Saturday, March 11, 2006

Cowboy Boots and Broken Hearts

I wore cowboy boots this Oscar Sunday. I even thought about wearing my ten-gallon hat (a souvenir from my one and only visit to the rodeo), but decided to protect it from the San Francisco rain. Like several others I saw on the street that day, I was paying homage to Brokeback Mountain, the first gay-themed film to be a major contender for Best Picture.

I had been hearing the rumors of the eleventh-hour momentum of Crash, so I watched the ceremony anxiously, calculating the significance of each torn envelope. When Matt Dillon lost for Best Supporting Actor, that was a sign that the feared Crash juggernaut was more of a tugboat. When Brokeback Mountain won its first award, for Original Score, that was a sign that it was still a strong contender. When Crash’s theme song lost to the horrifying “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp,” I figured the writing was on the wall. Ang Lee’s win, of course, had been a lock all along, but it helped maintain my hope.

And then Jack Nicholson—the man who had once terrified millions by taking an ax to a door and crooning “Heeeere’s Johnny!”—said that one, onomatopoeic word: “Crash.” And so the ax fell once again, and this time it really hurt.

I had gotten my hopes up. When I’d first heard about Brokeback Mountain, I was doubtful that it could win the Oscar. But then it started gobbling up every other award out there, and in the process it made its way through red-state America, and I wondered if the world really was changing. My stomach churning all the way—fearing disappointment—I nevertheless took my seat on the hope train, believing that anything was possible.

I should have known better. In my own unofficial survey, the Academy has a terrible record. In the last 10 years alone, I’ve agreed with their Best Picture choices only 3 times. It’s gotten to the point where I’m grateful to them for even nominating the best film of the year (which they failed to do again this year, I might add, as the extraordinary New World languishes on its way to DVD). I’m used to being disappointed by the Academy’s aesthetic choices, but this time was different. This time I was thinking about politics. This time I was thinking about my very life. I had my hopes up because a lot of people are not as cynical as I am: a lot of them are still enamored of the Academy and influenced by what it has to say. The Academy’s stamp of approval translates to greater box office, and maybe even greater cultural acceptance. I am upset because that opportunity was missed. Without a Best Picture Oscar, it will be all too easy for people to forget the extraordinary impact of Brokeback Mountain. Its truckload of other awards don’t matter to the general public: that slender G.I. Joe-sized golden statue does.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has never been known for embracing innovation. The list of groundbreaking films that have won the Oscar is particularly slim. Can they ever live down the shame of ignoring Citizen Kane? Why should we expect any more enlightenment now? The more artful a film is, the more it advances the medium, the less likely it is to be embraced by the Academy. (A genius, they say, is never welcome in his own time and place.)

Great art tends to be subtle, nuanced. But the Academy prefers its messages to be delivered with a sledgehammer. And this year, they couldn’t have picked a heavier sledgehammer than Crash. It’s a well-made film, but subtle it isn’t. In 21st-century America, Crash dared to take on the challenging issue of racism. Wow! And what did it have to say? Basically two things: Racism is wrong. And racism is universal. Crash developed those themes by revealing the complexity of its characters: everyone was both good and bad. That is to say, everyone was two-dimensional.

In Brokeback Mountain, the characters are a little more complicated than that. They are three-dimensional, fully fleshed human beings whose conflicts involve more than name-calling, whose struggles are internal as well as external.

The Academy took the easy way out. They made the safe choice, not the courageous one. By choosing Crash, they were able to maintain their credibility as open-minded. Ironically, they did so by taking a stand on an issue that 90% of Americans already agree on: racism is wrong.

It’s not so cut and dry with homophobia. And that’s the tragedy here. The Academy missed an opportunity to do something really significant this year. And if even an arts organization—an organization that is roundly accused of being “out of touch” with America—can’t fully embrace us, then we have further to go than I had hoped.

A few weeks ago, there was great controversy (in the gay press, at least) over Gene Shalit’s review of Brokeback Mountain, in which he likened the character of Jack to a sexual predator. He didn’t mean anything offensive, he claimed, and I tend to believe him. The truth is: he just didn’t get it.

A couple of days before the Oscars, Bill Maher was talking about Brokeback on his show and he reduced the plot of the film to: a couple of guys get together a few times a year to have sex. He didn’t get it, either.

Neither of these men, media figures who do not consider themselves homophobic, got the fact that Brokeback Mountain is a love story. They apparently just can’t get past the third syllable of the word homosexuality. If all Jack wanted was sex, then his occasional trips to see Mexican whores would be enough. If all Ennis wanted was sex, then his life wouldn’t be utterly destroyed by his failure to own up to the nature of his feelings for Jack. The tragedy of Brokeback Mountain is that Ennis is so terrified of what other people will think of his feelings that he chooses not to feel them. He chooses to hide the strongest emotion he has ever known: he chooses to suppress his very being.

And they don’t get it.

I guess it’s very simple, really: if you don’t have to think about it, you don’t bother to think about it.

I get this film instinctively, because I have lived it. I still live it in my soul. I know how it feels to fear violence and humiliation because of who you are and how you love. I know how it feels to bury your own feelings for so long that you’re afraid you’ll die.

I know I should be grateful that so many people have been touched by this brilliant film. I should be grateful that the Academy had the good sense and the courage to reward it as much as it did. But I can’t help hearing in my head a line from Malcolm X that appeared in one of those endless clips on the Oscar broadcast the other night. I can’t recall it exactly, but it went to the effect of: “Don’t stick a knife in my back 9 inches, take it out 6 and call that progress.”

So we have made progress of a sort, but the knife is still in our backs, in the back of every gay man and lesbian in this country. That’s just where we are right now. Still. Ennis Del Mar is alive and not so well, imploding a little more each day, while millions silently watch and don’t even bother asking why.


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