Walking down the red carpet to the Academy Awards is a dazzling sensory overload, but it has nothing on the profoundly sobering experience of walking the opposite direction at the end of the night.
As I exited the magnificent Dolby Theater on Sunday, down the same mountainous steps where countless pricey gowns swept past hours earlier, the sun had set long ago and it was starting to drizzle. On one side, the seats that once housed screaming onlookers eager to glimpse the stars as they wandered by had become eerily vacant; a smattering of cameramen packed their gear. Small islands of tux-laden audience members milled about in the shadows like half-forgotten memories of brighter times. And it was there that I found myself consoling the losers of the night.
For the second year in a row, I attended the Oscars rooting for my favorite movie of the previous year to win. In 2014, that led to a celebratory finale, with “12 Years a Slave” nabbing a well-deserved best picture. This year, an inevitably tight race culminated with less satisfying results.
While “Birdman” delivers an energizing contrast to more formulaic narratives, its strongest appeals lay mainly in its technical achievements — Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki’s acrobatic cinematography and the relentless drum solo of the soundtrack complemented Alejandro G. Iñarritu’s reliance on operatic overstatement at every turn to convey his protagonist’s exasperated state of mind. “Boyhood,” on the other hand, provided a more sophisticated thrill — the nuances of human behavior funneled through a production strategy designed to break new storytelling ground. If both movies shared a fair number of the night’s biggest prizes, this year’s Oscar results might have offered a gratifying mixture of cinematic ingenuity.
Instead, “Birdman” went all the way, while “Boyhood” remained the same kind of underdog achievement that has defined Richard Linklater’s career for more than 20 years. In retrospect, despite prognostications that deemed the final outcome a close race, the signs were there all along.
The very presence of “Boyhood” at the Oscars felt like some kind of fluke, reflecting Linklater’s canny ability to smuggle introspective filmmaking to a broader state of awareness. On the red carpet before the ceremony, even the movie’s biggest names — stars Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, the latter of whom eventually won the movie’s only prize of the night for best supporting actress — were upstaged by the overwhelming, shiny chaos.
Slowly walking into the theater with my colleague Anne Thompson, I paused to greet IFC Films’ Jonathan Sehring, who stood with his back to photographers alongside “Boyhood” producer Catherine Sutherland. (They had other targets.) Over the roar, Sehring said that nobody could have predicted they would be here. Oprah sauntered past; screams emanated from all around us. TJ Miller, the redheaded comedian best known for his role on “Silicon Valley,” snapped selfies with the crowd. Common greeted throngs of fans.
But a closer look at the scene revealed more than just the obvious faces. There was Strand Releasing’s Marcus Hu, Criterion’s Peter Becker and Radius-TWC’s Tom Quinn and Jason Janego, eager to get their photos taken with the “Citizenfour” team at the step-and-repeat just before the entrance. They were having a rough time of it.
None of these distributors work to please the immediate needs of shrieking autograph seekers. In the simplest terms, the carpet showcased a vast gulf between the faces known by the rest of the world and the people who challenge its expectations. The very conceit of “Boyhood” reflected the latter ambition. Nobody could have expected it to go so far, nor should they have expected it to go any further. Its creative ingenuity doomed it to Oscar oblivion.
Which is another way of saying that “Boyhood” triumphed in all other respects. Everything about the Oscars encourage a false dichotomy of success and failure — even the theater itself. After walking through the hulking entrance, audiences climb floor after floor, up a spiral staircase that resembles M.C. Esher’s “Relativity” from above. Those of us not privileged enough to access the lower level must make do with two higher levels replete with open bars but fewer recognizable faces. Even at the Oscars, one can feel oddly removed from glamour, peering over the edge of a balcony at bold-faced names who look like ants.
For the nominees themselves, the gap between winning and losing is amplified by the tension in the room. At the bar during a commercial break, I ran into a distributor whose movie had lost; he was contemplating how to word a consoling e-mail to his higher-ups. (I offered some grammar tips.) When the ceremony concluded and audiences headed downward, the same movie’s director embraced his team; he held a frozen smile but his eyes registered palpable disappointment. “At least,” he said, “we lost to a good movie.”
