Jessica Boullion
Angela Cesere
Producers Paul Haggis and Cathy Schulman accept the Oscar after the film “Crash” won best motion picture of the year at the 78th Academy Awards yesterday in Los Angeles (AP PHOTO)

It didn’t have to be this way.

To be sure, the Oscars had its fair share of surprises, but they derived primarily from Charlize Theron’s dress and a sincere concern for the unfortunate creature that died on it. There was the predictable win for George Clooney and the even more predictable speech (following in the footsteps of fellow Hollywood leftist Tim Robbins, Clooney kept his thanks cordial and classy). Will Ferrell and Steve Carrell were appropriately inspired in their ability to combine comedy and brevity, while Ben Stiller’s overlong gag was more of a goof. There were too many montages, too many speeches, too many cuts to Jack Nicholson making a skittish starlet – Keira Knightley this year – look just a little bit uncomfortable. Even the Dick Cheney gun joke came out early.

Oh, it was Oscar night.

Every year, hundreds of millions of people around the world sit riveted to the trade awards of the world’s most alluring industry. There’s a certain egalitarianism to the entire concept, which honors every component of the filmmaking process in equal consideration. At the end of the night, the undiscriminating statue goes home with Colleen Atwood, costume designer for “Memoirs of a Geisha,” and yet decidedly not with Steven Spielberg.

But that provocative idea – transcending the hierarchies created by celebrity culture – gets profoundly distorted the moment the telecast hits the TV screen in living rooms the world over. In the sober light of the next day’s reflection, the fact is that not many people care about best costume.

Accordingly, the victory of “Brokeback Mountain” for best score (over legendary composer John Williams and his outstanding score for “Memoirs of a Geisha”) was a surprise . to people who, say, follow movies, read Entertainment Weekly or maybe just logged enough hours watching pre-show pundits debate the night’s more esoteric honors. The victory of “Crash” for best picture, however, was a revelation to everyone.

While most prestige films jockeying for award recognition are released in the winter, capturing attention at the time Hollywood’s orgy of self-congratulation really gets rolling, “Crash” was a summer flick. The season is better known for spurring ingenuity among demolitions experts than directors and screenwriters, but “Crash” was immediately recognized as an inspired art film.

Still, “Crash” was no frontrunner. If industry insiders had been told months ago that a summer release would eventually take American filmmaking’s top honor, Ron Howard’s Oscar-friendly “Cinderella Man” would have seemed the more likely target. “Crash” is unique. Its buzz began with its nomination.

The Academy loves surprises, but normally it chooses to administer them in less auspicious categories – throwing a nice upset with, say, best supporting actress. But this year, every award was precisely as called: Revered character actor Philip Seymour Hoffman took home best actor for his breathtaking work in a sensationally meaty role, Reese Witherspoon was given her official sanction as Hollywood’s next leading lady for her work as June Carter Cash in “Walk the Line,” Rachel Weisz and Clooney took home supporting awards right on cue, and even “Brokeback” director Ang Lee was honored as the year’s best director.

But he was not, strangely enough, the director of the year’s best picture. It’s a spoiler for your Oscar pool to be sure (personally, I lost eight dollars), but it’s also a reflection of the film industry.

The Academy Awards are, like any voting body, inherently political; they’re not a barometer for great filmmaking so much as they are the official seal for Hollywood’s approbation. Witherspoon, for one, didn’t have the best performance of any actress this year (granted, she’s not bad either), but she is a money-making star. Even moreso, the best picture race is designed as a showcase for the film industry’s concept of its most presentable picture, not necessarily its most artistically deserving.

In the past decade, best pictures have been the fusion of commercial success and industry acclaim. Traditionally big films like “Titanic,” “Gladiator” and “Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” were sure things on Oscar night. Indeed, apart from a brief flirtation with the intellectual small-scale (“American Beauty”), best picture winners were all very big, very epic – very Hollywood.

But last year’s triumphant epic and longtime frontrunner, “The Aviator,” lost to a decidedly and definitively intimate film when “Million Dollar Baby” ran off with the best picture Oscar. The upset belligerently bucked a trend (“American Beauty” lacked solid competition) and seemed to signal a shift. The Academy, so long perceiving ultimate filmmaking genius in the great and grandiose, must have changed the very way it regarded itself.

This year’s nominees, discussed ad nauseam as “small” movies outside the major studio system, were only taken as a confirmation. But if Hollywood’s idea was to honor the heartbreaking immediacy of intimate character studies, why the overloaded “Crash,” in which no character has more than 15 minutes of screen time?

Perhaps the film struck an emotional chord with voters; perhaps the Los Angeles setting was easy to relate to; perhaps the Academy decided being a populist institute honoring a film more people saw was, in fact, the way to be. Perhaps they heard one too many gay cowboy jokes.

Or perhaps the Academy is just in a crisis of identity. After all, this is the institution that, as Jon Stewart so poignantly noted, has bestowed film’s top honor on Three 6 Mafia and not Martin Scorsese.

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