- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 16, 2006

LOS ANGELES — Although several early awards have established “Brokeback Mountain” as a solid favorite for the best-picture Oscar, the ensemble drama “Crash” has an ardent following and some late-season momentum that could upset the cowboy romance and make it a surprise winner.

Generally, when there’s a clear Oscar front-runner, that film almost always goes home with the big trophy. But upsets do happen and late-surging films have pulled off come-from-behind wins.

Just look back to the 1998 awards season.

“The year of ‘Saving Private Ryan,’ everybody was certain it was a lock,” says film historian Leonard Maltin. “People thought it was a sure thing to win best picture given the subject matter (D-Day heroics) and the people behind it (Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks), until the middle of December.”

That’s when a little film called “Shakespeare in Love” showed up. Oscar voters, along with everyone else, fell in love with it, and while Mr. Spielberg won best director, “Shakespeare in Love” grabbed the top prize.

The previous 77 Oscar ceremonies have had their share of unexpected twists, mostly in the acting categories. The best-picture announcement often has proven an anticlimactic no-brainer at the end of the evening, yet a handful of unanticipated winners have shaken things up:

• For best picture of 1948, the poignant drama “Johnny Belinda,” a homegrown Hollywood production, seemed to have the edge, only to lose to a British upstart, Laurence Olivier’s “Hamlet.”

• Three years later, the song-and-dance romance “An American in Paris” pulled off a best-picture stunner over dramatic heavyweights “A Place in the Sun” and “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

• In 1952, Gary Cooper’s Western “High Noon” looked as though it would ride into the winner’s circle, but the splashy circus tale “The Greatest Show on Earth” came out on top.

• The 1968 best-picture award went the musical route again as “Oliver!” became an upset winner over the more popular musical “Funny Girl” and the palace-intrigue saga “The Lion in Winter.”

• And one of Oscar’s biggest underdogs, the Olympics tale “Chariots of Fire,” ran off with best picture for 1981 over the historical drama “Reds” and the family story “On Golden Pond.”

This time around, most signs point to “Brokeback Mountain” — Ang Lee’s tale of two rugged Western men (Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal) in a doomed love affair — as the likely best-picture champ. Since its December debut, “Brokeback” has swept through the awards season, winning best drama at the Golden Globes, snagging honors from top critics groups and earning prizes from guilds representing directors, writers and producers.

The film leads the Oscars with eight nominations, positioning it as the one to beat come March 5.

“Brokeback” has followed the same release pattern as last year’s Oscar champ, “Million Dollar Baby,” starting in a handful of theaters and gradually expanding into wide release and box-office success on the strength of its awards buzz.

But “Crash” grabbed the prize for best overall cast performance at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, surprising some Oscar forecasters. “Brokeback,” because of its supposed momentum, had been considered a favorite there, too.

After the fact, though, the SAG honor made sense for “Crash” — its huge cast and multiple story lines are the virtual definition of an ensemble film. Directed by Paul Haggis, a 2004 Oscar nominee for the screenplay of “Million Dollar Baby,” “Crash” features Sandra Bullock, Don Cheadle, Brendan Fraser, Terrence Howard, Thandie Newton and supporting-actor nominee Matt Dillon among dozens of characters whose lives intersect over a chaotic 36-hour stretch in Los Angeles.

“The reason we believe we have a great chance of actually winning the best-picture Oscar is because people are passionate about the movie,” says Tom Ortenberg, president of Lionsgate Films, which released “Crash.”

“Crash” took an unusual route to the Oscars, emerging out of the 2004 Toronto International Film Festival, where Lionsgate snapped it up. The movie hit theaters last May and came out on DVD in September, defying conventional wisdom that films released early in the year are forgotten by Oscar time.

Lionsgate took the singular step of providing about 100,000 DVD copies of “Crash” to SAG members to ensure that as many as possible had seen the film before voting for the guild’s awards. Distributors generally provide about 20,000 to 30,000 DVD copies of awards-contending films to academy members, key critics groups and voters in other Hollywood honors, but this was the first time a group as big as SAG was blanketed with DVDs of a movie.

Tom O’Neil of the awards Web site theenvelope.com said the SAG win was a sign that “Crash” could be picking up steam as a potential best-picture party-crasher among the Oscars’ 5,800 voters.

“Brokeback Mountain” has become a cultural touchstone for Hollywood depictions of homosexual love affairs, yet the hubbub over the film may be growing stale as Oscar voters cast their final ballots, Mr. O’Neil says. And while “Brokeback” has become a solid box-office success, its homosexual theme may be off-putting to some Oscar voters, he adds.

James Schamus — a producer on “Brokeback Mountain” and co-president of Focus Features, which released the film — declined to comment on his movie’s front-runner status or the prospects of “Crash” becoming an underdog spoiler.

Previously involved with such Oscar contenders as “The Pianist” and Mr. Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” Mr. Schamus says it’s impossible to calculate a movie’s awards fate based on such insubstantial notions as “momentum and peaking.”

And of course, there are three other worthy films in the best-picture race, the Truman Capote drama “Capote,” the Edward R. Murrow tale “Good Night, and Good Luck” and the assassination thriller “Munich.” Along with “Crash,” any one of those movies could pull off a win over “Brokeback Mountain,” Mr. Maltin says.

“Anyone who says that someone is a sure bet for an Oscar is a fool,” he notes. “There’s no such thing as a sure thing, least of all in a five-way vote.”

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