safe and it often gets under the skin with its blistering honesty. Matt Dillon, in the performance of his career, plays a particularly jaw-dropping cop who, more than once, lets his racist thoughts bubble to the surface. His character isn’t the only one, however. Writer and director Paul Haggis, who became the only individual to write back-to-back Best Picture Oscar winners when Crash followed Million Dollar Baby, writes what I believe to be the finest original screenplay of the last decade and fills it with complex and conflicting characters. It forces us to realize that in the busy world in which we live, we are lucky if we ever really truly make contact with others around us. At one point in the film, Don Cheadle’s character says the following: “In any real city, you walk…you brush past people, people bump into you. We’re always behind this metal and glass. I think we miss that touch so much, that we crash into each other, just so we can feel something.” Additionally, the tagline for the movie poignantly states that “moving at the speed of life, we are bound to collide with each other.”

Crash exposes us as the people we really are and not just in the terms of how we see ourselves. From a critic’s standpoint, in addition to featuring a great script, the film features some Hollywood actors giving the finest performances of their career to date. Sandra Bullock does more with 10 minutes of film than she has done in some of her other full length movies and Thandie Newton exposes the talent of an actress that has remained under the radar for far too long.

Brokeback Mountain is based on the novel by Larry McMurtry and was released in 2005 to critical acclaim. Jake Gyllenhaal and the late Heath Ledger bring to life two cowboys who fall in love while herding sheep in Wyoming. Many people shied away from the film because of its taboo subject and that just goes to show how close-minded some people are about the matter. What’s interesting about Brokeback Mountain is that it fits in with other romantic films rather nicely; it’s not merely the “gay cowboy movie.” Ledger gives what could be considered his finest performance, and supporting players Gyllenhaal and Michelle Williams also deliver great work.

What I think works best about the film is that it takes one of the most controversial topics of our time and infuses it into one of the oldest genres around. It was a gutsy move; one worth applauding all of those involved with the making of the movie. Many people were as uncomfortable with the subject matter as some of the main characters in the film were, but by using such a heated topic, it goes on to create one of the most moving pictures of our era. It is by no means a conventional picture, but that’s what I liked about it. The film lets the story build upon itself and it allows the actors involved to do some of the finest, most intimate work of their career. Director Ang Lee, who won the Oscar for Best Director in 2006, takes many chances with the film and all of them seem to pay off. I think those who are willing to give the film a try will be surprised at its impact.

We now arrive back at the question of whether or not the Academy made the right choice 5 years ago. For my money, Crash is still the best choice. Each year has multiple films that are worthy of the prize and I can imagine that it is hard for voting members to pick a favorite. Whether homophobic tendencies were behind the voting we’ll never know. What remains is that the 2006 ceremony gave us a worthy Best Picture, as well as two cinematic high points from the last decade in film.