Sick of all the Academy Awards chatter? We can’t really blame you. If that’s the case, feel free to change the channel, but some of us still had some overall thoughts on the Oscars now that we’ve had a chance to sit and digest it all.
So how did it all turn out? Well, depending on who you are, it either went horribly wrong or it went terribly right. But truthfully, it just went how it went. I’m not sure why anyone would complain about an Oscar year where smaller-budgeted, character-driven indie films like “Whiplash,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” “Birdman,” and “Boyhood” are up for Best Picture. It’s astonishing in a year where smaller films dominate the awards conversation, pundits lament cultural homogenization. But in a year when the Oscar Best Picture grosses are so low — “American Sniper” outgrossed all of the other seven Best Picture nominees combined — critics are somehow quick to condemn how the Oscars are out of touch with what “real” audiences want. Years ago, these kind of indie films would have to be content to watch from the outside looking in, as the major studios would have dominated everything with their expensive campaigns. For the most part, studios are largely putting their energies toward blockbusters, not the kind of fare that garners Oscar attention.
And so, Warner Bros.’ “American Sniper” was the only major studio film at the Best Picture table. That really says something about where the industry is at the moment, and the way that two Sundance films penetrated the field, winning four Oscars between them. In years past, a Sundance film (like “Beasts Of The Southern Wild” for example) was just happy to be there, no one expected it to win anything, and the nods were simply “good job!” shout-outs. But that situation is definitely changing.
It should also be noted that 2014 was a strong year for movies, and that was mostly reflected in the Academy Awards, a nice change from previous Oscar years past when the nominees were filled out with studio-geared projects that left most audiences cold. Sure, “Selma” didn’t win Best Picture, and something amazing like “Under The Skin” wasn’t even in the mix, but by the very nature of an awards show, there will always be movies don’t get that kind of recognition.
Yet, The New York Times wrong-headedly lamented the fact that the TV audiences were the main losers this year because there wasn’t enough populist fare to root for. Sure, the ratings were down 14.9% this year, with the ceremony the lowest rated Oscars since 2009, when “Slumdog Millionaire” (a movie with no stars) won Best Picture and Hugh Jackman hosted. This news will obviously bring the tsunami of “what’s wrong with the Oscars” think pieces because of course ratings are all that matters in what’s supposed to be a celebration of the excellence of movies. Someone will posit that 10 Best Picture nominees — an idea drummed up by the Academy for no other reason than as a move to get more mainstream pictures nominated, and thus for their ratings to go up — has “backfired” and ten nominations only gives more room for those pesky little indie films to get in. Certainly, folks like “Guardians Of The Galaxy” director James Gunn add fuel to fire suggesting that “popular fare in any medium has always been snubbed by the self-appointed elite.” But if we went by what was “popular” or financially successful, the Oscars would’ve been dominated this year by “Transformers: Age Of Extinction.”
Alas, you just can’t keep everyone happy. So back to the award winners themselves. Let’s take a look at why things went down they way they did.
“Deserve” Ain’t Got Nuthin’ To Do With It
In the famous words of “The Wire” and Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven,” “deserve” has nothing to do with the Oscars. It’s political, it’s a popularity contest, and there are myriad factors why things go the way they do. Amnesia begins to set in with pundits early each year, like the “Men in Black” guys arrived and cleaned the slate. Those who escaped the mind wipe remember that each year, the Critics Circles don’t really mean that much to Oscar. Yes, they produce nominees like “Boyhood,” “Zero Dark Thirty,” and “The Social Network,” but aside from “12 Years A Slave,” they often do not beget Best Picture winners. While Critics Circle favorites connect with Oscars every few years, it’s less often than you might think.
Why “Boyhood” didn’t Translate Into Best Picture
Some will claim “Boyhood” suffered from early frontrunner status, generally seen as a too-early kiss of death — the picture routinely dominated most Critics Circle awards — but those declarations were only made by those once again mistaking critics and Oscar voters for the same people, with the same kind of views on movies and culture. When “Boyhood” premiered at Sundance in early 2014, it was a huge critical darling, but no one in their right mind thought, “OMG, Oscar voters are going to love this!” (and if they did they were high from the altitude). But somehow, the should win narrative superseded the mindfulness of what will win with a lot of critics and pundits.
“Boyhood” is obviously a huge achievement, eschewing traditional coming-of-age milestones and obvious dramatic signposts, while working toward a cumulative effect by taking lots of seemingly insignificant life moments adding them up into something near sublime. But think about “Boyhood” to the Academy: it’s not traditional storytelling in the least. “Boyhood” doesn’t have any big dramatic arcs, crises, or obstacles to overcome, and it has no stars outside of two supporting character actors. Richard Linklater’s film is well-crafted, but it features no discernible antagonists other than the occasional asshole step-father. It is almost free from the all the conventional elements make a Best Picture movie a Best Picture movie. Sure, it’s something that can be admired, but Best Picture? “Boyhood,” relative to most Best Picture winners, is pitched in a minor key; subtly drawn it’s not even very emotional outside of its ending. It’s not unlike Richard Linklater’s personality — tranquil, level-headed, easy-going, and not rousing or inspiring the way middle of the road voters like their films. With just a little scrutiny, is it really any wonder “Boyhood” didn’t win Best Picture? In retrospect, was anyone who truly thought it was going to win high on hype? Perhaps the Academy had already spoken their intentions about their overall love for “Boyhood” very early on: it earned six nominations as opposed to the nine that “Birdman” scored on announcement day. Even “The Grand Budapest Hotel” received three more noms than “Boyhood.”
