The triumph of real cinema

With low-budget, independent-spirited films like Crash and Brokeback Mountain dominating the Oscar awards, big-buck entertainers took a back seat, writes Saibal Chatterjee

A scene from Brokeback Mountain for which Ang Lee won the Best Director Oscar Sandra Bullock in Crash that won the Best Motion Picture trophy

A scene from Brokeback Mountain for which Ang Lee won the Best Director Oscar; (right) Sandra Bullock in Crash that won the Best Motion Picture trophy

THE 78th annual Academy Awards night at the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles had one unifying theme. The glittering, wit-laden ceremony celebrated the power and spirit of American independent cinema, cinema that, in actor Samuel L. Jackson’s words, "was confrontational, passionate and more than entertainment". No matter who won or lost, it was cinema that triumphed that evening.

To paraphrase a part of the acceptance speech delivered by writer-director Paul Haggis, who spoilt Best Director Oscar-winner Ang Lee’s party somewhat by scooping up the big one of the evening – the Best Motion Picture trophy – for his hard-hitting Crash, "cinema as a hammer, not to beat society with but to reshape it" seemed to work best with the Academy members this year.

So, the big names and mega-budget box office monsters took a backseat for once, allowing small, heartfelt films that probed the innards of the human condition to hog the limelight.

The fact that even the Honorary Oscar of the night was given to octogenarian filmmaker Robert Altman was perhaps no coincidence. Accepting the statuette from veteran actress Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin, the maker of such classics as M.A.S.H. and Nashville said: "I am not interested in stories. I am interested in human behaviour." That’s perhaps no different from how Ang Lee and Paul Haggis feel, going by their approach in Brokeback Mountain and Crash respectively.

Gavin Hood, winner of the best foreign language film award for the South African entry Tsotsi, did, however, allude to the universal appeal of good old storytelling. He said: "These are foreign language films all right, but they tell the same stories as your films, about the human heart." Clearly, the world of good, meaningful cinema is one seamless entity and one felt rather sorry that Bollywood is still so far, far away from this universe where the medium gets the respect that it deserves.

Barring the Crash surprise right at the end of the show, the Oscar awards went largely according to the script. Taiwan-born Ang Lee became the first Asian director ever to win an Oscar in the directing category for the unique cowboy drama, Brokeback Mountain.

In both the "leading role" acting categories, the odds-on favourites won. Interestingly, both were first-time Oscar nominees. Philip Seymour Hoffman, 37, got the nod for his wonderfully nuanced interpretation of the controversial gay American journalist and author in Bennett Miller’s Capote. This was gifted character actor Hoffman’s first starring role in a Hollywood film.

Reese Witherspoon, the 29-year-old actress who recently outstripped Julia Roberts to become the highest paid actress in the history of Hollywood, bagged the statuette for the musical biopic, Walk the Line, in which she plays famed country singer June Carter. She beat performers like Felicity Huffman (Transamerica), Keira Knightley (Pride & Prejudice), Charlize Theron (North Country) and Dame Judi Dench (Mrs Henderson Presents).

With low-budget, independent-spirited films like Brokeback Mountain and Crash dominating the awards, big names like Steven Spielberg (who had Munich in the Best Motion Picture and Best Direction fray), Peter Jackson (whose King Kong picked up a few of the technical awards) and Rob Marshall (whose Memoirs of a Geisha figured prominently on the winners list) had to play second fiddle. Is this a new Hollywood in the making?

Brokeback had eight nominations, including for best picture, best director, best actor for Australia’s Heath Ledger and best supporting actor for Jake Gyllenhaal. While the actors in the film went empty-handed, the film won an Oscar in the adapted screenplay category.

Ang Lee’s Chinese-language martial arts epic, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, had won for best foreign language film in 2000.

Crash also won for original screenplay and editing, while the best cinematography Oscar was bagged by Dion Bebee for Memoirs of a Geisha.

For the first time in the history of the Oscars, a rap number – It’s Hard out here for a Pimp – was belted out from the stage. It was one of the nominated songs in the music category. Surprise of surprises, it went on to win.

The evening was a triumph for first-time nominee George Clooney, who shook off competition from two other first-time nominees Matt Dillon and Jake Gyllenhaal to win the Oscar for best supporting actor for his role in Syriana, a film that delves into the murky realities of the oil business in West Asia. The seven-month pregnant Rachel Weisz won in the best supporting actress category for her layered performance in The Constant Gardener.

Another category that saw the odds-on favourite win was Documentary Feature. The French film, March of the Penguins, directed by Luc Jacquet, bagged the statuette. The film, a huge global hit, is set to open in India in April.

Rob Marshall’s Memoirs of a Geisha, set in the last days of the Japanese geishas, won two Oscars – best costume and best art direction. King Kong won for sound mixing, sound editing and visual effects. The best makeup Oscar went to The Chronicles of Narnia.

The first Oscar that Brokeback Mountain picked up during the evening went to Argentinian Gustavo Santaolalla’s original music score. Interestingly, somebody who is arguably the world’s most famous Latina, Salma Hayek, presented the statuette to him.

The Best Picture nominees this year summed up the tone and tenor of Oscar night. Brokeback Mountain is a tragic love story of two gay cowboys, Steven Spielberg’s Munich a re-enactment of the Munich Olympic massacre of Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists, and Crash is Paul Haggis’s expose of racial prejudice in US society.

The political drama Good Night, and Good Luck, which fetched Clooney nominations in both the writing and directing categories, and Bennett Miller’s Capote (with five nominations), also lived up to the high standards set this year for "real" cinema.

Asked why smaller films are getting recognition this year, Matt Dillon said on the red carpet: "They are about the truth even though they are fictional."

The foreign-language Oscar race this year was largely a two-horse race between Paradise Now from Palestine and Tsotsi from South Africa. The latter, based on a novel by Athol Fugard, follows the spiritual journey of a brutally violent boy from the mean streets. He undergoes a transformation after he is inadvertently saddled with a baby following a botched car theft.