• James Kunovski

How Did Crash Win Best Picture?

The 78th Academy Awards honoured the best films of 2005 in a usual state of affairs. Jon Stewart hosted the presentation and offered his standard satirical quips. The winners throughout the night offered some surprises. These included Hustle & Flow’s "It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp" winning original song over Dolly Parton. With the long ride of award season, favourites were expectedly met. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Reese Witherspoon continued their sweep by taking home lead acting prizes. South Africa won its first foreign-language film with Tsotsi. Unlike certain years where one film swept, Academy voters were fairly generous to a number of films.

When Jack Nicholson appeared to present the Best Picture of the year, expectations were pretty grounded. Brokeback Mountain had won best film at that year’s Golden Globes, BAFTAs and Producers Guild of America Awards. These are all established indicators of Oscar night, and the forbidden tale of the two cowboys was set to take the prize. Though things didn't turn out as peachy as that. Crash, directed by Paul Haggis, an interlocking story of how several Angelenos deal with issues of race, would take its place.

Nicholson fired off the round of nominees and opened the envelope, taking what seemed like a premature glance, to announce the winner. Nicholson appeared to mouth "wow" as the Dolby Theatre turbulently reacted.

Nicholson reacts to Crash's win.

Besides those in the Crash party, reactions from those seated around seemed less than impressed. However, this was well before obligatory standing ovations started taking place after the announcement, of every, single, winner. Since its win, Crash has oft appeared in lists dedicated to the worst Best Picture winners of all time. These include publications from Variety, Time Out, The Guardian and The Los Angeles Times. So, what garnered Jack Nicholson’s reaction, and why is this pick so bothersome? To understand this, we have to look a bit further at the months leading up to the Oscars.

By the time of the Academy Awards, Brokeback Mountain had won more awards in the film circuit than Titanic and Schindler’s List combined. The film was grossing well for its size and enjoyed a North American wide release. It holds an acclaimed rating of eighty-seven percent on Metacritic, and was the most frequently selected film on reviewer’s year-end best lists. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times complimented its universality and awarded it 4/4 stars. Other reviewers commented on the emotional command of its themes: “hits you like a shot in the heart,” said Peter Travers of Rolling Stone. Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly called it “a big Hollywood weeper with a beautiful ache at its centre.” Positive reviews far outweighed the bad but there were still a few unimpressed viewers. Some critics took issue with its supposed awards-bait premise, (Reader), and its ‘inexpressive’ nature, (Salon).

Unlike Brokeback, reviews for Crash were more mixed but also greatly varied. It holds a favourable sixty-nine percent on Metacritic, tying it with Green Book as the 21st-century’s lowest rated Best Picture winner. Ebert named it the best film of 2005, labelling it a film of “intense fascination” and one that is ultimately about progress. David Denby of The New Yorker considered it to be “hyper-articulate and often breathtakingly intelligent.” Todd McCarthy, writing for Variety in a more mixed review echoes a common sentiment, stating that, “the tense drama eventually becomes off-putting when it becomes clear almost every scene hinges on an unpleasant or ugly racial interaction.” Fifteen of the twenty-one critics (on Metacritic) gave a score at, or less than three stars. They slated its intended impact, (SF Chronicle), and labelled it devoid of life, (NY Times).

Crash is not only an unusual victor because of its subject matter and critical reception. It also falls down to award politics. When the nominations were announced for the 63rd Golden Globes, Crash had not made it into the Best Motion Picture – Drama category. Admittedly, the Globes are not the best predictor for the Oscars, though Crash remains the only 21st-century Best Picture winner to miss out on that top nomination.

Brokeback was the most-nominated film at the 2006 Oscars with eight nods. They would later win three awards, the same as Crash. It won key categories including director for Ang Lee, adapted screenplay for Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, in addition to Gustavo Santaolalla’s score. Crash had won for Paul Haggis and Robert Moresco’s original screenplay and Hughes Winborne’s editing. Nominations for directing and editing already made Crash a front-runner for Best Picture as there is a significant correlation between these three fields. Brokeback, on the other hand, was missing from the best editing category.

