Saturday, November 1, 2014

Failed Oscar Campaigns: Brokeback Mountain (2005)

Left to right: Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal
As awards seasons pick up, so do the campaigns to make your film have the best chances at the Best Picture race. However, like a drunken stupor, sometimes these efforts come off as trying too hard and leave behind a trailer of ridiculous flamboyance. Join me on every other Saturday for a highlight of the failed campaigns that make this season as much about prestige as it does about train wrecks. Come for the Harvey Weinstein comments and stay for the history. It's going to be a fun time as I explore cinema's rich history of attempting to matter.

The Movie

Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Directed By: Ang Lee
Written By: Larry McMurtry, Diana Ossana and Annie Proulx (book)
Starring: Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway
Genre: Drama, Romance
Running Time: 134 minutes
Summary: The story of a forbidden and secretive relationship between two cowboys and their lives over the years.

The History

For better or worse, Brokeback Mountain may be the most successful and popular gay-themed movie in history. While many have made the argument that the film actually focuses on bisexual characters, it still remains true that it caused some controversy upon its release. While it is fascinating to see how tolerance has grown in American society since 2005, the film came out and shook up audiences. It could be because of the great performances from leads Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger, but it could just be that it reflected a changing tide. In the years since, the Academy has been more reverent to recognizing gay characters including the films Milk, The Kids Are All Right and Dallas Buyers Club. In 2005, it was new and not everyone was ready to expect it.

It also was strange that it was from director Ang Lee, whose career was already predicated on challenging himself. However, he had previously done drama pieces (Sense and Sensibility), wire-fu (Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon) and superhero films (The Hulk). He wasn't a stranger to surprising audiences. Thankfully, he had a masterful craft that makes him one of the most compelling Asian filmmakers currently working. Still, it is strange that of all films, he would choose to tackle a film that could be summarized by the blunt "gay cowboys" moniker. 

For starters, it was a concept that went against the cowboy mythology. While the genre was fading from popularity, it still possessed a respect for icons such as John Wayne, who defined masculinity. To update them with a forbidden love story was too traumatic and ballsy. Even if Hollywood still pulls out a lot of the homosexual elements of films, there's the reality that things were changing and we all had to just accept it. Still, the cowboy was a masculine archetype who couldn't be messed with. It was a symbolism for American pride.

The film did well enough when doing the rounds of awards and press. Since, it's hard to tell if the film is more popular now. It definitely was integral to making LGBT films more accepted. However, hindsight is always more loving than being in the moment. To say that the film failed to strike success at the Oscars is a lie. 

The Campaign

The film was destined to have an uphill battle from day one. Its gay themes weren't widely accepted in America at the time. However, it was sparking conversation to an impressive degree. The film did what it could and its noble efforts resulted in some positive results. The only issue is that among the challenges was overcoming the more conventional films that appealed to a wider audience. These films preached tolerance and reflected the troubles of citizens on a wider spectrum. Yes, it is the notorious year in which director Paul Haggis' Crash became the upset winner and the most notorious selection in the past 20 years.

In a way, what followed was to be predicted while also a sad reflection of the times. It was called a weak favorite because of its subject matter and not being tolerable at the time of release. Others called it a statement film, a genre which wasn't popular at the time allegedly. It is an explicit way in which the media was trying to push things against Brokeback Mountain. In fact, this whole entry is not based on the film's actual campaign, but how everyone seemed to be out for blood on this one. After all, a critically acclaimed film that touches taboo subjects can't win, right? How about Elia Kazan's antisemitism study Gentleman's Agreement or Norman Jewison's race relations in In the Heat of the Night? Technically, these are decades old, but they're a few of the examples of important subject matter triumphing in the Oscar race.

