When she performed her nominated song “In the Deep” at the 2006 Academy Awards, Kathleen “Bird” York never acknowledged the burning car onstage behind her. “I didn’t look,” she says. “During rehearsal, I never turned around and looked. I thought, I’m just gonna do what I came here to do. Because it bummed me out, you know?”
But how did that happen? How did an indie artist who specialized in yearning restraint wind up singing in front of a flaming sedan?
As with so many things about that year’s Oscars ceremony, you can partially blame Crash, that year’s Best Picture winner and lightning rod for criticism and controversy.
In late 2002, York got an early version of the script from Paul Haggis, the film’s director and co-writer. She was long established as an actress, having appeared on Dallas as a child and as Toby’s ex-wife, Andrea Wyatt, on The West Wing, but one of her big breaks as a musician had come just a few years earlier, when she wrote several songs for Haggis’s CBS drama Family Law. “Paul and I had a working relationship where he would just hand me a script,” York says. “I wouldn’t see any footage. I would look at the whole script, not a particular scene, and write a song for what I thought encompassed the entire theme of the story.”
With Crash, which interweaves the arcs of multiple characters whose lives are upended by racial and sexual violence, the theme that resonated most was the sudden arrival of terrible loss. As she says, “The characters are all at a breaking point in their belief systems, right? Everybody’s kind of coming at their lives in a certain way, and it’s not serving them. And the song was about—”
Here, she takes a pause.
“I guess I’m just going to be straightforward and honest about it. My brother got diagnosed with AIDS and died in six weeks. He was the closest person to me, and when I was thinking about [the script], I just went there. I saw the theme of the story, and then I asked myself, What do I know about that? When have I experienced being so sure about how everything was and then something came up in my life that literally took the floor out?”
Goaded by those memories, York and her collaborator Michael Becker wrote “In the Deep,” a lush, electronica-inflected ballad that she sings with the weary quality of someone who’s confronting her pain at 2 a.m. “It’s a general commentary about life completely taking you out,” she says. “It serves a lot of stories and a lot of intense situations, and I think that was the beauty of it. My theory about writing songs for films is that you are a midwife. You are not the baby; you are not the doctor; you are not the woman having a baby. Your job is, at a certain pivotal moment, to help ease the baby out. You can help people experience emotion that they’ve been sitting on the entire time they’ve been watching the film.”
Haggis liked the song, and “In the Deep” remained connected to the movie during several years of development hell. “I was part of his camp,” York recalls. “He had [composer] Mark Isham. He had Bobby Moresco as co-writer and co-producer. We were all part of him, saying, ‘Look, I have everything. I just need this star or this funding.’”
When Crash finally did get made, opening in the spring of 2005 after premiering the previous fall at the Toronto International Film Festival, the placement of “In the Deep” unwittingly signaled everything that would erupt during the movie’s Oscar run. The song plays over a montage near the end of the film, when various characters are confronted by their grief, their flaws, or both. Notably, a white police officer played by Ryan Phillippe sets a car on fire to destroy evidence that he has murdered a Black man.
“When I saw where he put [the song], I wasn’t sure if it was the right thing,” York says. “Because it was so gritty, I thought something more driving might have been a better answer. But Paul knew better than I did. People felt so fucking beat up that they needed to take a breath.”
People definitely felt things about Crash, which has become infamous among Oscar obsessives as one of the most divisive Best Picture winners of all time. Though it certainly had its supporters — Roger Ebert was a huge fan — the film has been criticized for having a naïve, and even irresponsible, grasp of racially motivated violence, and co-star Thandie Newton told Vulture she had a torturous experience on set.
For all the debate it inspired, however, Crash didn’t excite the producers of that year’s Oscars ceremony. Shortly after she and Becker were nominated for Best Original Song, York learned that artistic achievement isn’t seen as a gateway to ratings. “The producers said to me very clearly, ‘We don’t want people on the show that are going to make people change the channel. We don’t want nobodies. No one has seen these films.’ It was Capote, Brokeback Mountain, and Crash. It wasn’t a year that Titanic was being nominated.”
