Oscar 2005: Race Is Over Try to Break Brokeback's Spell

December 14–Is the Oscar race over In other words, is “Brokeback Mountain” the “Million Dollar Baby” (in more senses than one) of this divisive year There's good reason for this speculation.

Every once in a while, there's one picture in the Oscar race that's considered to be the frontrunner, the “one movie to beat.” I'm talking about “Schindler's List” in 1993, “Forrest Gump” in 1994, and, of course, “Titanic,” in 1997.

Up to early December, there was no such movie, and if there was one, it was Spielberg's Munich, which was touted as Oscar frontrunner even before it went into production, in July. “Munich” has not opened yet but based on initial response and critics voting, its status as “the one to beat” is shaky, to say the least.

A largely fictionalized account of the Munich Olympics massacre and its aftermath, the movie is bound to sir controversy about its historical accuracy (it also underplays the role of Israelis, balanced politics, and avoidance of a clear POV. Besides, so far, “Munich” has won Best Picture from only one group, the Washington DC critics, which, with all due respect, is not as influential as the N.Y. or the L.A. film critics.

Many studio movies turn out to be big disappointments, artistically if not commercially. Rob Marshall's “Memoirs of a Geisha” has received mostly bad reviews, though it's doing well at the box-office, albeit in limited release. Ditto for the musical movie, “The Producers,” which is old-fashioned and stagy in the negative sense of these concepts.

Ever since it premiered at the Venice Film Festival, where it won the grand jury prize, there's been a buzz about “Brokeback Mountain,” the “gay cowboy epic,” as the media labeled it. When the movie played in Toronto Festival a week later, the buzz continued, though there were few critics who thought it was too slow, too arty, and dull.

When the Spirit Awards nominations were announced, on November 29, though Noah Baumbach's The Squid and the Whale” received more nods, it was “Brokeback Mountain” that made the news.

The buzz built up the following week, when the L.A. Film Critics and the N.Y. Film Critics voted the Western love story Best Picture and Ang Lee Best Director. The two groups have seldom chosen the same picture, but this year, there's seems to be consensus. In between the Broadcast Film Critics Association, the largest (200) group of journalists in the country, announced its nominations and again “Brokeback Mountain” was the leader of the pack.

Then came the big coup, the Golden Globe nominations, announced December 13, in which “Brokeback Mountain” swept the largest (seven) number of nominations: Picture, Director, Screenplay (Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana), Actor (Heath Ledger), Supporting Actress (Michelle Williams), and even the music categories.

The four aforementioned groups consist of different kinds of memberships. The Spirit Award nominations are determined by a committee of the indie industry players (directors, writers, journalists); the L.A. and N.Y. groups are comprised by legit (mostly print) critics; and the Golden Globe nominations are determined by the 85 international journalists of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. Despite disparity of backgrounds and approaches, all these groups have shown similar artistic taste, which is rather unusual.

What makes “Brokeback Mountain” such a popular favorite:

1. It's the best work of Ang Lee, a director who has been Oscar-nominated before (for “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) but didn't win, even though he had received the DGA Award for that picture. The upset winner that year was Steven Soderbergh (for “Traffic”, “Crouchin Tiger” won the Best Foreign-Language Picture. As I pointed in my review, “Brokeback Mountain” is the first film in which Lee shows complete and commendable control over every aspect of the production, from the conception to the acting to the visual style and music.

2. It's a particular American saga, a Western set in the 1960s and spanning two decades. The movie revitalizes a uniquely American genre, the Western, that has been all but dead. In the Academy's annals, only three Westerns have won the Best Picture Oscar: “Cimarron” in 1930-1, Kevin Costner's “Dances With Wolves” in 1990, and Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven” in 1992.

3. It's a universal story of a painful, tragic, and forbidden love that could never find expression in its historical context, done in a grand, unabashedly romantic manner.

4. Nominally speaking, “Brokeback Mountain” is a period piece, but it's very timely and relevant today. The film's central theme, the love between two men in a rigid, conservative society, touches a chord in our morally conservative society whose tone is dominated by Bush's reactionary administration.

5. While the central figures are gay cowboys (well-played by Jake Gyllenhaal and particularly Heath Ledger), “Brokeback Mountain' has the scope and scale of an epic that brings to mind George Stevens' “Giant” and especially Peter Bogdanovich's “The Last Picture Show,” which was also based on Larry McMurtry's work.

6. One can claim that gays are in (the “Queering of America”), judging by the popularity of various sitcoms and reality shows on TV (“Will and Grace”). Yet, “Brokeback Mountain” is directed with such subtlety and nuance that it goes beyond being a gay cowboy picture.

7. “Brokeback Mountain” could be called “Midday Cowboy.” Would it be too much to suggest that “Brokeback Mountain” is this year's “Midnight Cowboy,” the X-rated film that won the 1969 Best picture, but kept latent the homoerotic overtones in the Dustin Hoffamn-Jon Voight relationship. (See Film Comment).

8. Last but not least, “Brokeback Mountain” bears literary cache of a unique kind. The film is based on E. Annie Proulx's short story in the New Yorker, adapted to the screen by Larry McMurtry and Daina Ossana. The sceenplay at once expands the scope of the literary source, while maintianing its coherence and spirit. Both Proulx and McMurtry are respected Pulitzer Prize-winning
writers.

Finally, it's hard not to notice that the release pattern of “Brokeback Mountain” follows that of last year's “Million Dollar Baby.” The movie opened December 9 in a few theaters, doing bonanza at the box-office (just like Eastwood's movie). According to Focus Features, the movie grossed over $100,000, an all-time record, in its opening weeekend on five screen.

“Brokeback Mountain” should benefit from its critical acclaim. Per Rotten Tomatoes index, it's one of the most favorably reviewed movie of the year (87% of the reviews have been positive). “Brokeback Mountain” is also a word-of-mouth picture, which I have no doubt will be strong. Despite tough subject matter, the movie is extremely tocuhing and enjoyable.

The combination of strong critical support and positive word-of-mouth will be crucial when the movie branches out to the American heartland, where gay-themed movies amy not be as easily embraced as they are in big urban centers.

Based on the above, it's fair to conclude that “Brokeback Mountain” is the One Movie to Beat at Oscar time.