Gautaman Bhaskaran
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Academy Awards 2006: Mountain Crashes among winners

The annual Academy Awards happens far away from the Indian subcontinent. Yet the euphoria it creates among the Indian film fraternity merely suggests that Hollywood’s appeal remains undiminishing.  I have heard people in the Indian Ministry of Information and Broadcasting say that they wish they could have an event as glitzy as the Oscars. The Filmfare Awards, one supposes, is modelled on the Academy Prizes.

The craze for Hollywood is understandable. Right from Ray to modern dream peddlers have been inspired by Hollywood’s craft and narrative styles. A former officer of the National Film Development Corporation of India once told me that a good Hollywood movie was any day far better than the best that is made in Bollywood. Undoubtedly so, for this time when I got a chance to see most of the movies nominated for the Academy Awards – and on fine DVD prints -- I found myself in a dilemma. The nominated fare was exceptionally good, and I am sure the race must have been a close one, with the 6,000-odd Academy members, drawn from the Hollywood family, having a hard time making choices.


Ang Lee’s (whose martial arts “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Tiger”  was a runaway

Director Ang Lee on the set of Focus Features' Brokeback Mountain

Ang Lee
success with Indian audiences) “Brokeback Mountain” lost the race in the Best Picture category to Paul Haggis’ “Crash” in what was apparently one of the biggest upsets in the Oscars history. But Lee was adjudged Best Director.

“Brokeback Mountain”, with the highest eight nominations this year, was the favourite, and had been the subject of coffee-table discussions, and pub jokes for its gay theme. The film is lyrical, set in the early 1960s rural America, and its leisurely narrative traces the story of two cowboys who find that they are sexually attracted to each other. Lee stretches his work over a few decades, when both his protagonists marry, have children and continue to keep their homosexual affair under wraps, literally under a fishing net. That is the excuse they give their families: going fishing while they engaged in sex.

Though one might be tempted to argue that Lee’s theme was a trifle bold for a still puritanical Academy, I would think that the reason was not quite that. “Brokeback Mountain” is, in short, more poetry, more picture postcards (there are splendid shots of the American countryside) and boringly predictable to be termed great cinema.

This is where “Crash” scores. It is a brutally honest attempt at capturing the nasty undercurrents of racial hatred and fear of reaching out to another human being.  The film happens in Los Angeles over a couple of days, and begins as well ends with an automobile crash and the expletives that follow. People’s lives touch only at such collisions. 

Thandie Newton, left, and Matt Dillon in a scene from Crash, which has been nominated for a best picture Oscar.
Thandie Newton and Matt Dillon in "Crash"
A strong ensemble cast - among them Cheadle, Matt Dillon, Thandie Newton, Ryan Phillippe, Sandra Bullock and Brendan Fraser - play out a tale that often appears to be randomly structured. But ultimately, a pattern emerges out Haggis’ (debut director) creation, which frames the uglier aspect of American race relations.  A white officer body searches a rich black woman, an immigrant shopkeeper buys a gun to protect himself and nearly kills a white baby girl and two black youths steal a car in a posh area.

Eventually what emerges from “Crash” is a sense of paranoia that may be typical of the post 9/11 U.S. The movie after what appears like initial floundering settles into an interesting pattern and, well, delivers. A sense of intolerance prevails among the characters, who evoke from us both sympathy and outright revulsion. Often, their actions seem confusingly contradictory: the police officer saves the same black woman he had molested from an overturned car, from certain death, in the process risking his own life. This unpredictability gives “Crash” more points than Lee’s gay romp.  

But why did Haggis not take away the Best Directing Oscar? Lee clinched this. Search me for an answer. I can never understand how the Academy decides that X is the Best Picture, but not directed well enough to deserve the direction statuette. 

In the acting honours, although Heath Ledger as the homosexual cowboy in “Brokeback Mountain” put up a brave fight, it was Philip Seymour Hoffman’s writer Truman Capote in “Capote” who clinched the Best Actor Prize. 

Hoffman is undoubtedly a great performer, and he not only lost weight but also transformed himself magnificently, with a stoop and squeaky voice, to play a writer who manipulates two murderers in order to get a theme for his book, “In Cold Blood”. Although, a certain remorse grips him when the convicts are finally hanged, Hoffman exudes the slyness of a writer whose aim is merely getting a good story. 

In comparison, Reese Witherspoon, who was crowned the Best Actress, for her
Reese Witherspoon as June Carter in 20th Century Fox's Walk the Line

Reese Witherspoon in "Walk the line"

role as country singer June Carter in “Walk the Line” had an easier run. Her main competitors, Felicity Huffman (as a transsexual in “Transamerica”) and Keira Knightly (in “Pride and Prejudice”) could not really match up. I found Huffman’s character lacking a degree of authenticity. Knightly certainly lived up as the independent and free spirited Elizabeth Bennett, but her terrific good looks probably could not quite let us forget that she was Keira. Obviously, her character suffered. 

Witherspoon was far more believable as the country singer torn between her passion for music and a man who was drugging and destroying himself.  And as one writer quipped, “ and she sings”, perhaps implying that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has a weakness for singing stars. 

But if one were to apply the same yardstick, Joaquin Phoenix, also sings as Johhny Cash in “Walk the Line”, and he lost.  

Perhaps, it is these mysterious ways of the Academy that keep the Oscars in pulsating  cheer year after year, getting millions of people drunk on the champagne of cinema.


(This story appeared in The Hindu dated March 10 2006)




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