To the anti-campaign's help, actors and members of the Academy Tony Curtis and Ernest Borgnine helped to spread negativity about the film. In a sense, his summary is exactly the kind of logic used at the time. Borgnine is quoted as saying “I didn’t see it and I don’t care to see it. If John Wayne were alive he’d be rolling over in his grave.” It's the type of beating around the LGBT bush that does so without being obvious about it. Also, it seems highly unprofessional of an active voter to ignore seeing all of the candidates in order to make a proper vote. While the ethics have been tested before, this is a big reason why Brokeback Mountain was doomed. Tony Curtis went so far as to claim on Fox News that people were only interested because it was about "gay cowboys." 

It didn't help that Crash's team was pushing their agenda pretty hard. They sent out a reported 130,000 screeners to voters on top of using Curtis and Borgnine as their cheerleaders. In general, west coast voters favored Crash while east coast voters preferred Brokeback Mountain. The latter could be true because it was about their home turf and featured a lot of the top named performers of their time. A lot more of this is covered in Eric Patteron's book "On Brokeback Mountain: Meditations About Masculinity, Fear, and Love in the Story and Film." Still, the war was on, and the smear was more an attack on personal beliefs than anything to do with the film. It also didn't help that Haggis was coming off of the previous year's Best Picture winner, Million Dollar Baby, which he received a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination for. He was already being looked at highly.

Then there's one more conspiracy to finish everything. The voting system in 2005 indicated that the films were voted in a hierarchical form. Each voter would pick one nominee. The top five would be selected. From there, the top five could be voted upon in a ranked sort of system where as much emphasis was placed on the first place as well as the third. Theoretically, Brokeback Mountain could have won more ballots, but if Crash appeared on more lists in the top three, its value would increase. This would change in 2009 when the voting pallet was changed to 10 slots. However, it was too late for Brokeback Mountain. Along with people like Borgnine claiming that he would never see the film, there's a good chance that a lot of the homophobia resulted in the film being voted dead last. Meanwhile, the film about racism too off because of its marketing strategy.

The Payoff

On the bright side, Brokeback Mountain did win some awards. It did receive Best Director (Ang Lee), Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Original Score (Gustavo Santaolalla). That's rather impressive considering the battle that it was up against. It received eight nominations total, including three for acting. Still, there's a sort of sting that comes with this film losing to Crash. The whole notion that a topic film couldn't win was quickly debunked in favor of a film that was more explicit with its topics. It featured a shinier cast and to many had the most pointless shiny package since Grand Hotel (my opinion falls somewhere in the middle). It has left many enraged, immediately ignoring other nominees Good Night and Good Luck, Munich or personal favorite Capote.

In a way, this has been everyone's go to year for modern frustration with the Academy being out of touch. In truth, every year is about a manipulative campaign. That's how it always works as you've seen through this column. Yes, the Academy being made up of predominantly old white male voters didn't help at all. Though in all honesty, it was also a reflection of an embarrassing aspect of the human condition in general. Many were unable to take Brokeback Mountain seriously because of its LGBT themes. Curtis and Borgnine even expressed their ignorance and refusal to watch the film. In a way, it was a metaphorical high school with the Academy beating up the gay kid for being different. On the bright side, it wasn't shut out, though it does seem like Ang Lee is never going to win a Best Picture, only Best Director. He has done it twice now (the other for Life of Pi).

Still, the film's legacy has become an impressive one that has aged rather well. Daniel Day-Lewis has gone on record as calling this one of his favorite films. Even Haggis has stated that he thought that Brokeback Mountain should have won. Still, 2005's personal politics showed their true faces and the results are scarred on Oscars' legacy. Maybe in a parallel universe, Crash would have lost and held a mediocre reputation as opposed to a very vile one. Maybe Brokeback Mountain could have been evidence that the Best Picture award still held value to those losing faith. Nonetheless, it is a year that will live in infamy. While Brokeback Mountain has only enriched in its legacy and paved the way for a more tolerant Academy, Crash has somehow soured everyone, noticing a need to change. That's rather important and sometimes the mistake comes with the territory. 

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