The reactionary Academy

Now that my erstwhile editor has pointed out that the string of invectives (mostly comprised of words you won’t see in this paper), which I sent his way following the announcement of the Best Picture winner, is virtually identical to the string of invective I unleash every year after the announcement, I guess I can calm down sufficiently to address this year’s awards. While I am in more than usual disagreement with the Academy voters, I did find the outcome educational – and, no, not because they opted for the least-worthy film out of the five nominees, but because of what their choice says about the Academy.

A few weeks ago, Steven Spielberg remarked that the political climate in this country had prompted filmmakers to be more daring, more political, more outspoken. Judging by films like Syriana, Munich, Good Night, and Good Luck and, yes, Brokeback Mountain, it’s hard to say he’s wrong. But at the same time, it’s equally hard not to conclude that the Academy remains as stolidly reactionary as ever.

This year’s awards are almost impossible to address without getting into the political side of things, because the choices are so telling. Consider that the Academy passed over a genuinely brilliant performance by Felicity Huffman as a transgendered man in Transamerica in favor of Reese Witherspoon doing her patented perky thing while impersonating June Carter in an utterly unimaginative biopic on Johnny Cash, Walk the Line. That can be seen as typical Academy thinking, because it’s in keeping with the absurd cumulative view of people who have supposedly paid their dues and are therefore given extra points for tackling something more “serious” – to the degree that a highly romanticized, heavily fictionalized biopic is serious. And it was hardly unexpected.

Just as expected was Philip Seymour Hoffman’s win for his impersonation of Truman Capote, despite the fact that a strong case can be made that Heath Ledger’s performance in Brokeback Mountain was a much more powerful one – one achieved without the aid of the kind of easy artifice and mannerism available to Hoffman. However, it’s interesting to note that the Academy chose to go with a characterization safely grounded in every gay stereotype known to man, as opposed to Ledger’s completely nonstereotypical portrayal. That Capote himself was a walking caricature of gayness doesn’t change the fact that the choice suggests a preference for that familiar – and ultimately safe and nonthreatening – stereotype.

And then there’s the Big Wuss Out that was the Best Picture choice, which supports the underlying reactionary tone of the other awards. It rarely happens – and it’s hard to justify when it does happen – that the Best Director award and the Best Picture award do not go to the same film. But it happened here. Ang Lee did the best job of filmmaking with Brokeback Mountain, but Crash emerged as the Best Picture? How so? Did Crash make itself? Or is it simply that Crash was the safest choice that still allowed the Academy to feel it was honoring something important?

It’s not that Crash is a bad movie, but for all its attempts at high-mindedness, it’s a fairly mediocre one that relies on an improbable chain of coincidences to make the simplistic point that everyone has racist tendencies, as well as the more dubious point that every racist is capable of nonracist actions. And it’s not – so far as I’m concerned – a film that holds up on repeat viewings, because the mechanics of its approach become increasingly obvious. (I gave it a better review when it came out than I would now.) But the film boasts a certain credibility because it’s about an important topic – one that, significantly, isn’t going to upset anybody in the way that Munich, Good Night, and Good Luck and, most of all, Brokeback Mountain have.

Crash is also far from the worst movie ever to cop the little naked gent; for example, last year’s winner, Million Dollar Baby, was worse. But Crash‘s win is one of the most disappointing in Oscar history. Spin it any way you want, but the bottom line remains: This was the wimpy choice that preserves the status quo and doesn’t frighten the horses. Expect much rejoicing in certain quarters in the next few weeks, and a flood of statements about “traditional values.”

Of course, the Academy voters didn’t ignore Brokeback Mountain – it was too much the cultural phenomenon to do that. But they kept the movie in its place by giving it two large awards – director and adapted screenplay – and an equally well-deserved nod for best musical score, while denying it the biggest award of all. For this I sat through three-and-a-half hours of lame jokes, no controversy, witless montages on movie history (assembled by people with only the sketchiest notions of such) and ads where J.C. Penney mystifyingly annexed T. Rex’s “Bang a Gong (Get It On)” as their improbable theme song?

As a show, the 78th annual Academy Awards – despite the theoretically edgy presence of Jon Stewart as emcee – will likely go down in history as one of the dullest ever. Apart from George Clooney’s surprise win for Best Supporting Actor for Syriana (which was an early indicator that Brokeback was about to get shafted), the awards were either predictable or regrettable. The enthusiasm seemed forced, the glitz more of the dime-store variety than usual. Oh, for the days of Sascheen Littlefeather and documentarians reading a message from the Viet Cong! Those were at least lively.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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