Monday, March 20, 2006

Claire Harvey: A young swimmer can teach an old writer about losing

The gay cowboys and their fancy-pants art film buddies are sore, dang sore, and not because of what happened in that tent.

You may have heard the Brokeback Mountain crowd complaining, loudly, that their film failed to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards. It won three other gongs, including Best Director, but its creators and supporters aren't happy.

The most spectacular vitriol has come from Edna Annie Proulx, author of the short story on which the film was based, first published in the New Yorker in 1997.

This acclaimed author and professional grouch was revolted by the Oscars ("a good deal of standing around admiring dresses and sucking up champagne"), disgusted by Best Film winner Crash, and apoplectic that her movie did not win as many awards as the critics and bookmakers had predicted.

"We should have known that the conservative heffalump Academy voters would have rather different ideas of what was stirring contemporary culture," she wrote in London's the Guardian.

The Academy's rich, cloistered West Coast voters were so out-of-touch they were sucked in by a marketing pitch from the distributors of "Trash - excuse me, Crash," alleged Proulx.

She went on to conduct a denigration of Best Actor winner Philip Seymour Hoffman, all the more nasty for its backhandedness.

The "brilliant" Hoffman had portrayed Truman Capote well, said Proulx, but there wasn't much skill in mimicking the mannerisms of a famous dead celeb.

Proulx said it was much harder to conjure up, as the Brokeback stars did, "characters from imagination and a few cold words on the page."

She accepted that her view will be dismissed as a "sour grapes rant - play it as it lays."

Okay Annie, your sour grapes rant is well written and honest amid the fakery of Hollywood. It will sully the happiness of many, diminish the joy of Brokeback's considerable success, and give you a little more of the fame you claim to loathe.

It's also a good reminder, as the Commonwealth Games bounce on, of why being a gracious loser is a bigger achievement than winning.

Being Australian, I might be slightly more sensitive to this than others.

At every major sporting event in which Australia is involved, some blowhard compatriot of mine will reliably predict that we are going to win all the medals, smash the South Africans, pulverise the pool.

It never happens. We never win all the medals we've been told are our entitlement, and just in case we might overlook any of the defeats, there are always a few Kiwis (most working on the sports desk of this newspaper), wide awake, hunching before the telly in the dark of night to note and record every Australian loss.

So there are three ways losers like us can cope.

We can be gracious, like vanquished Australian 400m freestyle swimmer Craig Stevens, who said after a disappointing performance that he was lucky to even be at the Games, rather than watching on television.

Stevens is good at grace. At the 2004 Olympics, he stood aside from the same event to allow national hero and jewellery designer Ian Thorpe to swim instead, after Thorpe was disqualified for a false start.

Or we can be mature and responsible, like most of the Australian media, who handle defeat by completely ignoring it.

With a little effort, the newspapers can always find someone who qualifies as a winner to put on page one, even if it has to be an obscure 52-year-old shot-putter who gets bronze on a fluke, or an Uzbek long-jumper who moved to Melbourne at the age of 27 and was shepherded to the front of the citizenship queue by the Immigration Department's Special Cases Unit.

Or we can be bitter and depressing, like Edna Annie, and try to spoil everyone else's fun as well.

She might be 70, but Craig Stevens is wiser, and probably happier, at 25.

It fits, somehow, this reaction of Ms Proulx's. Of course this is how the Brokeback Mountain story should end, with its writer finding and embracing the one kernel of misery among all the rejoicing.

There's a scene in Brokeback Mountain where Heath Ledger, as the cowboy Ennis Del Mar, hunches in an alleyway, retching, abandoned by his lover and miserable at the injustice of homophobia on the range.

In the background, a tumbleweed rolls past - the ultimate Western cliche.

It was a surprise, in a movie of such beauty and darkness - a cinematic in-joke perhaps, director Ang Lee's little homage to all the bow-legged pistol-whippin' cowboy flicks of old.

In an otherwise sober tale, the tumbleweed seemed quiet acknowledgment that this was ultimately just another corny lament for lost love and dead sheep.

Is this humorous, self-deprecating touch in Ms Proulx's original story? Of course not.

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