Thursday, March 13, 2008

Can the Academy Atone for its Sins?

As I look ahead to this year's schedule of movie releases, Gus Van Sant's biopic of slain openly gay San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk titled simply Milk stands head and shoulders atop my list of most anticipated films (I will have a more comprehensive list of my most anticipated films later). The film's cast is looking great on paper—Sean Penn as Harvey Milk (say what you will about the man, the actor is still top notch), Josh Brolin (criminally overlooked in the awards arena this past year for No Country for Old Men) as Milk's murderer Dan White, James Franco as Milk's lover (he was great on Freaks and Geeks...right?), with Emile Hirsch and Diego Luna (soon to be featured right here in my Can We Talk About column) to boot. And then there's Mr. Gus Van Sant himself, who at the very least, creates interesting, if flawed work (we're ignoring Psycho for the moment).

Could Milk be the critical hit of 2008?

It is almost impossible to looking forward to November 2008 and Milk without also looking back at 2005 and Brokeback Mountain. Confession time—I'm still bitter about Brokeback's loss to Crash, even though it happened more than two years ago. This is not simply due to my insistence that Brokeback was far and away the best of the five, certainly not to be unseated by Crash. Let me explain. More often than not, my favorite film of the year is not even nominated for best picture. When films like Gladiator, A Beautiful Mind and Chicago win best picture, sure it sucks, but I can get over it and move on because at least there was some indication leading up to the big night that these films would eventually be crowned. But in the case of Brokeback, where it seemed like the Academy might finally get it right and then decided, with no precedent whatsoever, to go so totally wrong, it felt like an incredible tease. Add to that the fact that Brokeback's loss was likely due to widespread homophobia in the Academy (we've all heard the infamous Tony Curtis quote by now) and you make for one very unhappy blogger.


Something's off about this equation...I call shenanigans

If Milk comes anywhere close to living up to its expectations, it may very well be where Brokeback Mountain was three years ago—raking up a slew of awards and honors, that is, not necessarily losing the best picture Oscar (more on that later). If the film does poise itself as a serious Oscar contender, I promise that you will hear talk of the Academy simply rewarding Milk as a means of atoning for the Brokeback loss (whether it does end up being the best film of they year or not). It occurred to me that the Academy is just like young Briony in Atonement. I can picture a bitter, homophobic Academy looking on with unease as Brokeback Mountain flirted dangerously close to being the first “gay” film to win the best picture Oscar, much in the same way that Briony spied Robbie and Cecilia by the fountain and eventually in the library. So a lie was told—the lie that Crash was somehow--in some backwards, fucked up universe--a better film, effectively separating Oscar and Brokeback forever. What a lie it was...

"Crash was the best. I know it was. I saw it with my own eyes"

Years later, with more time for contemplation, maybe there are Academy members looking back and saying “Good God, did we really name Crash best picture? And over Brokeback Mountain?!” After Ledger's death a couple months back, you had a sort of collective amnesia as celebrities (many of them Academy members) spoke up to pay homage to Ledger, and by extension, Brokeback Mountain, his most accomplished performance. Kind of makes you wonder where all these people were back in '05/'06 when both Ledger and his film lost that fateful evening, but that's another issue entirely. There's something in me that thinks there must be some Academy members who realize how Brokeback's loss almost rendered the Academy irrelevant in the eyes of many, including myself. How else would you explain them getting best picture right two years in a row (The Departed and No Country for Old Men, respectively) following the Crash debacle. None of this is to say that Crash is a bad film, because it isn't. Far from it, in fact. It is simply a film that cannot stand up under the weight of the title that is “Best Picture.” It is destined to join the ranks of Ordinary People, Out of Africa, Dances With Wolves and Shakespeare in Love—films only discussed in relation to the more superior films that were unseated so that they may take their place, undeserving in the pantheon of Oscar's best pictures.

Where does this leave the Academy three years after the fact? What is to be done about Milk? Well, let me just say that subject matter is not all. SUBJECT MATTER IS NOT ALL. I say this twice because it bears repeating and many Academy members (I'm sure they read this blog in legion) are likely to scratch their head at this sentiment, querying “Wait, so you're saying that films about mentally challenged people, female boxers with inhuman hearts of gold and biopics about anyone famous/beloved and or recently dead aren't inherently better? How are we supposed to come to a consensus about what is best?!” Like I've said, subject matter is not all. If Paul Haggis had created a film that was somehow better than Ang Lee's, then I would certainly have advocated for a Crash upset. After all, I was hoping that Sideways would upset the steamroll that was Million Dollar Baby or the complicated marital strife of In the Bedroom would pull through and knock A Beautiful Mind on its simplistic, reductive ass. If Revolutionary Road or Doubt or The Curious Case of Benjamin Button or some film that hasn't even entered mainstream radar happens to be better than Milk, then by all means have at thee. If a film's subject matter, or more specifically a gay-related subject matter, is all it takes for a film to be considered “best” then I would have been rooting for The Birdcage, Breakfast on Pluto and Kinky Boots to be winning Oscars left and right in their respective years. Brokeback Mountain really could have gone either way. Its source material doesn't lend itself particularly well to film adaptation, but the fact remains that it was still the best film of 2005, whether people in the Academy who voted for Crash admit it or not—whether they are, as Briony stated “Very very sorry for the terrible distress [they] have caused.”

"I am very very sorry for the terrible decision I made. Seriously. Crash over Brokeback?!"

So what's my point? My point is that if Milk is the best, it should be rewarded accordingly. But IF it is the best (or even among the best), expect to see some combination of the following three scenarios.

1.) The film is rewarded across the board, ultimately winning the top prize, with several dissenters, bloggers, critics and pundits (most of whom will be conservative) stating that the only reason the film is winning so much is because of guilt over the Brokeback loss and a general bias in “liberal” Hollywood towards pushing the “gay agenda.” Yawn. Can't you just feel it coming and aren't you already bored?

2.) The film is nominated everywhere, but never wins because of all the reasons stated earlier in this article and many other articles profiling the Brokeback loss. Except this time, they have the excuse that “we don't want to make it look like we're simply trying to make up for Brokeback loss” to hide behind, further obscuring the real issue—widespread homophobia in the supposedly liberal Academy, Hollywood and the nation at large. This will make way for another frontrunner to sweep—possibly Frost/Nixon. It is, after all a biopic and we all know how the Academy is long overdue in rewarding biopics...especially those directed by Ron Howard. Except not. And not. Apropos to nothing, I'm hoping that the lukewarm response (as far as awards attention goes) to Ron Howard's post-Oscar-win offerings (Cinderella Man, anyone? No? Yeah, me neither) indicates that they're done with him for the time being. If by some twisted, horrific turn of events, Opie happens to win another Oscar, I swear I will projective vomit.

3.) The film suffers the same fate as Brokeback—perennially rewarded until Oscar night where it's viciously unseated, at which point this blogger will be forced to bid you adieu as I will most likely die of simultaneous shock, embarrassment and disappointment. Shock at the Academy's idiocy, embarrassment for how unashamed they are of the same and disappointment of what such an event says about the country in which I live.

Of course, number 1 is the ideal scenario, but if Briony's final monologue in
Atonement taught us nothing else, it's that what's done is done. No amount of fictionalization, apologies (real or imagined) and guilt will put right what is already so wrong. A win for Milk would be great, but make no mistake Academy—there is no atoning for what was done to Brokeback.

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