It came out today that Heath Ledger died of a foolish overindulgence in downers. This tragic death reminded me of an exchange that my friend J.C. Gaither had with Roger Ebert when the Oscars snubbed the obvious winner of their award two years ago. I asked Jim if I could run his letter here as I have long admired it, and he agreed.
He was responding to an article by Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times defending the selection of Crash over Brokeback Mountain. Ebert responded, and when I get a copy of that response, I will add it below. Here's Jim:
March 9, 2006
Dear Mr. Ebert:
I am taking the extraordinary step, for me, of writing to you concerning Sunday night's Academy Awards. I saw your appearance on Leno Monday night and read your response (in the Chicago Sun-Times) to the backlash over the "Crash" Best Picture win. I, too, believe that you, and other like-minded critics, are dead wrong in your appraisal of the relative merits and lasting importance of "Brokeback Mountain" and "Crash." I hope that you will indulge me briefly while I put my thoughts about these two movies into my own personal context:
I was born in 1944 and graduated from high school in 1962. My father was a ranch-hand and I grew up on a series of citrus and walnut ranches in Ventura County--before it had become simply a bedroom community for L.A. My life on those ranches was filled with the usual experiences of a rural childhood: caring for a range of livestock and learning to operate farm machinery long before I could legally drive on the road. Unlike Ennis and Jack, I benefitted from an excellent public school education and was able to enter U.C. Berkeley in the autumn of '62. Despite living in San Francisco, continuously since 1969, I did not come out as a gay man (to myself first, then to family and friends) until I was thirty years old.
In the years since my coming out, I have patiently waited for an affirmative representation of a "regular" gay man in a quality film and have not found it--until now. To be sure, there are any number of gay "presences" in film: the limpwristed, lisping stereotypes that straight America is so fond of--or, more accurately, so comfortable with. If the characters aren't of the requisite swishy clown variety, then they are most likely dying of AIDS, or in the case of the equally popular "gay psychopath," seeing to it that other people are dying. Finally, a movie appears that portrays the gay world as I know it through personal experience. My gay world, over the years, has been peopled by military officers and enlisted men, gardeners and Greyhound bus drivers, military and civilian pilots and the full range of professionals from all fields. And, yes, one real, live cattle rancher from Montana! Never, along the way, have I hung out with the makeup artists, hairdressers and choreographers that seem to exclusively populate the psyches of standup comedians--and many movie critics.
The easy acceptance of Philip Seymour Hoffman's excellence as the drug-addled, profoundly flawed Truman Capote stands in stark contrast to the simultaneous slighting of Heath Ledger's superb, understated performance as a gay man "passing" and trapped in a mutually unsatisfying heterosexual marriage. It is evidence of an ugly truth of today's society: American entertainment will tolerate, and even reward, portrayals of gay characters so long as they stay in their traditional roles. Stray from those roles and, to paraphrase Ennis, you're dead!
It is no longer socially acceptable, in "civilized" circles, to blatantly denigrate black people in the television and movie industries. It is highly acceptable to viciously caricature and demean gay people. The hallowed tradition of "coon" humor in popular entertainment has been replaced by "fag" humor--and it is unrelenting in its ubiquity and viciousness. It is in this prevailing atmosphere of socially-sanctioned gay-bashing that Leno, Letterman, et al. reduced the heartrending tragedy of "Brokeback" to the nightly smutty joke and sold the false characterization of the movie as nothing more than "cowpokes in chiffon." The absolute nadir of this pile-on was staged by none other than the (apparently) deeply troubled and self-loathing Nathan Lane with his "Brokeback Mountain--the Musical" skit on Letterman. Well, the campaign of ridicule seems to have paid off--at least as reflected in the voting of a majority--however slim--of the Academy voters.
I have a question or two for you: Were the Best Picture Awards bestowed in Venice, Berlin and at the BAFTA Awards simply "political correctness" in response to some nebulous pressure exerted by the "gay agenda" aspirations of gay Americans? Do you really believe that the "message" of "Crash"--that we are all, no matter our racial or ethnic affiliations, capable of the same blind, prejudicial assumptions about all others who are not "us" and are thus, alike, capable of great, unthinking cruelty and injustice to one another--is fresh, unexplored territory? I submit that anyone who has lived in a multiracial, multiethnic community like San Francisco--or Chicago--knows all of this only too well. The theme, in one form or another, frequently appears in movies and on television. For me, "Crash" is a totally topical and transient commentary on our particular time and place and will have a very brief shelflife. On the other hand, "Brokeback Mountain" is a story not set in our time and one that I believe will prove to be timeless.
The reason that it resonates so strongly with those who have bothered to see it (listen up, Larry David) is that its portrayal of the importance of "following one's heart," even in the face of certain societal disapproval, is one that audiences of all sexual orientations can understand and respond to with profound emotion. The utter, hopeless aridity that life offers Ennis at the end of the movie is a "message" that most people can, and do, respond to at every screening and in every venue. Long after "Crash" has joined the ranks of "Traffic" as a forgotten movie of the week, "plucked from today's headlines," "Brokeback Mountain" will go on, breaking hearts and illuminating the dark, sad places to which frightened self-denial can lead us all.
San Francisco, CA