Crash: Best Picture as Safe Entertainment and Middlebrow Taste

By voting “Crash,” a mediocre movie that has divided critics and audiences, as Best Picture of the Year, the Academy voters proved tonight that the message’s the thing, that politics is more important than art.

In a major upset that defeated “Brokeback Mountain,” arguably the best film of the year, which had swept all the critics, the guilds, the Golden Globes and Spirit Awards, the Oscar voters showed their preference of ideology over art, contents over style, politically correct entertainment over subtle and divisive fare.

There’s nothing new in this kind of vote. The trend goes all the way back to the beginning of the Oscars, when the pacifist drama, Lewis Milestone’s “All Quiet on the Western Front,” a superior film than “Crash,” won Best Picture in 1930.

In fact, what Louis B. Mayer, then head of MGM and founder of the Academy, said while presenting the award to “All Quiet on the Western Front” could have been applied tonight to Crash. Said Mayer: “There’s talk that the motion picture we honor tonight may win a Nobel Prize.”

Crash as News Event, but Is It Good Art

In favoring “Crash” over “Brokeback Mountain,” the Academy continues a long-held tradition of endorsing mediocre message movies over innovative and provocative ones. “Crash” won the Best Picture for the same reasons that “Gandhi,” “Dances With Wolves,” “Forrest Gump,” and “A Beautiful Mind” had won the top award. Each of these film was largely embraced for its ideas and messages rather than cinematic artistry. (Is “Dances With Wolves” a better picture than Scorsese’s “GoodFellas”)

Gandhi over Tootsie

The 1982 gender-bending comedy was accomplished on every level, but it lacked the noble intent and “important” theme that “Gandhi” possessed. What the New York Times critic Vincent Canby said about “Gandhi” winning could be applied to Crash.” Wrote Canby: “Gandhi has the air of an important news event, something that is required reading.” Faulting the film for its earnestness, Canby wrote: “All films about saintly men tend to look alike, even though the men themselves may be radically different.”

Nonetheless, Canby understood the Academy’s motivation: “To honor a film like Gandhi, a perfectly reverent if unexceptional film about an exceptional man, they are paying their dues to the race (human), certifying their instincts (good), and also the belief that movies about worthy subjects can make money. Ditto for Crash, which “has the air of an important news event, something that is required reading.”

Variety’s chief editor Peter Bart, an Oscar voter, recalled: “Frankly, I was aghast when “Gandhi” beat out “E.T.” and “Tootsie.” I felt my colleagues in the Academy were so eager to vote with their heads they abandoned their hearts.” Ditto for “Crash”: The Academy voters were so eager to vote with their heads, they abandon their hearts–and tastes.

Crash: Politically Correct Entertainment

The Oscar contests over the past decade have been as much about politics as about art. It’s always been that way. How else would you explain that, year after year, the films nominated for Best Picture–and especially those that win–are not necessarily the most artistically distinguished, but those whose ideological messages are timely and widely accepted. More than other films, the Oscar nominees serve as America’s storehouse of recorded values, a reflection of its zeitgeist.

Crash, like other Oscar-winner before, suggests that any problem, political, racial, or economic, can be treated and often resolved in individual terms by an ordinary personality. In Crash, the initially established mysteries, double meanings, and ambiguities gradually give way to an orderly narrative that goes out of its way not to upset its viewers too much.

That’s good entertainment, and good box-office, particularly when it comes to a small-budget ($7.5 million), independent film such as Crash, which was made and financed outside the mainstream, and has grossed by Oscar time over $50 million at the box-office. Is there a better combination

With its more conservative membership, which is about a generation older than Hollywood’s movers and shakers, and two generations older than most American moviegoers, the Academy has always favored earnest, noble, and inspirational fare that propagated political correctness even before the concept existed.

The Academy’s tendency to choose earnest movies that deal with “important” or “noble” issues over audacious movies that are more artistically innovative or politically charged is easily documented. The Academy’s preference is always for safe, mainstream, non-controversial film fare that’s imbued with widely acceptable message.

Oscar Winners: Noble Theme Over Artistic Quality

1937: The Life of Emile Zola over The Awful Truth
1941: How Green Was My Valley over Citizen Kane
1942: Mrs. Miniver over The Magnificent Ambersons
1944: Going My Way over Double Indemnity
1951: An American in Paris over A Place in the Sun
1952: The Greatest Show on Earth over High Noon
1956: Around the World in 80 Days over Giant
1964: My Fair Lady over Dr. Strangelove
1966: Man for All Seasons over Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf
1967: In the Heat of the Night over Bonnie and Clyde
1971: The French Connection over A Clockwork Orange
1976: Rocky over Network and All the President’s Men
1980: Ordinary People over Raging Bull
1981: Chariots of Fire over Reds
1982: Gandhi over Tootsie and E.T.
1983: Terms of Endearment over The Right Stuff
1989: Driving Miss Daisy over My Left Foot
1990: Dances With Wolves over GoodFellas
1994: Forrest Gump over Pulp Fiction
1997: Titanic over L.A. Confidential
1998: Shakespeare in Love over Saving Private Ryan
1999: American Beauty over The Insider
2000: Gladiator over Traffic
2001: A Beautiful Mind over Lord of the Rings
2005: Crash over Brokeback Mountain