Thirteen years on and the Oscars’ most shocking moment remains the night that Brokeback Mountain lost Best Picture to Crash. When the producers and stars of La La Land walked on stage at the 89th Academy Awards in 2017 as the final winners of the night, most people accepted the victory as an inevitability. But then suddenly it wasn’t, and in what remains one of the greatest shocks in Oscars history, it turned out that Moonlight had actually won Best Picture. The chaos of mixed up envelopes, confused hosts and two very embarrassed accountants made for excellent television and inspired many jokes; it was the kind of surprise the Academy loves to produce, albeit one that was completely unintentional. For some Oscar fans, the Moonlight mix-up will remain the most shocking moment in Academy history. However, the incident that still truly shakes film fans to their core happened a few years earlier.
The 78th Academy Awards, celebrating the films of 2005, offered an evening of variety and wins that seemed to satisfy everyone. Beloved character actor Philip Seymour Hoffman fended off tough competition to take home Best Actor for his performance in Capote. Reese Witherspoon went from America’s Sweetheart to Oscar winner. George Clooney, who was also nominated for Best Director for Good Night and Good Luck, took home Best Supporting Actor for Syriana. The Best Director award eventually went to Ang Lee for Brokeback Mountain, and once that trophy was in the bag, it was assumed the film would also win Best Picture.
Then Jack Nicholson opened the envelope and, with evident surprise in his voice, announced that winner was Crash. Suffice to say that most people were shocked. To this day, it remains one of the more divisive Oscar wins.
Why Brokeback Mountain Lost Best Picture
Crash’s win over Brokeback Mountain remains controversial for a number of reasons. First, at the time, while Brokeback Mountain’s win was never guaranteed, it seemed more likely a victory than Crash. Reviews were better, it was a commercial hit (it made close to thirteen times its $14 million budget), it had two of the most acclaimed performances of the year in the form of Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, and this small movie had become one of the true forces of the pop culture zeitgeist in 2005. For all of the “gay cowboy” jokes that permeated the landscape that year, it’s also worth remembering just how big a deal Lee’s film was and what it stood for in terms of LGBTQ+ representation in Hollywood.
But for all the progress the film inspired, the backlash was just as strong, and that was evident in its Best Picture snub. It became a popular target for conservative political pundits and politicians, one Utah theater owner refused to show it, and some prominent industry figures even refused to watch it. Actor Ernest Borgnine famously said, “I didn’t see it and I don’t care to see it. I know they say it’s a good picture, but I don’t care to see it. If John Wayne were alive, he’d be rolling over in his grave!”
Why Crash Won Best Picture
On the other side of the Oscar race was Crash, Paul Haggis’ intertwining drama about racist tensions in L.A. Like Brokeback Mountain, the film had a successful festival run, made money (although not as much as Lee's film), had some big-name supporters, and tackled hot button issues. Crucially, Crash was not a Best Picture front-runner because it had not been nominated for the Best Drama Golden Globe, and the last film to win the Oscar without that precursor nomination was The Sting in 1974. Critics liked the film but Crash had some major detractors and it never felt as crucial a movie to reward as Brokeback Mountain. Even Paul Haggis would later admit that he didn’t think Crash was anywhere near as good as its competition.
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Of course, quality has seldom mattered when it comes to the Oscars. The awards are chosen based on a number of mitigating factors, from industry connections to subject matter to contemporary political issues and much more. Crash, which did have its fair share of critical acclaim, was a blunter and more easy to digest film for some Academy members. Its take on racial tensions in Los Angeles was tailored more towards pleasing white audiences, and the Academy, even today, remains heavily white. It was a film full of notable actors, which probably encouraged a lot of votes from other actors, who make up the largest demographic of the Academy. Moreover, Crash felt “safe” in a way Brokeback Mountain was not. Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times suggested that Crash benefitted from the Academy's ingrained homophobia. Even at its most progressive, they just weren’t ready to celebrate a film like Brokeback Mountain. For many, it felt like a rejection of progress and cemented the Academy’s status as an out-of-date institution, a problem it’s still fighting with today. In the Academy's preferential voting system, that means the amenable Crash won out.
Crash’s win has stained the film more than its loss ever would have. It’s widely considered one of the Oscars’ biggest mistakes and one of the least deserving Best Picture wins, while Brokeback Mountain’s reputation has only grown. The Oscars will inevitable have further blunders and surprise wins, but the Crash situation will remain its most shocking.