"I feel a little down," Ang Lee confessed to us about his emotional state following the Oscars' decision to reject his "Lust, Caution" as Taiwan's entry in the foreign film race.
Since so much of the movie was shot on mainland China — instead of the offshore island of Taiwan — using local actors, the academy didn't feel that it was genuinely Taiwanese. However, Lee says, "I think it's a Taiwanese film. I am, the writer is, a lot of the actors. My company is registered in Taiwan. Taiwan chose to enter it in the Oscars race. Most importantly, I think it is in spirit. Taiwan carries the Chinese tradition probably better than any part of China."
But "Lust, Caution" pools lots of international talent, including "the most experienced filmmakers from Hong Kong — plus a Mexican cinematographer, a French composer, a post-production team in New York," Lee notes. "What qualifies as a foreign-language film? That is debatable. What represents a country or a culture? How should that be defined?
"The academy has its rules and I respect them," he adds, "but I think the rules should be re-examined."
In part two of our video chat, things really get interesting — that's where we explore Lee's bizarre history with showbiz awards in general, not just the Oscars. It was at the Golden Globes in 1995 where his "Sense and Sensibility" won best drama picture, but, strangely, he didn't win best director. That prize went to Mel Gibson for "Braveheart." Ang Lee was also nominated that year at DGA, which was won by Ron Howard ("Apollo 13"), but neither Lee nor Howard reaped bids as best director at the Oscars where their films, "Sense and Sensibility" and "Apollo 13," were nonetheless up for best picture. Most top Oscar gurus predicted that one or the other would win, but "Braveheart" prevailed instead.
Lee has won two DGA awards ("Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"; "Brokeback Mountain"), but only one Oscar for best director ("Brokeback"). Usually those two awards tend to agree, but not in Lee's case. He and his films also defy traditional patterns at the Oscars where the movies that win best picture tend to nab separate trophies for their directors. But after Lee won for "Brokeback," "Crash" ended up winning best picture. What happened? And why does Lee repeatedly have weird award experiences?
"It's happened to me, too, at the Taiwanese Oscars," he says — noting that he often doesn't win awards when his films do.
"I think each individual case has a separate reason," he add. "I think with 'Sense and Sensibility' — it was popular back then, but people didn't know who I was. I wasn't even a member (of the academy) back then."
Granted, the Golden Globes treated him strangely at first, but "they have treated me so well ever since," he adds.
Unfortunately, the battery ran out in my video camera soon after this point in the interview — right smack dab in the midst of the most important part of our chat — where Lee dishes the possibility that homophobia might be to blame for "Brokeback" not winning the Oscar for best picture!
At first, he politely dismissed the idea, being gallantly deferential to the academy and respectful to "Crash." But then, as I pressed him harder, he slowly began to concede that homophobia possibly played some role. But how big? Dang! I wish I could remember the exact words Lee used! We lingered on the subject for a long time and had a fascinating chat, but I don't want to try and paraphrase him now and risk misquoting him. We'll just have to pick up the conversation at some future point when I run into Lee again.
When the battery ran out, the cameraman didn't notice the problem until too late. Afterward, I was devastated that we ended up losing the most important part of our chat! But just a few days later I interviewed Heath Ledger on camera about "I'm Not There." Before we launched into chat about his latest film, I told him, in general terms, what Lee said about the possibility that homophobia may have played some part in their previous movie losing the big Oscar.
Ledger was fascinated, urging me to try harder, harder, harder to remember Lee's exact words. I gave it try, then stopped and gasped, "Hey, wait! Never mind that right now. This camera is rolling. You were the star of 'Brokeback' — tell us what YOU think! Come on! Do you believe homophobia caused 'Brokeback' to lose best picture at the Oscars?"
Ledger's face went flush with terror.
"Don't make me answer that question!" he begged, waving his arms to make the question go away, then covering his head with his hands.
"OK, OK," I caved. "We'll just talk about 'I'm Not There' . . . . "