Oscar Grouch

Salt Lake City Weekly | March 7, 2006
Crash beat out Brokeback Mountain for the Best Picture award at the Academy Awards on March 5—and it had to mean something. Hollywood is less gay-friendly than everyone believes, perhaps. Or it’s more interested in appearing sensitive to racism than in appearing sensitive to homophobia. Or after a year of bad box office, the industry didn’t want its most public face to be a dude in a cowboy hat kissing another dude in a cowboy hat. Somehow the entire entertainment journalism industry managed the slick logistical trick of banging out a thousand befuddled “think pieces” while simultaneously wringing its hands into withered stumps. It’s all the same weird combination of hilarious and depressing that we’ve come to associate with Scott McClellan press conferences.

The intensity of the analysis had a lot to do with the writers having a dog in a fight—or, at the very least, fighting whatever they perceived as a dog. There were those who remained underwhelmed by Brokeback as its bandwagon built momentum. And there those who loathed Crash, like New York Press critic Matt Zoller Seitz, who called it “an Importance Machine that rolls over you like a tank … lazy and simplistically cynical about its central subject.”

But wherever your personal preferences lay—Brokeback was my favorite film of 2005—it was crushingly obvious to me that everyone was asking the wrong question. The question wasn’t, “Why did Crash upset Brokeback Mountain?” The question was, “Why should we care?”

1980: Ordinary People over Raging Bull. 1982: Gandhi over E.T. 1990: Dances With Wolves over Goodfellas. 1994: Forrest Gump over Pulp Fiction. Are we beginning to see a pattern? And those are just examples since the death of disco.

Now some of you may look at those examples above and think, “Hey, I preferred the winner in that year over the loser you named.” Or you may wonder why I omitted the oft-mentioned travesty of Shakespeare in Love over Saving Private Ryan in 1998 (hint: I don’t actually happen to think it was a travesty). But even that is part of the Oscar trap. We breathe a sigh of relief whenever the awards go the way we would have them go, waiting for another year to fume over voting gone cockeyed.

We, the movie-lovers of America, have given the Oscars a power they have no business possessing. It is a vote for “excellence” in which many voters talk openly about not having watched all the nominees. It is a vote in which the electors are voting for their friends and colleagues, or maybe not voting for the guy who acted like an ass one day on the set. There’s a good reason why a place in the Baseball Hall of Fame is not chosen by a player’s peers the day after he retires—because time and distance allow a better perspective on greatness than immediacy and coziness.

Yet year after year, people keep coming back, when even a rat has the common sense to stop licking the plate that electrocutes its tongue. It’s one thing to watch in order to gawk at stars or mock the latest hysterically wrong-headed piece of choreography. But viewers have also allowed themselves to be duped into associating the highest quality with a televised advertisement for the filmmaking industry. If you had any doubts that’s exactly what the Oscar broadcast is, they should have been erased by this year’s theme of, “Oh, pleeeeeease go back to watching movies in theaters.” Whether they’re voting their conscience or with some agenda in mind—picking a veteran over a guy with more years ahead of him, for example—it’s still an industry sending its customers a message. Only in entertainment do people allow the manufacturers to tell them which one of their products is best.

Is there an element of sour grapes in a film critic complaining over who gets to decide cinematic immortality? Probably. I can’t deny that I’d rather see people flock to the films lauded by those who actually watch more than a few of them in a year. But the irony is that plenty of those same people have been the ones analyzing themselves into knots over the last few days. If Brokeback Mountain had won, as had been widely predicted, would that suddenly make the Oscars any more “valid” as an arbiter of excellence?

It’s time to stop looking at them—the Academy voters—because their interests are not yours. The interest of moviegoers would be better served by ignoring them entirely.

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