The classiest moment of the 78th annual Academy Awards was provided by that debonair smoothie George Clooney. Handsome and witty in ways that brought to mind Cary Grant and other idols of Hollywood’s more glamourous past, Clooney claimed the Oscar for best supporting actor, and offered a heartfelt speech in which he praised his profession for being “out of touch,” a quality for which the film industry is repeatedly vilified, but rarely congratulated on.

“You know we are a little bit out of touch in Hollywood,” Clooney said. “I think it’s probably a good thing. We’re the ones who talked about AIDS when it was just being whispered, and we talked about civil rights when it wasn’t really popular.”

As an example of Hollywood’s progressive stance on social issues, he reminded viewers that they “gave Hattie McDaniel an Oscar in 1939 when blacks were still sitting in the backs of theaters.”

Unfortunately, by the end of the evening, Clooney’s claim that Hollywood is “out of touch” would ring true in ways no one could have expected. Despite having swept most of the awards that are usually indicative of Oscar victory, including best picture honors from the Golden Globes, the Broadcast Film Critics Association, the Directors Guild, the Producers Guild, the New York Film Critics Circle, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, and the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, Brokeback Mountain, the much discussed “gay movie,” failed to lasso the Oscar for best picture of 2005, an honor that a surprised looking Jack Nicholson announced was going to Crash.

Looking back on the ceremony in The Guardian, Annie Proulx, author of the short story on which Brokeback Mountain was based, writes, “We should have known conservative heffalump academy voters would have rather different ideas of what was stirring contemporary culture. Roughly 6,000 film industry voters, most in the Los Angeles area, many living cloistered lives behind wrought-iron gates or in deluxe rest-homes, out of touch not only with the shifting larger culture and the yeasty ferment that is America these days, but also out of touch with their own segregated city, decide which films are good.”

How did Crash, a generally acclaimed but hardly groundbreaking study of racism, pull off such a stunning upset, besting a film that is both a cultural phenomenon and a watershed moment in the depiction of homosexuality on screen? Is Hollywood, the supposed bastion of liberalism, as homophobic as the Religious Right?

Film critic Roger Ebert, who gave the top spot on his yearly 10 best list to Crash, and also confidently defied the odds by predicting it would win the Oscar for best picture, says no.

Crash was better than Brokeback Mountain,” he writes, “although they were both among the best films of the year.”

Ebert is entitled to his opinion, as is anyone who believes Crash was the superior film, but his view places him in the minority. Personal opinions about quality are almost irrelevant when discussing the Oscars. One film is named best picture, and, with few exceptions, that film is the one that everyone predicted would win all along. This year, that film was Brokeback Mountain.

What went wrong?

To paraphrase Captain Renault (Claude Rains) in Casablanca, let’s “round up the usual excuses.”

• The Academy is dominated by actors, and they voted for Crash because it was an ensemble piece, the same reason Shakespeare in Love triumphed over Saving Private Ryan, the WWII drama that was seen as belonging more to director Steven Spielberg than to any member of the cast.

• The Academy is based in Los Angeles, and so was Crash, hence the hometown movie was favored even though Paul Haggis, the film’s main creative force, is actually a Canadian.

If these reasons were valid, Titanic, the filmed in Mexico epic that became the first film since 1959’s Ben-Hur to win 11 Oscars, would have been sunk by L.A. Confidential, the brilliant thriller that celebrated the City of Angels, as well as Hollywood’s past, and revisited “film noir,” one of the dream factory’s most influential and cutting edge genres. And director Robert Altman, the recipient of an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement, would not have been given what amounts to a bandage for past slights. At least one of his actor dominated ensemble films (Nashville, Short Cuts, Gosford Park) would have won the best picture Oscar instead of consistently losing, or failing to be nominated at all.

“If Hollywood is still resisting blacks, why would anyone think they are accepting of gays?”

The other excuses don’t stand up to scrutiny either. Like the majority of Oscar winning best pictures, Brokeback Mountain went into wide release in December, the perfect position for awards season because, as film critics like Mr. Ebert constantly tell us, the Academy has a notoriously short memory and rarely nominate films that open before September. Crash, however, opened in May. Technically, it’s not even a film from 2005. It premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in September 2004, three months before anyone had seen, or even anticipated, that year’s Oscar winner, Million Dollar Baby (scripted by Crash auteur Haggis).

The simple fact remains that Brokeback Mountain failed to win the Oscar as best picture of the year because it was about the love of one man for another. Perhaps if those men were swishy queens or limp-wristed sissies, it would have stood a better chance. As rugged cowboys, they were too threatening to win anything but secondary prizes (best director, adapted screenplay, and score) at the festivities known far and wide as the “Gay Super Bowl.”

George Clooney’s acceptance speech may have been “the classiest moment” of the night, but classy does not mean credible. Most of what Clooney said about the Academy, and Hollywood in general, could be challenged with a minimum of research.

Sure, the Academy gave an Oscar to Hattie McDaniel in 1939 (for Gone With the Wind, in case you were wondering), but it would be another 24 years before another black artist would be so honored. Prior to this year’s ceremony, when three black rap artists took home gold statuettes for writing the best song (“It’s Hard Out Here For A Pimp”), Oscars went to African-Americans a mere 16 times.

If you count the two honorary Oscars bestowed upon black performers (James Baskett for playing Uncle Remus in Song of the South and Sidney Poitier for lifetime achievement), that raises the tally to 18, but it drops back to 16 when you consider that Poitier was also the actor who won in 1963, and that two Oscars also went to Denzel Washington. It’s an appalling record by any standard.

If Hollywood is still resisting blacks, why would anyone think they are accepting of gays?

Hollywood is a land of illusion, and one of the most effective bits of magic they perform is convincing us that they are “out of touch” – more liberal, more open-minded and more accepting of diversity than the rest of America.

As a gay man and an Oscar queen all my life, I can’t say I’m surprised that Hollywood is homophobic, but I never thought they would flaunt it as brazenly as they did by denying the top prize to Brokeback Mountain. Excuses, excuses, excuses. I’ve heard them all, from Mr. Ebert and others, but they have all the credibility of Mr. Clooney’s classy, heartfelt, but thoroughly discredited remarks.

By Brian W. Fairbanks

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