Shortly following the controversial win, The Guardian published an article boldly entitled, "CRASH LANDS SHOCK OSCAR WIN", saying that the Oscars “saved its biggest surprise for the dying seconds.” By and large, there are several reasons why Crash had an advantage over Brokeback Mountain. Crash’s setting of Los Angeles would have spoken directly to Academy members. It can be compared to the Academy favouring stories about Hollywood.

The San Francisco Gate highlighted this point stating “did the Hollywood-centric themes of race and isolation… cause Los Angeles-dwelling Academy members to favour the movie.” The handling of race relations, although choppy, intended to encapsulate the post-9/11 sentiments of a divided America. Did Academy members choose Crash because they deemed it more ‘important’ and ‘necessary’ than a western love story with a gut-wrenching finale. As mentioned earlier, Ebert said the film’s ending was about progress. It comes off as cheesy (it finally snows in LA), but could also be an indicator to its success. Perhaps they wanted to reward something they saw as ‘life-affirming’.

Don Cheadle (centre), in a scene from Crash ©Lionsgate

The Academy has a reputation of awarding ‘topic’ films that gleam the surface of the issue they’re trying to explore. If you mix this with their broadminded ideals and the Oscars narrow view of films, you tend to come up with a lot of films that resonate Crash. Case in hand, the winner from 2019, Green Book. As has been the case for Oscar upsets in the past, DVD screeners could have played a large part. Lionsgate (Crash's distribution company) had mailed screeners to every Screen Actors Guild member following its nomination for best ensemble at the SAG Awards. Crash would go on to win that category. Considering there is a large overlap between SAG members and Academy members, the decision would have shaped a knock-on effect. On the other hand, Brokeback was pushing itself along by its own momentum and was not ensuring that voters had even seen its film. Brokeback's producer and writer, Diana Ossana found this out at a nominee party hosted by Haggis when several attendees admitted they had not seen her film.

One of the main questions at the forefront was whether homophobia directly played a part in Brokeback’s loss. Kenneth Turan, writing for the Los Angeles Times did not deflect from this stance, saying that anti-gay voters who “wanted to be able to look themselves in the mirror and feel like they were good, productive liberals,” found solace in Crash. Brokeback's co-screenwriter, McMurtry pointedly made a similar remark. Nikki Finke, writing for LA Weekly, called the Academy hypocrites as they take pride in progressive values but refused to accept a gay film. She continues, “I felt this year's dirty little Oscar secret was the anecdotal evidence pouring into me about hetero members of the Academy being unwilling to screen Brokeback Mountain.” Roger Ebert, who awarded both films his highest rating would later say that he believed the superior film won and that the case was “a matter of opinion, not sexual politics.” He also points out that those accusing the Academy of homophobia are ignoring their recognition of Capote, another film with a gay lead character.

The cast of Crash and Paul Haggis (bottom-left) celebrate their win.

Regardless of the climate at the time, if Brokeback were released a decade later, it is likely that it would have won, as we saw with Moonlight. The other best picture nominees, all great in their own right, deserve their own merit. They were Capote, Good Night and Good Luck and Munich.

When it comes to narrowing your selections and having to choose a rightful winner most voters would fall into the attitude outlined by Stanley Kauffman. He says, “Haggis has made a safe picture. It is familiar enough that it slips easily into our film-watching faculty without any fuss.” In a 2015 interview, Haggis himself stated that he didn’t believe Crash was the best film of the year, while mentioning all of the other nominees as exemplary. He continues, “Crash, for some reason, affected people, it touched people.” When the Hollywood Reporter asked hundreds of Academy members to re-cast their votes for controversial decisions, Brokeback beat the other nominees. For Ossana, she finds happiness in her film’s legacy. “What I wanted was for it to be seen by a lot of people.” “I wanted people to experience and see how it made them feel…”