Should we be surprised by this late surge for Birdman? I was at first, but as more time passes, I’m not as surprised. All season long – from the summer until December – Boyhood looked like it could do it – and looked like a surer bet as one by one the supposed heavy hitters, like Interstellar or Unbroken, fell by the wayside. The Imitation Game was supposed to be this year’s The King’s Speech – but it never quite gathered that momentum either. Selma looked like it could be a late breaking entry – and then the Academy virtually ignored it, giving it Picture and Song nominations, and nothing else. But through most of the season, I assumed something would eventually overtake Boyhood to become the frontrunner. My reasoning was simple – it`s a Richard Linklater film, in every sense of the word. This is a director who has been making films steadily since 1991 when he broke through with Slacker. He has made his own brand of distinctive films ever since – with a few detours into the mainstream – and the many have been critically acclaimed. And the Academy has virtually ignored them. In total, before Boyhood Richard Linklater films had received just two nominations – for the screenplays for Before Sunset and Before Midnight. Everything else has been ignored. While Boyhood may well be his best film – it`s still very much a Linklater film. You can tell the same man is behind it as was behind Slacker or Dazed and Confused or Waking Life or Bernie or the Before films –and the Academy had never responded to any of them before. What made everyone so sure they would go with him this year for Boyhood?
I just never expected the big challenger to be Birdman – which has been one of the most acclaimed films since its debut at Venice and Telluride this fall, and a definite player, but one that few assumed could actually break through and win the big award. Keaton, sure, but not picture. Perhaps though, it shouldn’t surprise us very much. After all, while the Academy has not traditionally been big on films about movies and Hollywood, they have turned that way in the past few years – giving The Artist (2011) and Argo (2012) the top prizes. They may have been the first two about Hollywood (at least marginally so in the case of Argo) to win, but they are recent. And Birdman does, in many ways, fit in with those films. It is about how hard it is to be an artist – to try and do good work, and how important it is. It also picks on some things the Academy clearly does not like – critics, the media, social media and superhero movies. While the film is energetic and daring on a visual level – something seems more geared towards younger audiences, its message actually appeals more towards more traditional members of Hollywood – the kind that dominate the Academy. It may, in fact, have the best of both worlds. And to top it off, unlike Boyhood, it is directed by a man whose work they clearly like – Alejandro Inarritu – his previous four films – Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel and Biutiful - have all been Oscar nominated. Birdman may be a comedy, which those films were not, but it’s still clearly the work of the same man.
So, it comes down to Birdman and Boyhood for Best Picture. I don’t think you can really make a case for the other 6 nominees to actually win. Whiplash has a lot of passionate support, but I do think it really does skew too young for the Academy as whole to give it the Best Picture win. Selma obviously had some broad support to get into the Best Picture race – but why didn’t it get in anywhere else other than song (I would love to see the vote totals, to find out how many times Selma placed 6th in the nominating round – which would give more credence to the fact that the late breaking campaign, with a lack of screeners, hurt the film too much) – but there has been significant pushback from Academy members when they have been called racist for not nominating it for more. The twin British genius movies – The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything – have just never been able to quite build enough support to push them through for the win. You could argue that The Grand Budapest Hotel’s probable domination of the below the line categories (Production Design, Costume Design, Makeup and Score seem likely, with Original Screenplay also looking good) couple with the overall broad support could push it through – but I doubt it. Like Linklater, Wes Anderson is a distinctive filmmaker with a long list of credits that the Academy has pretty much ignored – and other than beating Birdman head to head at the Golden Globes for Best Picture Comedy or Musical, there has been no indication that it can garner enough support to win the big prize. Likewise, you could argue that the fact that American Sniper became a cultural phenomenon so late in the game – after the nominations came out – that none of the earlier awards groups had given it enough of a chance in the nominating round, so it could push through – especially since the Academy is older than most of those groups, and clearly loves Eastwood. But the fact that the film has become such on hit with those on the right probably kills it – whether they are or not, the Academy considers itself liberal for the most part, and I don’t see them wanting to align themselves with the likes of Sarah Palin.