Why “Birdman” won Best Picture
In contrast to “Boyhood,” Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s “Birdman” is absolutely hot-blooded. Loud, full of passion and comedic bite about showbiz itself, maybe it’s not surprising that a movie about a movie star would be appealing to voters. The Academy loves actors and “Birdman” is a showcase for the film’s ensemble, many of them very beloved and admired in the industry, including Edward Norton, Michael Keaton, Naomi Watts, Emma Stone, Amy Ryan, et al.
“Birdman” also features a one-shot conceit, which many labeled a “gimmick,” but voters who know how movies work were likely all impressed with the technical feat of how difficult that must have been to pull off. Yes, “Birdman” is not all one shot, and there’s lots of trickery to get around it, but it is full of 10-15 minute, or longer, one-shot takes that have to be completely redone if one actor or extra misses his mark and is out of place. The choreography behind it all is demanding and every craftsman working on a film set who agonizes over a perfect take being ruined by one small errant accident on set can probably sympathizes and empathizes with how difficult it must have been to make it work.
Then there’s the acting. Yes, there are very few cuts to mask or improve a performance. With exorbitantly long takes, each actor had to nail long passages of dialogue, hit their physical marks, and convey long and complex arrays of emotion — like the dichotomy of the lead character often going from obnoxious hubris to utter despair in the matter of a few seconds. Actors, who are a huge part of the body of Oscar voters, all suffer from vanity, self-doubt, ego, narcissism, and insecurity. They can probably relate to a movie that’s a send-up and celebration of artists, their fears, and the audacity it takes to put yourself out there nakedly and ask people to watch your art. The rest of the Academy branches, who work with these people day in and day out on set every single day, it stands to reason they can likely sympathize too. When you consider all this, it quickly starts to become clear that “Boyhood” never stood a chance with Oscar voters in relation to “Birdman.” One is a loud, dazzling technical achievement that’s full of bravura and chutzpah, the other is a quiet and restrained achievement about the small moments in life. “Birdman” winning Best Screenplay over “The Grand Budapest Hotel” — the WGA winner and the presumed victor — certainly demonstrates that the Academy loved the movie through and through, and for more than just its exceptional visuals and tour de force acting.
The Acting Categories — The Conventional Wisdom Works Until It Doesn’t
Acting categories are always a popularity contest, and again, there are several factors involved: Who was the most charming on the campaign trail? Who was nice? Who was genuine, authentic, and seemed “real”? Chances are those actors have a leg up over the rest of the competition, regardless of the quality of the performance. Even if “Boyhood” was somewhat subdued, Patricia Arquette is the most emotional character in the movie, the struggling single mom that audiences can relate with most. This, factored in with her veteran status over two other actors, was likely enough. Sure, Meryl Streep received her requisite yearly nomination, but no one really thought “Into The Woods” was all that. And Laura Dern is perfectly good in “Wild” and plays a similar emotional role, but didn’t have the groundswell support of “Boyhood.”
For Best Supporting Actor, well no other performance was as outwardly fierce as J.K. Simmons. Couple a well-liked veteran on top of that, and Simmons was one of the earliest locks. Julianne Moore finally received her “Lifetime Achievement” Best Actress award in 2015. Nominated four times previously for far superior performances, no one really believed that Moore’s good (but not revelatory) performance in the otherwise ho-hum “Still Alice” was her best, so she was due. It’s as simple as that.
The conventional wisdom does get thrown out with Michael Keaton however. Many assumed “Birdman” would be his form of “Lifetime Achievement” award. Keaton’s been in the industry for some 30 years and was mainly known for comedic roles, and it wasn’t unreasonable to think that voters (who sometimes award colorful performances like Christoph Waltz in “Django Unchained”) would give the actor a statue. But alas, there’s the reality that no matter how schmaltzy and middle of the road “Theory Of Everything” is, Eddie Redmayne’s performance was transformative. Maybe more than one Oscar voter was thinking, “Redmayne was awesome and ‘Birdman’ is already taking enough major slots on my awards ballot.”
“The Grand Budapest Hotel”
Wes Anderson movies have never connected with the Academy before, aside from screenplay, but Oscar voters really co-signed on their love for Anderson this year as “The Grand Budapest Hotel” ended up tying “Birdman” for the most wins, with four total. Yes, ‘Grand Budapest’ mostly won in technical categories, and lost the Best Screenplay award everyone thought it had locked up, but the movie had already tied “Birdman” for most nominations (nine) and was clearly beloved.
The age old adage is that whatever wins Best Editing wins Best Picture. That’s almost always the case, a few anomalies aside, but 2015 through a big wrench in that formula because “Birdman,” which ostensibly featured “no cuts” wasn’t nominated for Best Editing. And that left Sundance darling “Whiplash” to achieve the rarity of being the picture that actually deserved to win taking the category. “Whiplash” may have some problems, but editing is not one of them. Still, this prize threw almost everyone for a loop, but it sent a clear message about the Academy’s overall love for “Boyhood.” If it wasn’t winning Best Editing, then it surely wasn’t winning Best Picture.
But what do you think? Did I get the tempo right on this Oscars? Were there other factors that kept “Boyhood” from earning more gold? Sound off in the comments section.