And so York found herself auditioning to perform on the show. “I was told on the day I was nominated that I’d better immediately put together an EPK [electronic press kit] and get it to the Academy to prove I should be allowed to sing my own song,” she says. “I had just gotten back from Sundance like 48 hours before, and I had footage of myself singing there. And I had starred in a miniseries as Naomi Judd. And I put some West Wing footage on there to be like, ‘Hey, people actually know my face!’”
She stops for a beat, then adds, “And that can tell you everything you need to know about the production of my performance.”
Production is the correct word. Video of the number still feels startling. York is downstage center in a tight spotlight on a stage filled with rolling fog, but the real show is behind her. We see a troupe of dancers move in slow motion, enacting scenes from the film. And they are not re-creating moments of tender love and laughter. There is a dance interpretation of Newton’s character being groped by a cop. There’s an arty pantomime of a carjacking. There’s a choreographic vision of the moment when a father believes his young daughter has been shot.
And, of course, there’s the onstage re-creation of the car that Phillippe’s character sets on fire. The flames are only doused once the audience starts clapping.
Seasoned Oscars watchers will recognize this as part of the ceremony’s long and complicated relationship to dance. We must never forget the year that Rob Lowe hoofed it with Snow White. Or the year that Paula Abdul added cheerleading choreography to a performance of “Under the Sea” that also featured a mechanical octopus. Or the many years when Debbie Allen taught young gay boys to understand themselves by sprinkling glitter on everything from “Footloose” to almost every nominated song of the early ’90s.
As the international Elsas can tell you, the Oscars still have a taste for outré musical moments. But none of those razzle-dazzle numbers turned sexual assault into dance or tried to add pizzazz to an aching tune about loss. And while Ebert praised the “In the Deep” number, most critics have been much less enthusiastic.
(It’s worth noting that the evening’s eventual winners in Best Original Song, Three 6 Mafia, were saddled with a similar conceit, performing “Hard Out Here for a Pimp” on a set that referenced the rough neighborhood depicted in Hustle & Flow. Dolly Parton, the year’s other nominee, performed her song from Transamerica on a bare stage, presumably because she was deemed famous enough to hold viewers’ interest by herself.)
If York had had a say, the dancers and the flames would’ve been axed. “I was hoping I could just sing my song with Michael Becker,” she says. “After 15 years of army-crawling to the moment where I actually had an audience, I was like, Can I just please sing my song with my friend? But back then, they invited you to a production meeting and basically told you their ideas about how they were going to present your song.”
She did push back on the suggestion that there would be burning garbage cans around her while she sang. “I asked why,” she recalls. “Where in the story are the burning garbage cans? My request wasn’t, ‘Can we get rid of the burning car?’ My request was, ‘Can you tell me the purpose of the garbage cans?’”
The flaming trash was eventually cut, but York doesn’t recall anything like a collaborative spirit. “They let me know that my feedback was not appreciated. When I did have a very polite say about it, there was an implication that I was maybe not going to be singing my song. Veiled, but absolutely understood.” (She stresses that this came from the producer and director of that year’s telecast and not from the Academy’s music-team members, whom she describes as “the nicest people in the world.”)
Unwilling to give up her chance to perform her music in front of the Oscars’ global audience, York resigned herself to the demands of the machine. As she says, “I kinda saw, Oh, this is how it goes. I am literally a cast member. I cannot see it any other way. And within that, I tried to do the best I could.”
Laughing at her original assumptions about how the Oscar industrial complex would treat her, she adds, “I can’t 100 percent fault them. At the end of the day, they need eyeballs, right? So it wasn’t my little perfect world of, Oh my God, I get to show what I do!”
Yet despite being shrouded in a literal smoke screen, “In the Deep” still reached people. After the ceremony, it was the only nominated song that sold enough copies to debut on Billboard’s “The Hot 100,” and in the years since, it has been featured in TV shows like CSI: NY, American Idol, and Warehouse 13.
Plus, 15 years after the car stopped burning, York has found something to celebrate about the evening. “The biggest reward for me out of this, the biggest gift, wasn’t that I got to sing at the Oscars,” she says. “The thing that brought me the most joy is that the song is about humility in the face of uncertainty, and I got to sing it in front of half a billion people.”