‘Brokeback’ to top Oscar?

For a traditionally closeted industry, Hollywood sure came out big time in 2005. In the span of one year, gay cinema burst out of its mediocre comedic backwater to become a serious mainstream force. The box office totals for “Brokeback Mountain” have been hard to ignore: $72,000,000 and growing. Now, for the first time in Oscar history, a trio of homosexual films may take the top prizes. “Capote,” “Transamerica” and the film-to-beat “Brokeback Mountain,” which all deal heavily in gay themes, have been nominated in the Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Picture categories, respectively. A triple win would mean much more than the Halle Berry/Denzel Washington coup four years ago.

Unlike issues of race, sexuality has never been more controversial in American politics and religion than it is today. This year, the film industry has been at the center of the debate, both criticized and applauded for its overtly left-wing agenda. And as Hollywood is about to formally vocalize its opinions this Sunday, religious and political groups will not be watching the 78th Academy Awards just to see Jon Stewart. In this highly-charged climate, the only serious competition against “Brokeback Mountain” for Best Picture, the radical “Good Night and Good Luck,” ironically stands as the safe, conservative choice. So the question is: Does the Academy have the guts to make a strong statement on a night traditionally dedicated to frivolous entertainment?



Best Actor: Phillip Seymour Hoffman — Cutting his teeth on intense character roles since the days of “Boogie Nights,” Hoffman has been the dependably strong performance in many a weak movie for a decade now. Finally, “Capote” gives him the chance to shine in a role worthy of his talents. He gets Truman just right, playing the part with a loose precision that doesn’t feel forced or stagey. While Hoffman replicates the eccentric author’s famous mannerisms, the charisma of his acting is not lost in character study.



Best Actress: Felicity Huffman — A guarded warmth seems to radiate from Felicity Huffman throughout her surprisingly subtle performance as Bree in “Transamerica.” Playing a man on his way to surgically becoming a woman, Huffman brings a discomforting awareness to the role, conveying conscious thought behind every feminine gesture as if she were learning to speak a foreign language. Bree could have become a transsexual stereotype with her strange mannerisms and guarded persona, but Huffman stealthily opens up to the audience scene by scene, winning our empathy with her awkward grace.



Best Supporting Actor: William Hurt — Delivering the coup de grace to an already superb film, William Hurt blasts into the third act of “A History of Violence” and steals the show. His take on a civilized small-time gangster ambushed on home turf slyly mixes the pathos of “Macbeth” with the physical genius of “The Three Stooges.”



Best Supporting Actress: Michelle Williams — Looking like a lost child against the towering figure of Heath Ledger (Ennis Del Mar), Michelle Williams’s Alma is painfully out of place. But rather than playing up her increasing anger and alienation, she takes Ennis’ emotional blows silently, giving an understated performance that is in perfect tune with the repressed pain of the film itself.



Cinematography: “Brokeback Mountain” — Famous for the bright eye candy of “Frida,” Rodrigo Prieto redefines his aesthetic for “Brokeback Mountain” in slow, wide shots saturated with the somber colors of earth and sky. Prieto’s taut, vacant frames have the calm gravity of a Rothko.



Best Original Screenplay: “The Squid and the Whale” — Noah Baumbach’s writing has an intellectual twang reminiscent of a Wes Anderson script, but the similarities end there. His “Whale” tackles the subject of divorce with a wit that amplifies the painful fallout from a family voluntarily blown apart. It’s no small feat to write a tragedy that peaks out from beneath the hollow grimace of comedy, but Baumbach expertly manages to blur laughter with tears.



Best Adapted Screenplay: “A History of Violence” — The hard, spare prose of “Brokeback Mountain” really deserves to win this category, but since the Academy saw fit to nominate “A History of Violence,” the actual best picture of the year, only for this creative award (clearly, Best Supporting Actor doesn’t count), it has a right to take this.



Best Picture: “Brokeback Mountain” — A Greek tragedy reborn in the mountains of Wyoming, Ang Lee’s lyrical masterpiece is a testament to the power of cinema. The film not only captures the aching heartbreak of its two protagonists across time and space, but paints a bleak, beautiful portrait of the American heartland in the process. Lee directs as if he is adapting a haiku to the screen: The empty frames and slow movement of his lens lend a mood to the film that lingers, building rather than diminishing in memory. For sheer confidence of craft, nothing else this year comes close. Despite its smart subject and smoky black and white, “Good Night and Good Luck,” doesn’t have the scope or emotion of “Brokeback Mountain.” In terms of Oscar logic, Lee’s greatest film, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” deserved Best Picture but didn’t win, meaning that “Brokeback Mountain” is not only the best picture nominated this year, but should also receive the conciliatory vote. In short, “Brokeback Mountain” should be Ang Lee’s Oscar movie — as long as the Academy doesn’t bow to politicos who know nothing about art.

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