Ten years ago, as anyone who confidently marked Brokeback Mountain on her ballot in the office Oscar pool will remember, one of the most famous Academy Award upsets in modern history took place.
In 2006, Crash, Paul Haggis’ drama in which intersecting storylines explored the many facets and faces of racial prejudice in contemporary L.A., won the Academy Award for Best Picture over that tragic cowboy love story that was a watershed moment for mainstream gay cinema and widely considered the front-runner for the big prize.
After that year’s statuette show, the Oscar conversation focused on the shocking nature of that win and whether it said something about the Academy’s ability to embrace films that are truly progressive. “For people who were discomfited by ‘Brokeback Mountain’ but wanted to be able to look at themselves in the mirror and feel as if they were good, productive liberals, ‘Crash’ provided the perfect safe harbor,” Kenneth Turan wrote in a blunt analysis for the L.A. Times published the day after the ceremony. “They could vote for it in good conscience, vote for it and feel they had made a progressive move, vote for it and not feel that there was any stain on their liberal credentials for shunning what ‘Brokeback’ had to offer. And that’s exactly what they did.”
Looking back, the 2006 Oscar race feels like a bizarro version of what’s happening now. At the moment, with the Oscars still two weeks away, awards season chatter is dominated by the wide-open nature of the Best Picture race and the Academy’s attempt to deal with charges of bias and racism in the wake of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy. The trophy fortune tellers don’t know what to bet on for Best Picture because the top guild prizes each fell in a different direction this year: the Screen Actors went with Spotlight, the Producers Guild chose The Big Short and the Directors Guild of America honored Alejandro Iñárritu’s work on The Revenant. And before the ceremony has even begun, some Academy members are already feeling defensive because the media and some members of the public perceive the group’s overwhelmingly white nominees as evidence that they, and Hollywood, are resistant to progress and inclusiveness.
In 2006, the charges that the Academy was resistant to progress and inclusiveness came, but only after the ceremony took place and Crash pulled off its sneak attack. In the lead-up to the Oscars that year, there were still next to no people of color among the acting nominees; Terrence Howard, who was nominated for Hustle and Flow, was the only one. But a passing glance at the films and people recognized in various categories — Brokeback Mountain, Crash, Felicity Huffman playing a transgender woman in Transamerica, Ang Lee, who would go on to become the first filmmaker of Asian descent to win the Oscar for best director — suggested a Hollywood that was as open-minded and “Free to Be You and Me”-ish as ever.
Also unlike this year, beforehand, the Best Picture race looked like it was just a few stitches away from being sewn up. Though some predicted Crash could pull off an upset — including Roger Ebert and the New York Times‘ David Carr, who was then writing the Carpet Bagger column — Brokeback Mountain had won the top awards at all three of the guild ceremonies, which, coupled with the overwhelming accolades and attention the film had received, made it look like the likeliest victor. But embracing a gay movie, even as recently as 10 years ago, was controversial. While Brokeback immediately emerged as a cultural milestone, it generated almost as much media coverage about how some straight men were reluctant to see it because of the gay storyline. At the time, Lawrence Toppman, a critic for the Charlotte Observer even felt compelled to write a piece responding to readers who sent emails accusing him of “advocating the lifestyle of the gay main characters” because he had given the film four stars. He explained, in language that seems positively archaic in 2016: “There’s a difference between advocating a philosophy and responding to a strong film.” Being gay is a philosophy?
A Best Picture Oscar for Brokeback Mountain would allegedly confirm every stereotype about liberal, “amoral” Hollywood, something Jon Stewart, who hosted the Oscars that year, alluded to in his opening monologue. “A lot of people say that this town is too liberal,” he said. “Out of touch with mainstream America. An atheistic pleasure dome. A modern-day beachfront Sodom and Gomorrah. A moral blackhole where innocence is obliterated in an endless orgy of sexual gratification and greed. I don’t really have a joke here. I just thought you should know a lot of people are saying that.”
When Crash ultimately won, all kinds of theories surfaced to offer an explanation. Maybe the voters just thought it was a better movie. Maybe because its ensemble was so huge, everyone in the actors’ branch, the largest group in the Academy, voted for it and pushed it over the top. Because it was set in L.A., maybe it played to the home crowd more effectively than the Wyoming-set Brokeback Mountain. And then there were those who agreed with Turan: the Academy didn’t have the guts to anoint a movie about two gay guys, either because some of its members were too conservative or simply didn’t understand why that film was so significant. So they did the “easier” thing: rewarded a film that acknowledges that racial tensions continue to percolate in the United States. The truth is, the Crash win probably resulted from some messy combination of all of these factors.
So what can we take away from the Crash upset and its immediate aftermath that might be relevant to this year’s Oscar race? For one, even when the Best Picture contest seems nearly decided, it still can pull off a shock. But more importantly, it illuminates a few things about how Hollywood sees itself on matters of diversity.