Tuesday, March 2, 2010

My Oscar Love-Hate Story--A Personal Anecdote

All of you friends who visit my journal, and movie fans everywhere, know that the Academy Awards will be handed out on Sunday March 7.  While I don't think there will be too many surprises, even with the new balloting in the expanded Best Picture category, there's always a chance at a shocking upset, an unforgettable moment.

Before the week is over, I'll write here about my predictions, as well as how I would vote if I had a ballot.  Also, I will recall some of my biggest upsets or surprises, good or bad, and ask readers to remember their own.

Tonight...the Oscar moment that shocked me like no other, made me think I would never follow Oscars again, and forced me to confront how I defined myself.

This is a personal remembrance, confessional, what have you.  I appreciate those of you who come along with me on this journey of personal discovery....

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Growing up, I lived for movies.  I used Oscars as a way to understand what the industry thought was good filmmaking, justify my own opinions, gain access to forbidden adult-themed films, and impress friends with my knowledge of Oscar facts.  As I began making my own films, I copied techniques from sequences I loved from Oscar-winning movies. 

When I stood alone in my enthusiasm for a difficult film, Oscar often vindicated me with a win, or at least a handful of nominations.

As I followed Oscar movies and contests over the years, I often championed a film that was not a front-runner.  Most of the time I truly liked another film better, and had to resign myself to seeing another picture take the big prize.  By Oscar night, the probable winners were predicted and discussed repeatedly, and all of the other indicators (Guild Awards, Golden Globes, critics picks, and betting lines) usually had historical accuracy in pointing to the victorious film.

Sometimes a favorite, something that I closely identifiied with and held dear, actually won.  Having one of my favorites held up as an example of excellence for world acclaim and recognition, felt,by extension, like a personal reward, and I was proud in those thrilling moments: Bob Fosse snatching Best Director for "Cabaret", "Annie Hall" improbably taking Best Picture, "I'm Easy" from "Nashville" winning for Best Song, "Babe" for Special Effects; "Silence of the Lambs" sweeping the Top Five.  These worked on me like jackpots to a gambler. They kept me coming back every year.

Then, in 2005, I saw a movie that came together for me like no other: impeccably directed, beautifully adapted from a powerful short story, inhabited by its performers rather than acted by them, photographed gorgeously, with a subtle, delicate and haunting score.  It was a movie that portrayed a part of the country at a time in our history that hardly appeared in American movies, with characters I had never seen on screen before.  It told a story about people, a simple story with a still-unusual twist. The love between these men was real.   

I understood every nuance, every half-formed thought, every tentative gesture of affection.  It unfolded without political comment, romantically, with humor and honesty, to an inevitable and heartbreaking conclusion, with no histrionics.  It filled the screen like art in a gallery, but lived and breathed like the rugged sheepherders who fell in love one summer on "Brokeback Mountain". 

Ang Lee accomplished a subtle choreography of hidden glances and furtive affection, culminating in a startlingly intense episode of passion. "Brokeback Mountain" took viewers on a tour of an emotional landscape, one of hopeful companionship and desperate loneliness, at turns lush and austere. None of the characters was perfect. Each had recognizable noble features and tragic flaws. No one was a villain.  All were victims of forces none could articulate.  It felt true; the actors knew these people; and so did I, on many levels.  Like others who embraced this film, we finally saw ourselves, and our emotional truths, portrayed on screen by characters we knew had existed, and still do.

The idyllic opening sequence on the Mountain represented the big, open longing and freedom of Ennis and Jack, who found love for each other, only to see their worlds get smaller as they met the expectations of their limited environments, worlds that would not allow a loving partnership between two men.  They tried over the years with increasing desperation to go back to that magical time with each other.  Toward the film's conclusion, a scene depicting Ennis' visit to Jack's parents' home is as hypnotic and artistic a sequence as has been achieved by any dramatic film.  The image of the pathetic remnants of their great friendship and love, a postcard and two shirts, still haunts me.

It was everything I looked for in a film...to me, it was a perfect movie.

Had "Brokeback Mountain" passed under the awards radar, and quietly appeared and disappeared, I would have loved it just as much, but would never have placed so much of my own identity into its every victory on the awards circuit.

