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Here’s a riddle — the kind that the Oscars like to tell from time to time: How can the best-directed film and the best-written (adapted) film not also be the best all-around film? The trick is that there is no real answer. That’s just the way Wolfgang Puck’s statuette-shaped cookie crumbles sometimes. But that hasn’t stopped Oscar nerds from raging about what happened on the night of March 5, 2006, when Crash upset heavy favorite Brokeback Mountain to win Best Picture.
Conventional wisdom at the time said that director Ang Lee’s Western about two men and their tortured, unfulfilled love was destined to win. For proof, watch the YouTube clip of Oscar presenter and unflappable man Jack Nicholson decidedly flap after he reads the name of the upset winner.
The immediate cultural fallout was confusion and vitriol. Brokeback was a watershed moment for gay representation, and after the Oscars, the work itself was considered the victim of an injustice at the hands of a membership that skewed heavily old, male, and straight. Lee was named Best Director, and Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove) and Diana Ossana won Best Adapted Screenplay for their treatment of Annie Proulx’s short story, but did the same homophobia that kept Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist apart cost Brokeback the Best Picture race?
“Crash, the race drama with an ensemble led by Sandra Bullock and Matt Dillon, was the ‘safe’ pick,” went some Monday-morning thinking. Its message of tolerance and diversity went down easy, allowing Academy members to endorse the film’s worldview with their ballots. The movie’s ending suggests hope for society. Maybe we’ll beat this racism thing yet!
What’s undeniable is that in early 2006, more people in a nearly 6,000-member voting body thought that Crash was the superior film. And while Brokeback was weaving through the zeitgeist, Crash was not without its own supporters. In October 2005, Oprah Winfrey invited the cast onto her show after she had shared the story of her own “Crash moment,” when an Hermès clerk in Paris reportedly denied her entrance to the store. That December, Roger Ebert named it the best movie of the year. (Brokeback was his No. 5 pick.) Then, after the Screen Actors Guild nominated Crash for best ensemble, Lionsgate sent consumer DVDs to every SAG member. The strategy worked: Crash won, beating Brokeback. “The one thing I saw was that actors seemed to be on our side,” says Crash producer Cathy Schulman. “SAG had gone well, and it was clear that the acting community was really pushing for us.”
Ossana, who also served as a producer on Brokeback, saw other signs of shifting winds in the race that suggested members just weren’t seeing her movie. Two weeks before the Oscars, Crash director Paul Haggis hosted a party for nominees. When Ossana discovered that Clint Eastwood, the director of Unforgiven — one of her favorite movies — was in attendance, Haggis offered to introduce her. But on the way over to the Western icon, Haggis stopped. There was something Ossana should know: Eastwood hadn’t seen Brokeback. “It was like someone punched me in the stomach,” Ossana says. “You would think being a filmmaker, you would want to see every film. It’s what you do. The fact that he hadn’t seen it, it was kind of like, ‘I see.'” (When asked to confirm Ossana’s story, Eastwood did not respond.)
In the years since, partisans have arguably become even more zealous — every Heath Ledger performance has become more precious since his tragic death in 2008 — and the decision has become known as one of the most notorious in modern Academy history. Recently, IndieWire named Crash the worst Best Picture winner of the 21st century. Similarly, in its 2018 ranking of every Best Picture winner, BuzzFeed declared it the third-worst, ahead of only Gigi and The Greatest Show on Earth.
Schulman has tried to keep the backlash from bothering her. “This stuff is so ridiculous, to be honest,” she says. “At the end of the day, there’s a bit of luck that’s thrown into the pot. I don’t know if there’s any deserving it or not deserving it.” As an Academy voter, she admits that her personal picks for Best Picture haven’t always lined up with Director or Screenplay or Editing, even though logically they should: “It becomes an overall emotional vote.”
Ossana has found solace in Brokeback‘s legacy. “What I wanted was for it to be seen by a lot of people,” she says. “I wanted people to experience and see how it made them feel, because I think it made a lot of people uncomfortable because they felt feelings that they never imagined they would feel about gay men. Men, especially. It made them uncomfortable. But that’s silly. It’s just a film, for God’s sake.”