Three times in the years since I came online to cover the Oscar race (since 1999) the Academy has been shaken to its core. The first time was when Crash beat Brokeback Mountain. The second was when The Dark Knight did not get a Best Picture nomination, and the third was #oscarssowhite, ten years after Crash won. Each of these seemed to shake, rattle, and roll Hollywood and how we talk about and think about the Oscars. The Dark Knight’s omission resulted in expanding the Best Picture category and the reintroducing the preferential ballot. Last year’s hashtag and boycott motivated the Academy to diversify their membership to better reflect 21st century America, both by adding new members and by weeding out some of the older voters.
As we head into final days of this year’s race, it feels like something new is poised to happen as a result of what we’ve seen the past few months – but what that story will be hasn’t yet been told. After all, La La Land is winning everything – it has almost no competition except for Hidden Figures, which won the SAG Ensemble award. Moonlight seems to have a lot of last minute momentum too but it’s only really won the Golden Globe for Best Picture. Maybe there will be no other story to tell. But it’s hard not to look at this year and wonder why Moonlight couldn’t win. Is it that too many voters refuse to watch it, just as some proudly boasted with Brokeback? Is it that gay stories still aren’t accessible enough for these voters? I would think that if any would be, it would be Moonlight.
When Brokeback Mountain lost to Crash, it inspired many prominent critics like Kenneth Turan to harshly criticize the Academy for what appeared to be homophobic resistance to the first gay love story to enter the Best Picture race. Brokeback Mountain won almost everything it needed to heading into the race – and probably would have had no trouble winning on a preferential ballot – but it didn’t win over the actors. It didn’t win the SAG Ensemble because Crash did before going on to take Best Picture. In the years since, many have debated whether it was homophobia or that they “just liked Crash better.” Thing is, you can’t really separate those two things. I suppose that one is accusatory and the other forgiving.
I remember the letters I received – one from a young man who was on the brink of suicide after that night. He said that he’d found solace in my website because we were talking about it and were outraged, quite frankly. That was, and still is, one of the few moments that what I do felt like it mattered even a little bit. For many fans of the Oscars, the rejection of Brokeback Mountain was personal. The people who ran the awards site Fennec.org ended up shutting down over it. The subject hasn’t really come up much since in terms of the Best Picture race because (aside from Milk and The Kids Are Alright) no other movies about gay love have really been nominated, Carol being the worst of these shut outs.
In the ensuing years there has been a bit of an uptick for Crash – just as there has been for How Green Was My Valley and Ordinary People. This idea of those movies being unworthy because they lost to better films has faded somewhat. But here we are, once again, with a film that has been hailed as a masterpiece across the board, Moonlight, not winning Best Picture because it’s “too black and too gay.”
Brokeback Mountain happened to be on television last night and I started watching it again. First, it’s still as good as it was back in 2005, maybe even better. So much has changed for the LGBT community since then, namely that gay marriage is the law of the land and Ellen is a talk show host on ABC. Jodie Foster is out and proud, Kristen Stewart can playfully talk about being “so gay” on Saturday Night Live and there are no negative consequences for that. Actors for so long in Hollywood simply could not come out as gay for fear of losing work. Hardly anyone even thinks twice about it now.
Still, Brokeback Mountain doesn’t shy away from sex. It is as explicit as it can possibly be without showing anything and the Academy that rejected that movie would still reject it today. I can promise you that. For one thing, try to remember when the last time a movie with explicit sex in it even won Best Picture? It simply doesn’t really exist when it comes to a consensus vote – perhaps because it is still too divisive, or more divisive now than it ever has been. Carol was likewise explicit in its depiction of sexuality. Moonlight doesn’t really depict much sexuality, though there is some. It’s not about that; it’s about someone who can’t reconcile who he is with what’s expected of him. The sex in Moonlight will likely happen after the credits roll. So it’s kind of funny that it’s still seen as “too gay” for the Academy.
We still think about and talk about Brokeback Mountain but a lot of that outrage has evaporated, probably because the gay community has been so outspoken and because Queer Cinema has evolved so dramatically. It is really isn’t movies or our culture that is behind the times – rather, it’s the consensus voters in the Academy.
When you think about it, it’s sort of a miracle Moonlight got in at all, considering it has two things Oscar voters don’t ordinarily go for. It is unique, this film, in what it says about life and love and most of all, survival. Perhaps, where the Academy is concerned, Moonlight in all of the major categories amounts to baby steps for a group that will have to be pulled out of the past and into the now.