Oscar Talk - A special report
Love is back in Oscars with Brokeback Mountain
It's been seven years since a love story won the top Academy Award. Back then, it was a romance between a woman pretending to be a man who falls for Shakespeare. This time, it's two men in cowboy hats.
Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain is positioned to become the first movie with such explicit gay overtones to win best picture, though the film faces tough competition.
Also nominated are Bennett Miller's Capote, the story of author Truman Capote's years of anguish creating the true-crime novel In Cold Blood; Paul Haggis's Crash, a drama about a huge cast of discordant characters intersecting and colliding over a chaotic 36-hour period; George Clooney's Good Night, and Good Luck, the saga of newsman Edward R. Murrow's stand against communist baiting by Senator Joseph McCarthy; and Steven Spielberg's Munich, a thriller following a Mossad hit squad targeting Palestinians implicated in the massacre of Israelis at the 1972 Olympics.
In a year of daring drama, though, Brokeback Mountain has resonated most widely, the top-grossing film among the best-picture lineup, a standard-bearer for gay and lesbian groups and a pop-culture sensation that has prompted endless gay-cowboy jokes.
Adapted from Annie Proulx's short story, Brokeback Mountain stars Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal as Western men swept up in a torrid summer fling while tending sheep together in 1963 Wyoming.
Declaring they are not "queer" and that what they have is only a summer thing, the two part ways, marry and have children, then are drawn back into a lusty affair they conceal from their families for years.
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"It was an opportunity to tell a story that hadn't been put on the screen," said Ledger, a best-actor nominee for his role as Ennis del Mar, a rugged husband and father who's helpless to explain or deny the love he feels for Gyllenhaal's Jack Twist. "The character is so tragic. I really enjoyed how little words he had to express his battle and express his inability to love."
Brokeback Mountain leads the Oscar field with eight nominations, including best director for Lee, supporting actor for Gyllenhaal, supporting actress for Michelle Williams as Ledger's despairing wife and adapted screenplay for Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove) and Diana Ossana.
The film earned honours from key critics groups, won the Golden Globe for best drama and received top prizes from Hollywood guilds representing directors, writers and producers. Brokeback Mountain did lose the Screen Actors Guild competition for best overall cast performance to Crash, establishing the latter as a potential longshot best-picture winner on Oscar night.
But even Haggis, a best-director and screenplay nominee for Crash and a writing nominee the previous year for Million Dollar Baby, has said he expects Brokeback Mountain to triumph at the Oscars.
"I think it really is the year of Brokeback Mountain, and that's a good thing," said Haggis, who is originally from London, Ont. "Ang is one hell of a filmmaker, and the script, as a writer, I'm so jealous, thinking: Damn, look what they did."
Humility is a wise stance for nominees to adopt, so they do not come off as overeager or egomaniacal. Clooney, considered the supporting-actor favourite for the oil-industry thriller Syriana and a directing and writing nominee for Good Night, and Good Luck, has been publicly declaring he does not expect to win anything.
So while Haggis likes the odds for Brokeback Mountain, his own backers feel Crash could pull off an upset.
"Besides being incredibly talented, Paul is an extremely modest person," said Tom Ortenberg, president of Lionsgate Films, which acquired Crash at the 2004 Toronto International Film Festival, where it premiered.
Most major Oscar contenders emerge from Hollywood studios or their art-house divisions. Crash was a rare instance of an out-of-nowhere film picked up by an independent distributor that became a solid indie hit then an awards contender.
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Along with picture, director and original screenplay, the film's six nominations include supporting actor for Matt Dillon as a racist cop who gets a soul-shaking lesson in humanity.
"Certainly, I don't think many making the film would have anticipated I'd end up getting nominated or that it would be nominated for best picture," said Dillon, whose Crash co-stars include Sandra Bullock, Don Cheadle, Thandie Newton, Brendan Fraser, Ryan Phillippe and Terrence Howard, a best-actor nominee for Hustle & Flow.
While Crash is viewed as the strongest challenger to Brokeback Mountain, the other three nominees each overcame hurdles to make the best-picture cut.
Many had considered Capote and Good Night, and Good Luck as smaller performance-driven films that would do well mainly in acting and writing categories. Yet they beat out such big-studio best-picture contenders as Walk the Line and Memoirs of a Geisha.
A best-actor honour for David Strathairn as Murrow was among the six nominations for Good Night, and Good Luck, an unlikely nominee because of its singular style, shot in smoky black and white, large parts of its story told through archival TV footage integrated into the dramatic action.
Capote earned five nominations, including best-actor front-runner Philip Seymour Hoffman in the title role, Catherine Keener for supporting actress as author Harper Lee and Miller for director.
Before it began screening in December, Spielberg's Munich had been at the top of Oscar-watchers' lists. Its lukewarm critical reception left it looking like an Oscar orphan, though, and some Jewish leaders assailed Spielberg for putting a human face on Arab terrorists.
But Munich stormed back with five nominations, including best director for Spielberg.
Said Spielberg: "I guess I'm just so proud of the academy for the courage it must have taken to give us the best-picture nomination."
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