Jack Nicholson needed only two words to sum up the 78th Annual Academy Awards. Upon opening the envelope containing the name of the winner of the Best Picture prize at the end of the ceremony, Nicholson glanced down, paused a beat, and said, ”Crash. Whoa.”
We couldn’t have said it better ourselves. After trailing Brokeback Mountain in the awards race for the past three months, Crash — the frank fable exploring racial tensions in contemporary Los Angeles — surprised not only Nicholson but most of the Kodak Theatre audience members, not to mention the millions of home viewers who were primed for a Brokeback victory. ”I am so shocked!” said Elton John at his annual AIDS-research fund-raiser after the telecast. Indeed, in the weeks leading up to the Oscars, Brokeback had won the top prizes from the Producers Guild, British Academy, and Golden Globes, while Crash’s arsenal contained a Screen Actors Guild ensemble prize and, well, not much else, other than mixed reviews. In 18 out of the previous 22 years, the Oscar went to a film that won a Golden Globe for Best Picture; Crash wasn’t even nominated.
Since several of this year’s major winners — notably Capote’s Philip Seymour Hoffman for Best Actor and Walk the Line’s Reese Witherspoon for Best Actress — were foregone conclusions, the Brokeback-Crash matchup was certainly the biggest question mark of the night. At the Kodak bar early on in the ceremony, admittedly biased attendees Maggie Gyllenhaal (whose brother Jake stars in the film) and boyfriend Peter Sarsgaard said they were convinced Brokeback would win. Its producer (and Focus Features co-president) James Schamus, however, was feeling a bit more unsettled. ”I live my life in this business as the underdog,” he said, ”and suddenly they keep telling us we’re the front-runner and I hate that.”
Meanwhile, Crash’s co-screenwriter Bobby Moresco received a sign on Oscar morning that would prove prophetic: ”I smashed my finger in the door,” he said, ”and I said to my wife, ‘It could only be a good day, ‘cause it can’t get worse and the day just started!”’ Crash didn’t start off strong at the Oscars, however, losing the first two categories for which it was nominated (Best Supporting Actor and Best Original Song), before picking up trophies for Best Editing, Original Screenplay, and Picture. (Incidentally, Crash’s three total wins mark the fewest victories for a Best Picture since Rocky also won three in 1977.)
Brokeback also struggled early, losing four of its first five races. Its defeat at the hands of Memoirs of a Geisha for Best Cinematography showed signs of weakness, and it wasn’t long before the audience witnessed the biggest Oscar upset since Shakespeare in Love trumped Saving Private Ryan in 1999. At all the after-parties, guests traded theories about the jaw-dropping outcome. Did Brokeback peak too early? Are there so many awards shows these days that Academy members just wanted something else to win for once? Did Crash particularly resonate with Oscar voters, the majority of whom live or work in Los Angeles? One hypothesis suggested that much of the Academy’s older constituency was turned off by Brokeback’s same-sex love story. As the film’s Oscar-winning co-screenwriter Larry McMurtry said backstage after Best Picture was announced, ”Perhaps the truth really is: Americans don’t want cowboys to be gay.” Indeed, asked at Hollywood’s old-guard ”Night of 100 Stars” party what he thought of Brokeback Mountain, Ernest Borgnine, who won Best Actor 50 years ago for Marty, responded, ”I didn’t see it and I don’t care to see it. I know they say it’s a good picture but I don’t care to see it. If John Wayne were alive, he’d be rolling over in his grave.”