'Crash' Is King

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VINCE BUCCI / GETTY

Producer Cathy Schulman and Director/Producer Paul Haggis with their Best Motion Picture of the Year award for the film "Crash" with Jack Nicholson

For most of the night, Oscar went with the favorites. George Clooney (Syriana) and Rachel Weisz (The Constant Gardener) won in the supporting actor categories; Philip Seymour Hoffman (Capote) and Reese Witherspoon (Walk the Line) took Best Actor and Actress; Brokeback Mountain was cited for adapted screenplay, Crash for original screenplay; and Brokeback’s Ang Lee for Best Director. The smart money even had the right over-under number on how many Jewish references host Jon Stewart would make in the award show’s first 30 minutes (Two.)

Then, 3 hours 21 minutes into the telethon, Jack Nicholson announced the winner for Best Picture—which had at first been thought to be a lock, then a tight squeeze, for Brokeback. “And the Oscar goes to... Crash.” Those famous eyebrows editorialized surprise, and Nicholson mouthed a “Whoa.” Paul Haggis, the film’s writer-producer-director, geysered from his seat in joyous shock, and revelry exploded among what seemed like half of the 5,000 audience members at the Kodak Theater. One of the revelers did such ecstatic contortions, she nearly fell out of her gown. The rest hugged one another like brand-new Super Bowl champs.

Was this a long-shot triumph? Not exactly. The Crash upset simply certified what many football poolers know: bet on the home dog (the underdog playing on its own field). As we’ve been saying in the magazine and online the past few weeks, Los Angeles is the company town of the movie business, and Crash is the ultimate L.A. movie—anyway, the gaudiest freeway funhouse mirror. Besides, this huge ensemble effort employed close to a hundred L.A. actors. As Stewart urged the crowd in his opening monologue, “Raise your hands if you were not in Crash.”

The victory also validated the old rule that the Editing Oscar is the savviest predictor for Best Picture. The theory is that people, even Academy members, don’t know much about the craft of editing—the extent to which the cuts in a film are determined by the script—so they vote for the movie with the most stuff going on. Crash was certainly the busiest film nominated. And the noisiest. Whereas the other four nominees (Brokeback, Capote, Munich and Good Night, and Good Luck.) kept seeking reconciliation within their social and political conflicts, Crash let its arguments bubble over, like an overheated car radiator, into angry confrontations. The movie shouted, and the Academy heard it, over the urgent whispers of the other films.

It also hit plenty of nerves, in its collision of races and classes, and Hollywood loves issue movies that push the hot button. But what about Brokeback? Didn’t that film pioneer man-love in a pup tent? Sure, but homosexuality is just not an issue in Hollywood. The town was gay before gay was cool (that would be the summer of 2003, when Queer Eye for the Straight Guy became a brief TV sensation). Indeed, homosexual roles are prize-winning plums for actors—like Hoffman in Capote —as long as they aren’t gay, or, if they are, don’t admit it.

Not everyone was crazy about the Crash win. During the acceptance speech, musical director Bill Conti seemed to be indicating the vexation of a minority in the room when he brought up the orchestra volume before Haggis could say his piece. (This year, the orchestra played softly through each of the spoken thank-you speeches, making the winners’ comments sound like song cues in an old musical.) But Haggis had been on stage earlier, as a Screenplay winner. Besides, his victory was unique, at least to lovers of Oscar trivia. He became the first person to have written two consecutive Best Pictures (after last year’s Million Dollar Baby). Haggis was also, by my calculations, the first member of the Church of Scientology to win Best Picture.

EVERYONE’S A WINNER

For the first time in 49 years, and only the third time in Oscar's 78-year history, the top six awards (Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress) went to six different films. So it was a night with something for everyone, except Steven Spielberg, whose Munich was shut out in the five categories (including Best Picture and Best Director) for which it had secured nominations. The other four Best Picture nominees all found something to take home—Clooney through a side door, since he won as an actor in Syriana, not as a director or screenwriter of Good Night, and Good Luck. “All right,” he fake-sulked when he accepted his trophy, “so I’m not winning Director.” But he did serve, with handsome grace, as Hollywood’s poster boy for glamour, taking a few genial shots from Stewart (“I kid because I envy”) and hearing a female winner of the Short Subject Oscar “thank the Academy for seating me next to George Clooney at the nominees’ luncheon.” (The star, who knew a camera was trained on him throughout the ceremony, flashed a look of mild chagrin.)

There were even door prizes for movies that hadn’t fulfilled their original promise. As late as October, the Oscar favorites were two imminent, unseen films by recent winners of Best Picture: Rob Marshall’s Memoirs of a Geisha (exotic, elevated, epic) and Peter Jackson’s King Kong (a super-sophisticated remake of a beloved antique). Once those films opened, they fell to the back of the pack, disappointing their investors and the critics, and earned no major Academy nominations. Yet in the absence of old-style epic films among the top contenders, Geisha and Kong aced the technical categories. Each finished the night with three Oscars—not the biggies their makers had once hoped for, but as many as Crash, and one more than Brokeback.

