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Last Updated: Monday, 6 March 2006, 09:21 GMT
The film that crashed the Oscars
By Neil Smith
BBC News entertainment reporter

This year's best picture Oscar winner Crash has pulled off one of the biggest upsets in Academy Awards history by beating runaway favourite Brokeback Mountain.

Cathy Schulman, Jack Nicholson and Paul Haggis

Drafted in to announce this year's best picture recipient, three-time Oscar winner Jack Nicholson looked as surprised as anyone when he declared Crash had landed the evening's most coveted award.

Not since Shakespeare in Love beat Saving Private Ryan in 1999 has there been an upset to match it.

But the signs had been there for those who were looking for them.

Paul Haggis' ensemble race drama won the main prize at the Screen Actors Guild - its first significant victory over Ang Lee's western.

None of us expected this. We had a tiny picture, and we opened at the wrong time
Paul Haggis
Then came whisperings that the Academy's older, more conservative members were not responding as enthusiastically to Lee's film as other awards bodies had done.

After that came perhaps the most telling indicator of all - a drastic cutting of Crash's odds by leading bookmakers.

Brokeback Mountain was still the favourite, but suddenly it didn't look so invulnerable.

And the film that many critics had written off at the start of Oscar season began to emerge as its strongest competition.

Quite a turnaround for a film that opened months before the other contenders and was even running ads for its DVD during the UK TV coverage.

'Rule breakers'

Indeed, Crash's victory overturns the prevailing wisdom that films that open earlier in the year lack the stamina to make it to the Oscar podium.

"None of us expected this," Paul Haggis told reporters backstage. "We had a tiny picture, and we opened at the wrong time."

Terrence Howard in Crash
Actor Terrence Howard was also nominated, though not for Crash
But the director still had nothing but praise for his film's distributor Lions Gate.

"In doing everything wrong they did everything right. They were so smart the way they did this.

"They broke all the rules, and this is the year Hollywood rewarded rule breakers."

So how did Crash manage to confound the critics, the punters, even its stars?

First, let's not overlook the significance of its large cast - no small concern given the vast number of actors in the Academy membership.

And not just any cast either. From Bafta winner Thandie Newton to rising star Terrence Howard to comeback king Matt Dillon, no other film this year could boast so many eye-catching turns.

Then there is Haggis himself - one of the few people not to be honoured last year for Million Dollar Baby, despite writing its Oscar-nominated script.

Perhaps the Academy felt he deserved some recognition, not least for suffering a heart attack while making his film.

Simplistic message

Lions Gate may have released the film prematurely, but they made up for it by spending $4m (2.3m) on its Oscar campaign and sending out 130,000 DVD "screeners".

Big numbers considering the film itself cost just $6.5m (3.7m) to make, and a considerable act of faith on the part of one of Hollywood's smaller outfits.

"Lions Gate were really smart," said Haggis after the ceremony. "They said that if people saw the film, they'd vote from it."

But perhaps the key factor in Crash's success is that, as hard-hitting as its look at racial tensions in modern Los Angeles may be, it contains a heartwarming, even simplistic message.

Brokeback Mountain, Munich and Capote are profoundly feel-bad movies that leave the audience ruing man's bigotries, weaknesses and evil deeds.

The same can also be said of Good Night, and Good Luck, with its clarion call for independent media and unashamedly left-wing sympathies.

Though its characters often behave despicably to one another, Crash ultimately ends on an uplifting note.

Much has been written on how this year's Oscar contenders have embraced serious political and social themes that reflect a new maturity in Hollywood.

The clever thing about Crash is that it achieves this while still peddling the same wholesome truisms that have sustained Tinseltown since time immemorial.

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