Last week in the British newspaper the Guardian, E. Annie Proulx lambasted “conservative heffalump academy voters” for their failure to bestow the Best Picture Oscar upon the film adaptation of her short story Brokeback Mountain, deriding these industry insiders as cowards “living cloistered lives behind wrought-iron gates or in deluxe rest-homes” — Ouch! Hello, AARP? I’m calling to report a hate crime! — “out of touch” with the “shifting larger culture and the yeasty ferment that is America these days.”
If “yeasty ferment” seems an ambiguous turn of phrase, Proulx was a bit more forthcoming in an interview with the Missouri Review: “America is a violent, gun-handling country,” she said. “Americans feed on a steady diet of bloody movies, television programs, murder mysteries. Road rage, highway killings, beatings and murder of those who are different abound; school shootings — almost all of them in rural areas — make headline news over and over.”
This hardly sounds the sort of cultural milieu from which one would even desire an award, but since Proulx so clearly feels her 10,000 word Little Engine That Could has been derailed by sexually repressed closet Hollywood conservatives and the film the Pulitzer Prize winning author refers to in her op-ed as “Trash — excuse me — Crash,” it’s worthwhile to examine the condensed history/tragic trajectory of Brokeback Mountain.
It all began when the story was published in one of those piddling no-name publications, The New Yorker, in 1997. The near-anonymity of this periodical all but guaranteed the story would fail to receive any award beyond questionable honors such as the O. Henry prize and a National Magazine Award. Lonesome Dove author Larry McMurtry bought the rights to the story and produced a screenplay based on it. Director Ang Lee — best known for his work on The Ice Storm and another men-tearing-clothes-off drama, 2003’s The Hulk — attached himself to the film. Two well-known young actors soon followed suit.
Unfortunately, even with star power, the $14 million film has only managed to gross $140 million thus far. Although more than half a dozen critics’ associations and the Independent Spirit awards declared the film the best picture of the year, it was shut out at the Screen Actors Guild Awards and won only three Oscars. Fade to black. Pass the tissues.
HOPEFULLY THE BELLS AND WHISTLES on everyone’s sarcasm detectors are off the charts now. It can be reasonably said that of all the short stories written in the last decade, Brokeback Mountain and its silver screen adaptation have fared better than average. As the brilliant and ornery Dave Weigel noted, “The ‘gay cowboy movie’ starring the guy from A Knight’s Tale and the guy from Jarhead has been seen and embraced by more Americans than the boxing movie [Cinderella Man] starring two Oscar winners (Crowe and Zellweger).”
It wasn’t even just the awards that got her goat or Jack Twist’s sheep, for that matter. Everything about Academy Awards night bothered Proulx and few lived up to her high standards of decorum: From the first there was “an atmosphere of insufferable self-importance,” the writer reports, sniffing that Jon Stewart was “too witty, too quick, too eastern perhaps for the somewhat dim LA crowd.” (“Too eastern”? Proulx lives in Wyoming for God’s sake.) Worse, the audience was polite. “There were orders to clap and the audience obediently clapped,” she complains, as if greeting award winners with silence was an option in any polite society.
Proulx admits Philip Seymour Hoffman’s portrayal of Truman Capote was “brilliant,” but in order to shore up victim status at the hands of the unenlightened, she sniffs, “Hollywood loves mimicry,” before asking rhetorically, “which takes more skill, acting a person who strolled the boulevard a few decades ago and who left behind tapes, film, photographs, voice recordings and friends with strong memories, or the construction of characters from imagination and a few cold words on the page?”
Still, any losing nominee could easily blurt out a litany of complaints similar to Proulx’s. Few will write a screenplay or work on a film without a belief in the higher worth of the project. As I posited last year, once a film reaches a certain level of quality the awards circuit becomes completely arbitrary and subjective. (How else to explain Russell Crowe’s Oscar for Gladiator?)
When Proulx chides, “Next year we can look to the awards for controversial themes on the punishment of adulterers with a branding iron in the shape of the letter A, runaway slaves, and the debate over free silver,” however, it becomes apparent that for her it is not subjective or arbitrary. In the mind of someone for whom ideology trumps artistic merit (or at the very least for whom the two are inseparable) addressing a certain issue should be enough to win the award. It’s the Entitlement Culture for the Pampered Class and they want to get paid.
No doubt some Academy voters felt the same way about Crash. And how comfortable would Proulx be if she ever realized her reasoning for why Brokeback Mountain deserved an Oscar is nearly identical to the demands evangelical Christians made on behalf of The Passion? A different agenda to be sure, but the mindset and tactics are identical.
More than 200 films receive a wide release or something approximating it every year. When recognition as one of the top five out of those 200 is not enough, take a deep breath and start ignoring your publicist’s calls. The convergence of self-importance and hyperbolic press releases is clouding your judgment.