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The Academy Awards has an illustrious history of best picture upsets. There was 1942, when John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley snatched victory from Citizen Kane; 1982, when Chariots of Fire beat out both Raiders of the Lost Ark and Reds; and 1999, when Shakespeare in Love slaughtered Saving Private Ryan. None, however, produces as much teeth-gnashing as the 2006 Oscars, when Crash controversially edged out that year’s overwhelming favorite, Brokeback Mountain.
There were several reasons why this particular upset was so, well, upsetting. For one, Crash — an ensemble drama written and directed by Paul Haggis about racial unrest in Los Angeles — was a love-it-or-hate-it proposition. Ta-Nehisi Coates fell into the hate-it camp; the essayist said of the film in 2009, “If you’re angry about race, but not particularly interested in understanding why, you probably like Crash.” Roger Ebert, on the other hand, was a big fan, hailing it as “a movie of intense fascination.”
By comparison, Brokeback Mountain was a universally beloved story about a doomed cowboy romance. The Ang Lee film featured career-defining performances by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, and it grappled with issues of homosexuality, masculinity and devotion, set against a hostile American landscape, in ways that mainstream cinema had never attempted before and wouldn’t again — until this year’s beloved contender Moonlight.
Garth [Davis],” says producer Iain Canning of the extensive audition process it took to cast the film’s lead.”]
The conventional wisdom was that Academy members weren’t quite ready to bestow their highest honor upon a movie featuring a man-on-man-in-pup-tent love scene. In an attempt to right the wrongs of Oscar history, THR mounted a recount in 2015, polling hundreds of Academy members on a number of disputed decisions. That time, Brokeback won in a landslide.
This story first appeared in a February standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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