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Brokeback backlash in full force

Brokeback backlash in full force

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The Academy Awards may have marked a "maverick year," but Oscar voters still felt more comfy with a movie about racism than with one depicting gay sex. So maybe they're not so "out of touch" with mainstream America after all

In Sunday night's broadcast of the 78th Academy Awards, host Jon Stewart got right to it, trying to ride the tidal wave of gay jokes that has surfaced because of the success of Brokeback Mountain. There was even a film montage of vintage Hollywood stars like Charlton Heston and Gregory Peck in what looked like man-on-man cruising action. It was supposed to be Brokeback's night. It didn't turn out that way.

Triple-Oscar nominee George Clooney--showing his star power and clout by picking up the first award of the night at the 78th Academy Awards for political thriller Syriana--attempted in his acceptance speech to defuse the cultural sniping swirling around this year's awards. "We are a little bit out of touch in Hollywood. It's probably a good thing. We're the ones that talked about AIDS when it was just being whispered," Clooney said "And we talked about civil rights when it wasn't really popular. We bring up subjects. This group of people gave Hattie McDaniel an Oscar in 1939 when blacks were still sitting in the backs of theaters. I'm proud of this academy, of this community. I'm proud to be out of touch."

Crash, the evening's surprise Best Picture winner, beat out the heavily favored Brokeback Mountain.Crash's producer thanked the other nominees, proclaiming this "one of the most breathtaking, stunning, maverick years in American cinema."

Armed with evidence of light box office receipts, right-wing pundits weighed in heavily in the days leading up to the telecast. Conservative critic Michael Medved crowed to CNN that the top nominees were pet projects from the ultraliberal Hollywood cabal bent on forcing "agendas" on a resistant mainstream America, as evidenced by this year's lukewarm attendance at the nominated films.

In the words of Addison DeWitt, the bitchy critic in All About Eve, "They have a point--a stupid one, but a point."

It's not Hollywood but filmmakers as a whole who prefer hot-button subjects. You just have to look at the foreign language films nominated for Oscars to see that world cinema is equally interested in stories that push boundaries: Paradise Now (Palestine) dealt with a suicide bombing mission; Don't Tell (Italy) with incest; Joyeux Noel (France) with battle fatigue among soldiers during World War I; Sophie Scholl (Germany) with the final days of the Nazi empire; and the winner, Tsotsi (South Africa), with violence and poverty in Johannesburg.

Liberal watchers cited this year's "smaller," serious film nominees as pointing to the pulse and mood of the country. Ang Lee thanked the characters of Jack and Ennis for "teaching us about the gay and women who are not accepted by society."

Apparently Jack and Ennis also pushed the limits of acceptance for many Academy voters, comfortable enough with the film's artistry and storytelling to reward its director and writers with Oscars but squeamish enough about its themes to opt for a different movie about intolerance as Best Picture.

But what about society as a whole? Does Medved have a point about what Americans want to see at their multiplexes? Indeed, the top-grossing Best Picture nominee, Brokeback Mountain, has taken in only $80 million in the United States and Canada. The domestic gross of all five nominated films combined would place only six on the list of top money-making movies of 2005. Is it their subject matter? Or is it the DVD effect, whereby the older, well-heeled target audience for these sorts of movies would rather wait four to six months and watch the films at home on their flat-screen TVs?

After all, this Oscar night came amid a many-years-long downward trend in movie attendance and box office. It's not just the smaller films: Audiences are also suffering from blockbuster fatigue, and a string of mega-films this summer failed to draw big audiences (with a few industry-saving exceptions).

I bet the ratings for the Oscar ceremony itself will also trend downward, as much because of the tone of the ceremony as because of the thin popularity of the nominated films. The serious mood of the Best Picture contenders seemed to infect the show itself. An unusually benign Jon Stewart, host of the his own very political Daily Show, acknowledged that "box office was a little bit down" and tossed out some flaccid film industry jokes. His usual shoot-from-the-hip manner was considerably muted, and as a result, he was unable to hit many political or humor bull's-eyes. "Racism, corruption, terrorism, and censorship. It's why we go to the movies. To escape." Smattering of laughter. On with the show.

Stewart's hosting tended to support the notion of an Oscar jinx: If you're not Johnny Carson or Billy Crystal, it's an off year for the awards. (Crystal turned up in a film spoof that opened the show.) The show itself had to rely on limp sight gags and coarse humor, and it predictably overplayed its hand in trying to ride the tidal wave of gay jokes that has surfaced because of the success of Brokeback.

One of few overtly political comments Stewart hurled was an obtuse reference to Iraq: He pointed to a huge prop of the Oscar statue and cracked, "Do you think if we pulled this down democracy would flourish in Hollywood?" (He also brought the house down with his quip about pop singer Bjork, who wore a swan costume to perform on the show a few years ago: "She couldn't be here tonight; she was trying on her Oscar dress and Dick Cheney shot her.")

The producers' hearts didn't seem to be in doing anything too edgy, save perhaps the musical staging of the about-to-be-Oscar-winning song "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp" (from Hustle & Flow). A film montage about the history of sociopolitical and topical Hollywood films included the obvious choices, such as Inherit the Wind, On the Waterfront, Easy Rider, and Schindler's List, but it was also watered down with 9 to 5.

A few precedents were broken: Brokeback Mountain, though it picked up Oscars for the quiet artistry of its musical score, Lee's direction, and Diane Ossana and Larry McMurtry's screenplay, was the first film ever honored by the triumvirate of the producers, directors, and writers guilds not to win Best Picture. And every acting award went to a film that won in no other category: Clooney got his Syriana award, while Rachel Weisz won the only statuette for The Constant Gardener, in the Best Supporting Actress category. Two more only moderately successful movies with arguably "liberal agendas" that no doubt rubbed Medved's imaginary moviegoers the wrong way.

The top-grossing film to win in a major category was $100-million-plus hit Walk the Line--which may have mythologized red state hero Johnny Cash but also dealt head-on with drug addiction and infidelity. Reese Witherspoon picked up the Best Actress award for her tenacious performance as country star June Carter, while her costar Joaquin Phoenix was passed over for his equally effective performance as Cash. Philip Seymour Hoffman beat out Phoenix and Brokeback's Heath Ledger with his dead-on portrayal of writer Truman Capote.

Earlier in the broadcast, Stewart made a distinction that between gay cowboys and gay New York effete writers, and it could almost be argued that Capote was a safe choice for voters put off by Brokeback Mountain: Sure, Truman was gay and had a male partner in the movie, but there's no sex, and Capote was gay like gay used to mean in the good old days--girly and flamboyant and easy to spot across a crowded cocktail party. I could almost see Truman rolling his eyes as somewhere in the afterlife as he downed a vodka martini.

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Lewis Whittington