Renegade pulse drives indie pics

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This was not your ordinary Oscars.

It was the year that the independent spirit crashed the Academy Awards, from the gritty hip-hop best song winner "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp" and edgy, New York cable host Jon Stewart to honorary Oscar winner Robert Altman, who looked shocked to be winning anything from the establishment he had been fighting all his life.

This year's winners sent a signal that movies with a renegade pulse and a few brain cells were most likely to come from the likes of the indie Lionsgate (which released best picture Oscar winner "Crash") and Focus Features (the specialty division of Universal Pictures that backed "Brokeback Mountain," which won three Oscars) than the major studios.

The one best picture contender from a major studio, Steven Spielberg's treatise on Middle Eastern terrorism, "Munich," went home empty-handed Sunday night. "This was one of the most breath-taking, maverick, stunning years in American cinema," "Crash" producer Cathy Schulman said as she accepted her Oscar.

Paul Haggis, who won for producing and co-writing "Crash" and was nominated for directing it, had wanted to make his directing debut on last year's heart-wrenching best picture winner "Million Dollar Baby," which garnered him a nomination for best adapted screenplay, but stepped aside for producer-director-actor Clint Eastwood. With "Crash," Haggis set out to craft a movie (with co-writer Bobby Moresco) that would throw some 30 Angelenos into pressure situations that would release their inner demons -- including festering racism. Haggis expressed the Oscar political zeitgeist Sunday night when he said, "Bertolt Brecht said, 'Art is not a mirror to reflect society but a hammer with which to shape it.' "

"Crash" beat out expected best picture winner "Brokeback," which had to settle for three consolation prizes, including best director for Ang Lee, best score for Gustavo Santaolalla and best adapted screenplay for tireless writers Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry. They pushed the movie up the hill for nine long years after optioning E. Annie Proulx's short story with their own money. "Ennis and Jack taught us about the greatness of love itself," Lee said, referring to the film's gay characters.

With $79 million so far, "Brokeback," the year's highest-grossing best picture contender, fared far better at the boxoffice than many naysayers would have predicted, but even within the liberal Academy ranks, it was clearly vulnerable. Universal's outgoing studio chairman Stacey Snider, who greenlighted the $14 million feature, complained of having to drag many of her male friends to see it.

In a year that was marked by cheerful collegiality among such actors as Philip Seymour Hoffman, Terrence Howard and George Clooney rather than high-octane studio face-offs between the likes of DreamWorks and Miramax, the Oscar race came down to that intimate relationship between an individual voter and his or her DVD player.

Which is why "Crash" became the late-breaking spoiler to the "Brokeback" crown. In a brilliant move, Lionsgate sent 130,000 DVDs -- to every guild member and critic, foreign and domestic. Even if voters had seen the movie earlier in the year, it became the movie that many had viewed most recently. And it played brilliantly on DVD -- in some ways better than on the big screen, where the movie was almost too intense.

"Crash's" release was shrewdly orchestrated by Lionsgate's Tom Ortenberg, Tim Palen and Sarah Greenberg. Its Oscar campaign also benefited from the efforts of two veteran campaigners, in-house publicist Stacey Mooradian and Dart Group campaigner Cynthia Swartz, trained by ex-Miramax Oscar mastermind Harvey Weinstein. (Another ex-Miramax staffer, Warner Independent Pictures president Mark Gill, scored a best documentary win for the 2005 Sundance pickup "March of the Penguins.")

Career prizes also were the order of the day. Lee finally won the prize that was denied him for "Sense and Sensibility" (for which he wasn't nominated) and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." Rewarded for his long tenure as one of the industry's most interesting character actors, "Capote" star Hoffman won for the role he frequently described as the best of his career. Rachel Weisz finally broke out as the heart and soul of the widely admired "The Constant Gardener."

The Academy arguably gave the hardworking, popular Clooney a supporting actor Oscar for "Syriana" because the voters wanted to make sure the thrice-nominated actor won something. Clooney embodies the Hollywood star who works both sides of the street. This year, he turned indie to co-write and direct the $7 million, '50s-era, black-and-white feature "Good Night, and Good Luck" and helped push the overtly political Middle East treatise "Syriana" through production at Warner Bros. by agreeing to star.

Many of the year's indie-minded films never would have made it to the big screen without the investment of such indie financiers as Jeff Skoll of Participant Prods. ("Good Night," "North Country" and "Syriana"), who went home with only one win, for Clooney's turn in "Syriana." "Brokeback" is another movie that might not have gone forward without investor William Pohlad, who accepted his mere executive producer credit with dignity, unlike "Crash" financier Bob Yari, who bought ads in the two trades voicing his bitterness at the Academy for not being deemed a credited producer for "Crash."

Yari did not attend the ceremony, instead watching from his own Oscar party at the San Fernando Valley restaurant Moe's. After "Crash's" best picture win, he said: "The bitter isn't there. I'm as surprised as anyone. Of course, I wish I'd been there. For the time being, all the antagonism is gone to the side. I can't think of anything negative right now."
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