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When the Mountain crashed

GAUTAMAN BHASKARAN

What makes the Academy Awards a global draw? Is unpredictability the reason? Gautaman Bhaskaran



ALL GLITZ AND GLAMOUR: The theatre on Oscar night.

The annual Academy Awards happens far away from the Indian subcontinent. Yet the euphoria it creates among the Indian film fraternity merely suggests that Hollywood's appeal remains undiminished.

The Indian Ministry of Information and Broadcasting is heard to have wished that it could have an event as glitzy as the Oscars. The Filmfare Awards, one supposes, is modelled on the Academy Prizes.



Ang Lee with the Best Director award.

The craze for Hollywood is understandable. Right from Ray to modern dream peddlers have been inspired by Hollywood's craft and narrative styles.

Close race

The nominated fare was exceptionally good (as the fine DVD prints revealed) and the race must have been a close one, with the 6,000-odd Academy members, drawn from the Hollywood family, having a hard time choosing the winners.

Ang Lee's (whose martial arts film, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Tiger," was a runaway success with Indian audiences) "Brokeback Mountain" lost the race in the Best Picture category to Paul Haggis's "Crash" in what was apparently one of the biggest upsets in the Oscars history.

"Brokeback Mountain," with eight nominations, the highest this year, was the favourite.



Paul Haggis, Best Producer.

The film is lyrical, set in the early 1960s rural America, and its leisurely narrative traces the story of two cowboys who find that they are sexually attracted to each other.

Lee stretches his work over a few decades, when both his protagonists marry, have children and continue to keep their homosexual affair under wraps, literally under a fishing net. That is the excuse they give their families: going fishing.



Best actor and actress Philip Seymour Hoffman and Reese Witherspoon.

Though one might be tempted to argue that Lee's theme is a trifle bold for a still puritanical Academy, the reason perhaps is not quite that.

"Brokeback Mountain" is, in short, more poetry, more picture postcard (there are splendid shots of the American countryside) and boringly predictable to be termed great cinema.



Heath Ledger.

This is where "Crash" scores. It is a brutally honest attempt at capturing the nasty undercurrents of racial hatred and fear of reaching out to another human being.

The film happens in Los Angeles over a couple of days, and begins as well as ends with an automobile crash and the expletives that follow. People's lives touch only at such collisions.



Felicity Huffman.

A strong ensemble cast — among them Cheadle, Matt Dillon, Thandie Newton, Ryan Phillippe, Sandra Bullock and Brendan Fraser — play out a tale that often appears to be unstructured.

But ultimately, a pattern emerges out of Haggis's (debut director) creation, which frames the ugly aspect of American race relations.

A white officer body searches a rich black woman, an immigrant shopkeeper buys a gun to protect himself and nearly kills a white baby girl and two black youths steal a car in a posh area.



Keira Knightly.

Eventually what emerges from "Crash" is a sense of paranoia that may be typical of the post 9/11 U.S. The movie, after what appears like initial floundering, settles into an interesting pattern and delivers.

A sense of intolerance prevails among the characters, who evoke both sympathy and revulsion.

Often, their actions seem confusingly contradictory: the police officer saves the same black woman he had molested from an overturned car, in the process risking his own life. This unpredictability gives "Crash" more points than Lee's gay romp.

But why did Haggis not get the Best Director Oscar, which Lee clinched?



Joaquin Phoenix.

One can never understand how the Academy decides that a particular picture is the Best but not directed well enough to deserve the direction statuette.

In the acting honours, although Heath Ledger as the homosexual cowboy in "Brokeback Mountain" put up a brave fight, it was Philip Seymour Hoffman's writer Truman Capote in "Capote" who clinched the Best Actor prize.

Hoffman is a great performer, and he not only lost weight but also transformed himself magnificently, with a stoop and squeaky voice, to play a writer who manipulates two murderers in order to get a theme for his book, "In Cold Blood."

Although, remorse grips him when the convicts are finally hanged, Hoffman exudes the slyness of a writer whose aim is merely getting a good story.

In comparison, Reese Witherspoon, who was crowned the Best Actress for her role as country singer June Carter in "Walk the Line," had an easier run.

Her main competitors, Felicity Huffman (as a transsexual in "Transamerica") and Keira Knightly (in "Pride and Prejudice") could not really match up.

Huffman's character lacks a degree of authenticity. Knightly certainly lives up to the role of an independent and free spirited Elizabeth Bennett, but her good looks probably does not quite let one forget that she is Keira.

Witherspoon is far more believable as the country singer torn between her passion for music and a man who is drugging and destroying himself.

And as one writer quips, "and she sings," perhaps implying that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has a weakness for singing stars.

But if one were to apply the same yardstick, Joaquin Phoenix, also sings as Johnny Cash in "Walk the Line," and he lost.

Perhaps, it is these mysterious ways of the Academy that keep the Oscars in pulsating cheer year after year, getting millions of people drunk on the champagne of cinema.

Those who won...

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