- The Washington Times - Monday, March 6, 2006

At Sunday night’s Academy Awards ceremony, a preening George Clooney congratulated the audience — and by extension himself — for its forward-thinking values, a generosity of spirit that is blessedly out of step with the benighted American masses.

Citing black actress Hattie McDaniel’s pre-civil-rights-era Oscar in 1939, Mr. Clooney declared, “I’m proud to be … part of this community, proud to be out of touch.”

Inadvertently, it seemed, Mr. Clooney was confirming what many had suspected, based on this year’s pattern of Oscar nominations for the likes of “Brokeback Mountain,” “Good Night, and Good Luck,” “Syriana,” and “The Constant Gardener”: Hollywood’s elite is more interested in instructing us than entertaining us.

Yet a funny thing happened Sunday night: Either because they didn’t have the courage of their progressive convictions or because they’re secretly just as “out of touch” as the rest of us, academy voters passed up “Brokeback,” long the odds-on favorite to win best picture, and chose the better movie — Paul Haggis’ surprise ensemble hit “Crash.”

But here’s where things get even more complicated: “Crash’s” upset win over “Brokeback” may end up doing the movie more harm than good, at least in terms of its legacy.

Days before Sunday’s ceremony, the Hollywood buzz machine began pre-emptively spinning “Brokeback’s” defeat: Academy voters had, in effect, chickened out, and “Crash,” it was telegraphed, was the likely compromise choice.

If the notion calcifies that “Crash” was an inferior beneficiary of Hollywood cowardice or greed, it would be an injustice equal to that suffered by movies such as “Junebug” and “The Squid and the Whale” — small, intimate portraits with no obvious polemical value that academy voters virtually ignored.

“Crash,” which also earned Mr. Haggis and co-scenarist Robert Moresco an Oscar for best original screenplay, generally was well-liked by critics, but it had its doubters.

Typical among them was Scott Foundas of L.A. Weekly, who fulminated in an online exchange with critic Roger Ebert: “The characters in ‘Crash’ don’t feel like three-dimensional, flesh-and-blood human beings so much as calculated ‘types’ plugged by Haggis into a schematic thesis about how we are all, in the course of any given day, the perpetrators and the victims of some racial prejudice. …

Ironically, it was this purported topic — racism — that worked most in “Crash’s” awards-season favor, allowing it to sneak into the spotlight in a year when politics seemed to speak the loudest (to the academy, if not to average moviegoers).

Yet “Crash” boosters and detractors alike got the movie wrong — and thereby missed what was so great about it.

“Crash” took Los Angeles’ racial (and geographic) sprawl and tried to start a conversation that went beyond race. With its scheme of unlikely plot coincidences — Mr. Haggis happily admitted that “Crash” was an unrealistic allegory — the movie used race, more specifically xenophobia, as a way of exploring the potential for heroism and villainy that lurks, side by side, in each of us, whether we’re bien-pensant liberals or ineducable rednecks.

If that’s not “three-dimensional,” I don’t know what is.

The story’s themes were universal: Human beings gravitate toward those most like themselves and mix uneasily in a racial stew such as Los Angeles; stereotypes may be invidious, but they’re sometimes true; and no one, least of all liberals who want to reassure themselves that they’re “still good people,” are beyond fear of the other.

What a pity it would be if “Crash” were remembered less for its own sake than for the movies it defeated, and grossly misinterpreted at that.

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