At the 2006 Oscars, “one of the biggest upsets in Academy Awards history” went down. Expected by many to run away with the honor of best picture, Brokeback Mountain was edged out for the biggest award of the night by Crash.
Brokeback went into the 78th annual Academy Awards with eight nominations, the most for any film. As the evening of March 5, 2006 came to a close, however, just three of those nods materialized into statuettes. Ang Lee picked up his first best director win, Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana earned best adapted screenplay for their take on Annie Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain,” and Gustavo Santaolalla won best original score.
Now seen by some as one of the biggest misses in Oscar history, the Crash win came as a shock to critics and fans alike. Nominated for six awards, the small-budget drama about race relations in L.A. won best original screenplay for Paul Haggis and Robert Moresco, and best film editing for Hughes Winborne, in addition to best picture.
“Did the Hollywood-centric themes of race and isolation in Crash, along with a cast stocked with likable actors and actresses such as Matt Dillon and Sandra Bullock, cause Los Angeles-dwelling Academy members to favor the movie?” SFGate questioned immediately following the win. “Did the almost unending media drumbeat for Brokeback Mountain cause the film to peak in Academy voting-member popularity too early, a scenario exactly opposite that of 2005 winner Million Dollar Baby, which quietly slipped into theaters in December and benefited from a concentrated barrage of last-minute hype? — Or is Hollywood really not as liberal as the right-wingers make it out to be, but instead filled with aging Academy voters who just weren’t ready to support a love story about two gay men?”
Said love story famously featured Jake Gyllenhaal as Jack Twist and the late Heath Ledger as Ennis Del Mar. Then still a boundary-pushing movie despite the recent year, Brokeback made headlines for its sex scene and its deep portrayal of an intimate same-sex relationship.
“Sometimes you win by losing, and nothing has proved what a powerful, taboo-breaking, necessary film Brokeback Mountain was more than its loss Sunday night to Crash in the Oscar best picture category,” wrote the Los Angeles Times at the time. “Despite all the magazine covers it graced, despite all the red-state theaters it made good money in, despite (or maybe because of) all the jokes late-night talk show hosts made about it, you could not take the pulse of the industry without realizing that this film made a number of people distinctly uncomfortable… In the privacy of the voting booth, as many political candidates who’ve led in polls only to lose elections have found out, people are free to act out the unspoken fears and unconscious prejudices that they would never breathe to another soul, or, likely, acknowledge to themselves. And at least this year, that acting out doomed Brokeback Mountain.”
The upset was the finishing touch on what many saw as a lackluster ceremony for the Oscars.
“This was, by and large, a sedate and politic affair,” wrote The Guardian. “Host Jon Stewart’s monologue was gently satirical without ever straying into controversy, while the various winners seemed at pains to behave themselves. Even the distribution of awards proved to be unusually even-handed. There was no outright victor in the manner of a Titanic or a Lord of the Rings. Instead, Academy voters spread the riches between no fewer than four films. But when the dust has settled, it seems likely that the makers of Crash will be the most satisfied with the night’s result.
Even that gamble, however, was not quite bankable. Haggis, who both wrote and directed Crash has expressed since the 2006 show that he is hardly satisfied with said result.
“Was it the best film of the year? I don’t think so,” Haggis said in a 2015 interview with HitFix. “There were great films that year. Good Night and Good Luck, amazing film. Capote, terrific film. Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, great film. And Spielberg’s Munich. I mean please, what a year.”
“Crash for some reason affected people, it touched people,” he continued. “And you can’t judge these films like that. I’m very glad to have those Oscars. They’re lovely things. But you shouldn’t ask me what the best film of the year was because I wouldn’t be voting for Crash, only because I saw the artistry that was in the other films. Now however, for some reason, that’s the film that touched people the most that year. So I guess that’s what they voted for, something that really touched them. And I’m very proud of the fact that Crash does touch you. People still come up to me more than any of my films and say, ‘That film just changed my life.’ I’ve heard that dozens and dozens and dozens of times. So it did its job there. I mean I knew it was the social experiment that I wanted, so I think it’s a really good social experiment. Is it a great film? I don’t know.”