So, it’s Birdman or Boyhood. What always saddens me about Oscar season is how everyone seems to take up sides, and spends so much time bad-mouthing the other movies, even if its something they actually like. To be clear, Im team Boyhood this year – it was my number 3 film of the year, and Birdman was all the way down at number 25, so yes, its clear which film I like more. But even at number 25, that means that Birdman was better than 90% of films I saw in 2014 (over 250 – and counting) – so I really have no interest in spending my time badmouthing it. My (minor) problems with Birdman – its ending for one, the fact that I think the target of its satire is far too easy, etc. – are still there, but I loved so much about Birdman – the acting, the score, the tremendous camera work by Emmanuel Lubezki, etc. – that I don’t really have a problem with the film winning. I’m certainly not going to start bashing the movie.
So what’s going to win? I honestly have no idea – and no one else really does either. Sure, you can pull all sorts of fancy stats out to back up why – the previously mentioned one about how no film since Apollo 13 has lost after winning the PGA, SAG and DGA awards, seems to favor Birdman. But then again, no film since 1980s Ordinary People won the Oscar without having its editing nominated – and Birdman didn’t get in there. Or how about how no film since 1977s Annie Hall has competed – and lost Best Picture in the Comedy-Musical category at the Golden Globes and then gone onto win Best Picture.
Personally though, I don’t put much stock in those stats. I never even knew the editing one until Brokeback Mountain lost to Crash in 2005 – and then people pulled the editing stat out as reason for the upset. But while it is true, I don’t think that correlation equals causation here. Do you really think any Academy member is looking at his ballot about to vote for Birdman, and then realizes it wasn’t nominated for Editing, so they switch their vote. Do we really think that getting an editing nomination is more important than getting a director, acting or writing nomination? I don’t – and yet, in the time period since Ordinary People won without a editing nomination, two films (Driving Miss Daisy and Argo) won without director nominated, four films (The Last Emperor, Braveheart, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King and Slumdog Millionaire) won without an acting nomination, and one (Titanic) won without a screenplay nominated. To me, the editing stat is little more than a coincidence. I would less into the Golden Globe thing – since very few winners (Driving Miss Daisy, Shakespeare in Love, Chicago and The Artist) were even in the comedy category.
Then there is the Best Actor race, which also taken a somewhat surprising turn. Even when I thought Boyhood was cruising to victory in the top two categories, I assumed Michael Keaton would take actor. But while Birdman has surged in the Picture and director races, Keaton has taken a backseat to Eddie Redmayne for The Theory of Everything – who won the Golden globe (but then, so did Keaton, as they didn’t compete with each other), the BAFTA (perhaps a hometown vote for the Brit over the American) but most surprisingly the SAG. The last person to win the Oscar after losing the SAG was Sean Penn for Mystic River back in 2003. And this is the one category, where I really can see American Sniper surging with late season support. It came out so late, I do wonder how many SAG members saw it before nominating. And Cooper is now a three time nominee – in the last three years no less – while the other four nominees have never been nominated before this year. And even those who do not like the film that much seem to praise Cooper’s subtle performance. Truth be told, Im kind of pulling for Cooper here – if for no other reason than it is far and away the least showy role of the bunch, and he did a brilliant job here (the performance continues to haunt me). This race is interesting.
There are also legitimate races in both screenplay categories (Boyhood vs. Birdman vs. Grand Budapest in original, and American Sniper vs. Whiplash vs. Imitation Game vs. Theory of Everything in adapted), foreign language film (Leviathan vs. Ida vs. Wild Tales), score (Desplat vs. Desplat vs. Theory of Everything).
I like the fact that we really don’t know whose going to win these awards just a week and a half before the ceremony. It makes things more interesting. We all know that Moore (whose film I can FINALLY see this weekend), Simmons, Arquette are winning the other acting prizes, and many below the line categories feel sown up as well (Grand Budapest for Costume, Production Design, Makeup, Citizenfour for Doc, Birdman for cinematography, etc.) It makes things a little more interesting. This hasn’t been the most exciting race we have ever seen – at least it doesn’t feel like it, but it has been one of the most unpredictable. I cannot wait to see how it all shakes out.