But it began winning awards (see a complete list here). And it started to clean up, winning everything from the Venice Film Festival, New York Film Critics, Golden Globes, American Film Institute, Broadcast Film Critics, BAFTA, Independent Spirit, and many others.  It cleaned up at the Writers, Directors, and Producers Guilds.  Ang Lee was the director of the moment. The film became a cultural phenomenon; but because of its nature as a "gay love story", the acclaim often became ugly. 

In spite of it winning all of the precursors that normally guaranteed a victory as Oscar's Best Picture, a campaign seemed to be underfoot to unseat the film.  Many conservative celebrities (and Oscar voters) were on record as claiming they refused to see it. 

Soon it was whispered, and then discussed, and finally built to a crescendo, that a small film called "Crash",  that had little Award cachet, was the most likely competition to Brokeback, which many considered the natural front-runner.

Finally...a movie that I loved....a movie that I identified with, was clearly the front-runner for the Oscars.  It almost couldn't miss......I would finally be the guest of honor at my own party...

And on March 5, 2006, this happened:

All I could do was moan the word "no" over and over again.  Clearly, this was a campaign of organized homophobia.  A segment of the Academy must have agreed to use "Crash", a self-important film about the pervasiveness of racism, as a weapon to ensure that no movie which portrayed a gay relationship went in the Oscar record books as Hollywood's best.

I felt like I had been unceremoniously shown the door.  I actually felt depressed for days; I was sure that the sad, sad, story that was "Brokeback Mountain" would find its sweet conclusion with Oscar glory, and that all of my life-study of film, all of my close scrutiny of Oscar lore and history, would finally pay off in a moment of sweet personal triumph.

I swore I would never watch Oscars again (even the following year when Ellen Degeneres was tapped as the Host of the telecast, a blatant ploy to bring back disgruntled gay fans, I thought.)  And for a year or two, I honestly believed that I was through with Oscars, and movies.  I needed to put that part of me to rest. I had lost my perspective.

Needing support, I started to read the internet, and found a wonderful blog by writer Dave Cullen, devoted to the Brokeback experience, called The Ultimate Brokeback Mountain Forum.  I soon discovered that there were hundreds of others who felt as I did.  It was also the first time I ever committed my own words on a blog.

I still hate what happened in 2006 with "Brokeback Mountain".  But the lure of the Academy Awards, as an enduring (if now less sacrosanct) historic record of American Popular Culture, has me in its grip once again.

The best thing this passionate Italian learned from the experience, as I sought to reinvent myself, was to trust my own view, and love a film (or not) as though awards were never given.  And to laugh, have fun, and not have to point to an award as justification of my own opinion, but to write my own argument, and stand by it, and re-evaluate it in time.

See you on March 7th!


  1. For a millisecond, and because of Jack's odd polysyllabic pronunciation of that word, I thought Capote had upset Brokeback...and that would have been fine with me. But Crash? The most inoffensive nominee? "Racism is bad, amiright?" No shit, fuckwad. Scuse my French, but that movie is just...not even Emmy-worthy. Mickey Rooney, Tony Curtis, Ernest Borgnine: shame on you boys. They even admit to not watching newer movies! Don't vote, then! So depressing...

  2. I couldn't agree more with you guys. I was heartbroken too when it didn't win. In my heart though was a good feeling that a film like Brokeback was even made and given the recognition it recieved.
    What got to me in the film was near and at the end when Ennis embraced Jack's shirt and took a deep breath into it. And at the end living in a trailer with Jack gone and he had to keep on living without him. I broke down at that moment because I knew that feeling in my own life oh so well.
    Great post!

  3. It's a crying shame that respected actors and others in the old guard at the Academy allowed their personal prejudices to stand in the way of giving a truly great film the kind of recognition it deserved.

    You would think professional actors would at least show the common courtesy of watching the movie, but they showed their true homophobic colors in this case.

    The Academy lost some of its luster that day in 2006, as did Oscar himself, when the film was rudely panned because of a bunch of small-minded idiots questioned its content. Lets pray they have become a wiser entity than they were then.

    Stop by, I have something to show you!