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Will secret prejudice hurt 'Dreamgirls' at the Oscars?

November 17, 2006 | 11:05 am

Last weekend I had a long, leisurely breakfast with one of Hollywood's most notable studio chiefs. While we chatted casually, he said, in between the lattes and bagels matter-of-factly, what we all know but seldom admit out loud: "Of course, 'Brokeback Mountain' didn't win best picture because of the gay thing."

He's an academy member, seasoned Oscar veteran, a "str8" chap, as the lingo goes, and not affiliated with "Brokeback."

"I couldn't believe how many academy members even refused to watch it," he added, shaking his head. "There's no doubt in my mind that we saw the secret, ugly side of Hollywood when the best picture winner was announced. I'm not saying 'Crash' wasn't a great film, no, no, but that's not why they voted for it. Look, I've been in this Oscar game long enough to know how to read these things. Believe me. What we saw was a disgusting display of anti-gay bigotry. Yep, in so-called liberal Hollywood."

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There's much evidence to back up this studio boss' assertion. Many academy members both hip (Sarah Jessica Parker) and old school (Ernest Borgnine, Tony Curtis) admitted they didn't watch "Brokeback" before voting. In toto, "Brokeback" received more best-picture awards from kudos organizations than any other film in history — 26 — but not the film academy. Odd, eh?

"Brokeback" had the most Oscar nominations. That usually translates into a best-pic victory in the vast majority of cases. Like most best-pic winners, it won Oscars for best director and screenplay. Voters admired the film enough to give it all that, but, when the time came to decide the top prize, they just couldn't, in the privacy of their own home or office while no one was watching, give that gay movie the best-picture trophy. Many Oscar voters have admitted this to me. Over all, it's clear to me how they think: It's OK to give Oscars to straight stars portraying gays assaulted with violence or AIDS (Hilary Swank, Tom Hanks), but, come on, "Brokeback" was a love story. By installing that into Oscar's best-picture pantheon, they'd be embracing gay love itself. Yeowsa, those old, straight white guys who comprise the vast majority of voters absolutely refused to do it. Quite a few of them even told me, brazenly, how much the whole thing disgusted them. Just like the studio boss mentioned above, I encountered dozens of voters who admitted to me that they refused to watch their DVD screeners. It didn't matter how good the film was, they weren't going to consider it.

So how did it win the other races?

"They saw Larry McMurtry's and Ang Lee's names on the ballot and thought, 'Oh, OK, I can vote for them,'" said the studio chief. "It eased their consciences a bit so they didn't feel so bad about screwing 'Brokeback' elsewhere."

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So, wow, if all of that's true . . . shouldn't that make us worry about the possibility of secret anti-black bigotry being an issue in the current derby with "Dreamgirls" now the frontrunner?

It's no secret that the academy has been stingy to black films in the past. Prior to the 2001 derby when race became a big issue at last, African-Americans had claimed a lead-acting award only once (Sidney Poitier, "Lilies of the Field") and only 5 had prevailed in the supporting races (Hattie McDaniel, "Gone with the Wind"; Whoopi Goldberg, "Ghost"; Louis Gossett Jr., "An Officer and a Gentleman"; Denzel Washington, "Glory"; and Cuba Gooding Jr. , "Jerry Maguire"). When all of this erupted into a major hubbub five years ago and academy members were publicly accused of being prejudiced, voters scrambled to make good for past oversights and they gave both the lead-actor and actress trophies to black stars in the same year, shocking everybody: Denzel Washington ("Training Day") and Halle Berry ("Monster's Ball").

Now, for the first time ever, it looks like an African-American movie can not only win, but romp across most categories: "Dreamgirls." Oscarologists everywhere are declaring it to be the clear frontrunner. If so, it should have an easy time of things at the Golden Globes, which have always embraced black artists and musical movies warmly.

But, hmmmm, what about those weird Oscars? Will voters display another secret flash of ugly prejudice?

This question not only applies to "Dreamgirls," but to "The Pursuit of Happyness," "Catch a Fire" and "The Last King of Scotland," too. This year we see so many great films featuring African-Americans in the lead that we could actually see something that's never occurred at the Oscars: three black nominees in one acting race — Will Smith, Derek Luke and Forest Whitaker all up for best actor.

Hopes now run high that this could be a milestone year for African-Americans at the Oscars. Much like hopes ran high among gays at the last derby. Will the same outcome occur?

There's one hopeful sign that things may work out just fine this time. Let's recall that the film that beat "Brokeback" was about secret racial prejudice. Voters embraced "Crash" enthusiastically, but it featured many white stars like Matt Dillon, Sandra Bullock and Ryan Phillippe. If many white voters feel shut out of "Dreamgirls" like many straight voters felt about "Brokeback," they might respond selfishly again. But will they? Click on the "Comments" link below and pipe in!

Photos: On rare occasions, films with a mostly black cast have broken into the best picture race: "Ray" (2004) and "Sounder" (1972). "The Color Purple" reigns as the biggest loser in Oscar history (tied with "The Turning Point") with 11 snubbed nominations.
(Universal/ 20th Century Fox)


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