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Ang Lee Says Oscars Stage Manager Suggested ‘Brokeback’ Was Winning Best Picture — Then It Lost

Ang Lee isn’t complaining about his time at the Oscars. The Taiwanese filmmaker has won Best Director twice (for “Brokeback Mountain” and “Life of Pi”), and his 2000 wuxia classic “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon” won four Academy Awards, including Best International Feature.

But he’s ready to admit that “Brokeback Mountain” — the most acclaimed film of 2005 — losing Best Picture to “Crash” was a response to Academy discrimination against a gay love story: “I think so, yeah,” he told IndieWire in a recent interview.

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“Back then, [‘Brokeback Mountain’] had a ceiling. We got a lot of support — up to that much,” he said of the film’s three Oscar wins, with Best Adapted Screenplay for Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana (adapting Annie Proulx’s devastating novella) and Best Original Score for Gustavo Santaolalla. You know the music. “It has that feeling. I wasn’t holding a grudge or anything. It’s just how they were,” Lee said of the Academy at the time.

But he did offer up a “funny” story (his word) that happened (literally) on the Academy stage the night “Brokeback” lost to Paul Haggis’ sprawling L.A. race drama, “Crash,” a movie that has faded in esteem ever since as “Brokeback’s” star only continues to rise. We all know where we were when Best Picture presenter Jack Nicholson opened that envelope onstage at the 78th Oscars on March 5, 2006. The shock was visible even on the presenter’s face: “Crash”? Really?

“I got my award, which was [second to] last to the big one, and I was walking off the stage, they called me down, and said, stay here. That’s your mark. Everybody assumes you will win, so stay at that mark,” Lee said. “Right next to the stage was the curtain. The next was Best Picture. Stay here, just stay here. I saw Jack Nicholson, his profile, he opened the envelope, and I go, ‘Oh my god, oh my god.’ It took like 10 seconds before he announced, and then he went, ‘Crash.'”

When asked who told Lee to stay backstage and if they were authorized to do so, the director said, “A stage manager. It must be a stage manager, somebody. It was a mark right next to the curtain. You almost can see me at the curtain. I could see some of the audience, it was that close. ‘You’re maybe going out,’ they said, ‘Stay at the mark. Next award is Best Picture!'”

Lee spoke with IndieWire ahead of receiving an honorary award from New York University, his alma mater, at an April 8 Tisch School of the Arts gala in NYC.

He’s used to losing Oscars, as his films are usually about outsiders — a gay cowboy romance like “Brokeback” or a wuxia drama like “Crouching Tiger” aren’t exactly Academy material. (While the Academy has robustly diversified since, the older white male guard was still a major voice then.)

“In my upbringing, art wasn’t an option. Making movies was crazy,” said Lee, whose parents escaped civil war in China before moving to Taiwan, and before he eventually moved to Illinois for undergrad, and then New York for Tisch. “We were outsiders in Taiwan, then outsiders in America, then go back to China, we’re outsiders. I always feel like an outsider. Repressed characters, I suppose, those stories attract me. ‘Brokeback Mountain’ is just so beautiful. You’ve read the short story. I have nothing in common with Wyoming gay cowboys. But why did I cry? It’s haunting. It’s just a beautiful story.”

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