If there was an explosive surprise, it came with the awarding of Best Song to a rap anthem in praise of a flesh peddler. Old-timers may look at the Best Song category and see a dreadful devolution over the decades, from the Gershwin and Kern winners of the 1930s to “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” this year. But, hell, the competition comprised of a woozy liturgical ballad from Crash and an uptempo number from the bottom of the Dolly Parton song trunk. And the winners, three exponents of Memphis hiphop, expressed more astonished delight than anyone except the Crash crowd. One of them even thanked the Oscar show’s executive producer, Gil Cates. That guy’ll be invited back, even if his dude duds obliterated the dress code.

Most of the female nominees and presenters were dressed to the nines, or the 99s, in revealingly chic outfits. Stewart puckishly demanded the world for sympathy for poor Hollywoodians: “There are women here who could afford barely enough gown to cover their breasts.” I’m no fashion expert, but I’ll vote for Supporting Actress nominee Amy Adams, the downhome gal from Junebug looking uptown resplendent, and for whatever frock the slap-yourself-silly gorgeous Salma Hayek was wearing under her soft curls and sexy cheekbones. I’ll also hand out an Oscar for golden perkiness to Witherspoon, who looked lovely in a spangled dress, and sparkled indefatigably on her own.

If Clooney was the evening’s (and Hollywood’s) epitome of intelligent hunkitude, Witherspoon was Oscar’s darling, Hollywood’s homecoming queen. She presented one prize, accepted another. She was also the subject of one of the show’s very funny “attack ads” (voiced by Stewart’s old Daily Showcrony, now cable TV’s favorite mock-scold, Stephen Colbert) against every Actress nominee but good old American Reese.

DON’T GET EVEN, GET ANGRY

But Witherspoon, channeling Sally Field in her acceptance speech, was an anomaly. Otherwise, voters went for meaningfully angry over emotionally adorable—not just with Crash and supporting actress Weisz (as the martyred activist in The Constant Gardener) but in two of the short-film categories. The prize for Live Action Short went to the contentious Six Shooter, written by English playwright Martin McDonagh—a three-time Best Play nominee on Broadway who probably couldn’t have imagined he’d win an Oscar before he got a Tony. And in the Animated Short category, the award went not to the Pixar cartoon One Man Band but to John Canemaker’s The Moon and the Son, an airing of the director’s grievances against his demanding dad. (In his acceptance speech, Canemaker thanked every member of his family but the man whose ill will had inspired the film.)

If the political animosities weren’t familial (as in The Moon and the Son) or civic (as in Crash) or historical (as in Good Night, and Good Luck.), they were national and global. And partisan. George W. Bush’s name was not mentioned all night, but Stewart got his first hearty laugh of the night when he solemnly informed the audience that Bjork, whose bizarre bird-draped couture had stoked a stir five years ago, “couldn’t be here tonight. She was trying on her Oscar dress and Dick Cheney shot her.”

I’d give Stewart’s 10-minute opening monologue a gentleman’s B—intermittently funny, but not what I’d expected from the current god of comedy. The audience received his jokes indulgently but not warmly. He wasn’t David Letterman (another TV outsider who bombed as an Oscar host in 1995), but he wasn’t Steve Martin or Billy Crystal. There were moments when the usually unflappable Stewart, gauging the tepid response, made the flop-sweat asides of a bombing standup comic. (“Work with me.” “I’m a loser.”) And part of his problem was that he was working against the prejudices of the room rather than toadying to them.

By which I mean, this New Jersey liberal offered a few mild gibes at Hollywood liberalism. He called the Oscar show “the one night of the year when you could see all your favorite stars without having to donate any money to the Democratic Party.” He told the audience that, to many people, Hollywood was “a moral black hole, where innocence is obliterated in an endless orgy of sexual gratification and greed.” (Pause for gentle laughter.) “I don’t really have a joke here. I just thought you should know a lot of people are sayin’ that.”

Leave it to Clooney, winner of the night’s first award, to address the question whether Hollywood was out of touch. He said that movie industry had addressed questions of civil rights and AIDS when the rest of America was afraid of them. “I’m proud to be part of this Academy,” he said as the applause cresecendoed, “proud to be part of the community, and proud to be out of touch.” He exited to cheers. If there were four strong men nearby, he would have been carried on their shoulders.

Clooney is too big a star to consider it, but already Hollywood is thinking aloud—and the thoughts must have percolated further after his performance last night as a winner, a stud emblem and a defender of liberal values—George Clooney for Best Supporting Actor? Maybe. George Clooney for President—yeah!