The 2006 Academy Awards ceremony was a remarkably depoliticized conclusion to what had been an ultra-politicized movie year for Hollywood and even the Oscar nominations.

Conspicuously absent, for one thing, were the gratuitous, politically partisan and Bush-bashing jokes, speeches and asides of previous years. For the first time in years, Hollywood seemed self-consciously aware of the gap between its own milieu and that of its audience — and appeared to be making a conscious effort not to aggravate the issue.

In his opening monologue, host Jon Stewart made a few passing jokes about Hollywood’s left-leaning culture, joking that the Oscars are “the one night of the year when you can see all your favorite stars without having to donate any money to the Democratic Party,” not to mention the one occasion when the stars themselves might look forward to having “voted for a winner.”

He also took a pointed jab at the perceived anti-Israeli bias of one of the best-picture nominees, Steven Spielberg’s Munich, which some critics argued puts the Israeli response to the terrorists who kidnapped and killed Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics on a comparable moral footing with the actions of the terrorists: “Schindler’s List and Munich. I think I speak for all Jews when I say, I can’t wait to see what happens to us next.”

However, the defining moment in Stewart’s monologue was a surprisingly blunt acknowledgement of the elephant in the room.

“A lot of people say that this town is too liberal,” Stewart began. “Out of touch with mainstream America. An atheistic pleasure dome, a modern-day, beachfront Sodom and Gomorrah. A moral black hole where innocence is obliterated in an endless orgy of sexual gratification and greed.”

Titters and tension rippled around the Kodak Theater as the audience waited to see which way the punchline would break, whether Hollywood or the audience would wind up with the black eye. Then Stewart let the other shoe fall: “I don’t really have a joke here. I just thought you should know a lot of people are saying that.”

And it actually seems as if Hollywood did know it. There was even a veiled acknowledgement of one of the most recent, most divisive flash points in the Hollywood-vs.-America culture war: The Passion of the Christ.

Mel Strikes Back

Every year the Academy Awards kick off with a gag-filled opening montage, usually featuring the year’s host in various short clips spoofing the year’s films. This year’s montage reunited every previous Oscar host for the last 15 years going back to 1990 — Billy Crystal, Steve Martin, Whoopi Goldberg, Chris Rock and David Letterman — each declining to host this year’s ceremony while riffing on the year’s films.

However, the montage also included a segment featuring Mel Gibson, who has never been an Oscar host, on the set of his new film-in-progress Apocalypto — an epic of pre-Columbian Mexico which, like The Passion of the Christ, is being filmed in a dead language, Mayan. Standing in front of a lineup of actors in full Mayan array, Gibson delivered a lengthy comment — in Mayan — rendered in subtitles as “No way.”

Other than promoting Apocalypto, the inclusion of this clip gave Gibson, whose previous subtitled dead-language historical epic the Academy snubbed, an opportunity to facetiously “snub” the Oscars back, getting the last laugh while allowing everyone to be a good sport and show there are no hard feelings. (At the same time, one wonders at the full import of Gibson’s untranslated remarks. Obviously it was a joke that all that Mayan was reduced to “No way” in the subtitles — but what was Gibson really saying?)

The most overtly political remarks of the evening came from George Clooney, whose overtly political films Good Night and Good Luck and Syriana were much nominated but came up with only one award, Clooney’s supporting-actor Oscar. Clooney adopted Stewart’s comment about Hollywood being “out of touch” as a badge of honor, taking the opportunity to hold forth on Hollywood’s progressive heritage.

Obviously, though, the moment of truth for the evening was the climactic moment when Jack Nicholson opened the envelope for Best Picture and revealed that the Academy had bypassed the four most political nominees, including favorite Brokeback Mountain, in favor of Crash, an issue film about racism.

A win for Brokeback would have been the ultimate Hollywood rebuff to George W. Bush red-state America, to the defenders of marriage and family, and to every ordinary American who in his own way has made Brokeback a box office non-event by the simple act of not going to see it. Alternatively, any of the other nominees — Munich, Good Night and Good Luck or Capote — could have made a more provocative political statement than Crash, which largely sidesteps such issues as “institutional racism” and offers a conflicted picture of race in America that can hardly be called politically correct.

Politically Incorrect

Ultimately, though, it seems that was not the message the Academy was bent on sending. Pundits after the fact lined up with a host of explanations for why Brokeback lost, but the most intriguing and explosive suggestion is that many of the Academy members, like the rest of America, simply didn’t feel like watching it.

Whatever the reason, Crash’s win is a reason to cheer, even if for many the film’s incredibly harsh content might make it almost as hard to watch as Brokeback Mountain. It’s a film about race that dares to raise the explosive suggestion that some kind of racial profiling may not always be irrational, that our cultural taboo against profiling may at times compromise our ability to protect ourselves. It also dares to balance its portrait of an aggressively racist white cop with an equally over-the-top, chronically offended black thug who sees nothing but racism everywhere.

While Crash filters every scene and almost every line of dialogue through the prism of race, it keeps turning the prism around and around until the colors no longer matter and we see only what the characters do. Often enough what they do is very bad: There’s an excessive amount of foul language and an unnecessary sex scene. Some scenes are virtually unwatchable. Yet there’s also room for heroism and nobility — even from the worst of racists. Other than The Return of the King (2003) and perhaps A Beautiful Mind (2001), it’s the best outcome of a best-picture race in at least a decade.

Oh, and the Oscars show wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been, either.

Steven D. Greydanus

is editor and chief critic of DecentFilms.com.