Brokeback�s Loss: Why I�m Mad as Hell

3.5.2006

By Brendan Lemon

And so, at the end of the Oscars, we were left like Ennis at the end of the Annie Proulx short story that started it all: We couldn't fix it so we had to stand it. Crash had taken the big prize, and those of us who weren't angry (one friend of mine threw a vodka bottle at the TV screen; luckily, the bottle was plastic) were nonetheless more than a little perplexed.

We are not perplexed because Crash's name was called by an obviously gleeful Jack Nicholson (I never liked him.) Despite the poorly informed reports in the day-after media that Crash 'upset' the cowboys, the fact is that Oscar bloggers had been predicting a likely Crash win for weeks. Ever since this L.A. story about race and (ridiculously far-fetched) coincidence had won the ensemble nod at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, expert prognosticators had been sending out all-point bulletins. Crash was on the move.

Many of those bulletins were read by the Greater Gay Nation, by those of us who, over the past three months, had been following Brokeback's box-office fortunes daily online, who had watched every awards show, no matter how obscure, to see Jake and Heath and Michelle one more time. Now, despite the movie's three Oscars, and moving speeches by Ang Lee and Gustavo Santaolalla, we were being denied the Big Fix we had been craving ever since the movie opened on December 9 and set per-screen records at movie theaters in New York and L.A. and San Francisco.

The movie had moved way out of the coasts, however, to Denver and Des Moines and even Fargo, and we were all thrilled. Even my friends who had found the film a little slow and secretly, late at night in bed, told their boyfriends that they were sick of the whole phenomenon, had to admit that the movie's success gave their step, when they passed the cineplex at the local mall, a little more bounce.

I wish I still felt that bounce this morning, but mostly I feel a little hung over, and a little pissed off. Last night, after Crash's name was called, I felt a surge of anger, and that feeling, even though I spat it immediately out on the phone to a few friends, has lingered. All night. At around 4 a.m., even though I'd taken an Ambien to dull the edge, I woke up. I'm a pretty sound sleeper, and the last time I woke up at that hour was the night I saw Brokeback for the first time. The movie had so implanted itself in my unconscious that I couldn't rest. I was too shaken by what the story had tapped. For days after that first viewing, I couldn't get the images of Ennis and Jack out of my head.

They are still there. The movie became a huge pop-culture phenomenon, which the Oscar broadcast recognized by devoting a clip-segment to gay cowboys. (In retrospect, that feeels like a consolation prize, as if the Price Waterhouse guys had secretly tipped off the producers, who in turn decided to give the cowpokes a final ride before they got bucked.) And the cinematic ballad of Ennis and Jake evoked our fears about gay violence and the closet in a way that was almost too eerie. All the efforts to turn Brokeback into a Hallmark card didn't quite persuade me. The story wasn't really gay, we were told; it was universal. Oh, yeah? I wonder how many times those gentle commentators have been called 'faggot' or 'dyke' on the street, or have been thrown up against a high-school locker for, sexually, being different. Every gay person knows in his or her heart that Jack's fate is far from being a nostalgic throwback. The real-life violence remains just that: real.

But what about the pain at the heart of Crash? Doesn't race-based anguish deserve at least as much of our constant vigilance as homophobia? Excuse me if I don't see this year's Best Picture sweepstakes as an ouch contest. The wound of loss is still too fresh; I still feel that we were robbed. While I'm sure that many of the Crash voters genuinely thought it was the best movie among the nominees, I also suspect that a few of this Hollywood crowd of navel-gazers wanted to honor a movie that was set in their city, Los Angeles, and that proclaimed its anguish. How could two sheepherders from the heartland compete?

I also suspect that at least a few handfuls of Oscar voters backed Crash because they knew that such a vote would allow them to reject gay love yet still look their left-wing faces in the mirror this morning. It was, for them, the only logical way of stopping the Brokeback juggernaut. For some of them, I suppose, this was also an exercise in bringing down the big guy. Normally, that's an impulse that I could applaud. In this case, though, I suspect that there were just as many voters'and not a few of them old-time Hollywood 'liberals''for whom the idea of crowning a movie about explicit gay love as the year's best was simply too beyond-the-pale. They were, whether they admitted it or not, distinctly uncomfortable. In a close race, those kind of ugly sentiments matter.

I asked myself this morning, as I sat down to do the Monday-morning quarterbacking, whether I was upset because Brokeback had lost, or because Crash had won. I think it's more the latter. If Capote or Good Night, and Good Luck had been spoken by Nicholson, I would have been disappointed, but I don't think I would have felt momentarily enraged. Part of this is because I believe those are both fine movies'as filmmaking, every bit as good as Brokeback. And if the story of Truman or Murrow had triumphed, it would have felt like a genuine upset'as fresh as when the 'Pimp' number copped Best Song. (That, not Crash, was the night's geniune surprise.) No: Whatever Crash's merits, its win carries a powerful tinge of homophobia, and you'll be hard-pressed to tell me otherwise. The only way I know right now to assuage the loss is at the ballot box. When the Brokeback DVD is released on April 4, I plan'yes, I'll say it: I still can't quit this movie'on doubling my order.

P.S. I was a little unfair to Jack Nicholson, given that he says that he voted for Brokeback. Perhaps I misread his surprise at seeing Crash on the awards card for an expression of glee. If only more Hollywood old-timers had voted as he did!

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