Continuing down the steps, I ran into one of the losers of the foreign-language category. While the Polish-produced “Ida” had been expected to take home the prize for months, that didn’t stop other nominees from engaging tireless campaigns of their own. This one held another frozen smile. He tried to express his appreciation for the experience, but eventually confessed he was still working through the feelings that hit him the moment that the winner was announced. “There are like 30 minutes where it’s really hard,” he said. “All the cameras are watching you.”
That was hardly the case outside the theater, where I found 20-year-old “Boyhood” star Ellar Coltrane standing around with his parents and looking bummed. The typically subdued Coltrane has always been difficult to read, but now, the ambiguity of his disposition slipped away. During the ceremony, he had been seated away from the rest of the “Boyhood” team and instead found himself next to the widow of Chris Kyle, the inspiration for Bradley Cooper’s character in “American Sniper.” As the evening dragged on, Coltrane never made it to the bar but, he confessed with a sheepish grin, “I probably should have.”
A year ago, Coltrane was still figuring out how to experience the 12-year project that defined so much of his life now that it belonged to the rest of the world. Once again, on the red carpet of the Oscars, he was grappling with fresh emotions. “This is so frustrating,” he said. “It shouldn’t bother me. But you spend six months of your life promoting this thing…”
The rain picked up and the crowd shifted to a tent cluttered with tuxedos as a valet attendant read the names of cars pulling up to the curb. At this point, anyone exploring the post-show party circuit had a number of options depending on priorities and varying degrees of access: Upstairs was the Governors Ball. Down the road was Vanity Fair. Across town, Fox Searchlight’s typically opulent bash promised a jubilant affair — the company won big with “Birdman,” and also landed several below the line prizes for “The Grand Budapest Hotel.”
Searchlight could wait. I set my sights on the unofficial gathering at the Sunset Marquis, where IFC and the “Boyhood” team gathered under less boisterous conditions. I hitched a ride with Rose Kuo, director of the upcoming Qingdao International Film Festival, and her husband, screenwriter and new Academy member Larry Gross. As we sat in traffic, we agreed that no matter the excitements of the evening, “Boyhood” still deserved the top prize. The Dolby shrank behind us and the movie’s strengths sat with us in the car. Suddenly the full scale of events in play became clear. This year’s ceremony was a largely unmemorable affair not unlike Neil Patrick Harris’ half-baked material, but years from now, nobody will remember it. They will remember “Boyhood.”
Getting closer to the Sunset Marquis, we passed local indie theater Cinefamily, aka the Silent Movie Theater, which announced another IFC title on its marquee: the marvelous lesbian S&M drama “The Duke of Burgundy.” British director Peter Strickland’s unorthodox romance presents a fascinating blend of avant-garde storytelling, gothic imagery, and erotic atmosphere. Elegant and deeply strange, it will never win any Oscars — but it occurred to me at that moment how little such a possibility even mattered. The awards game that threatens to consume us all ultimately offers a very small part of the bigger picture.
But for the “Boyhood” team, the sense of loss lingered. While Ethan Hawke roamed around the bar, Coltrane sat down at a table with various IFC reps and ordered a hamburger. “This whole thing busted the mystique of celebrity for me,” he said. Nearby, Linklater made a brief appearance before stepping away to his room. The time for receiving well-wishers had ended.
For Coltrane, however, the journey continued. After “Boyhood” premiered at Sundance, he signed with talent agency UTA and continues digging through various scripts — some more promising than others, he said. In the coming weeks, he plans to lay low in his native Austin and catch some theater. But there was one more travel item on his agenda — an invitation to visit the Palm Beach Film Festival in mid-March, after South by Southwest.
This time, however, he had no need to play by the promotional rules. Finally, Coltrane — the boy who became a man in front of Linklater’s camera — could be himself. The transformation had already begun: A year ago, Coltrane’s appearance was distinguished by a gleaming nose ring that stood out in his long features. As awards season picked up, he was advised to tuck it away. But at dinner, Coltrane’s silver piercing was back in action. He grinned, finally, and said, “No more votes to get.”