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Oscar Wrap: Why the Academy Loves ‘Birdman’

Oscar Wrap: Why the Academy Loves 'Birdman'

When “Birdman” star Michael Keaton picked up his Spirit Award on Saturday, he said, “We’d be remiss if we didn’t take a moment to give a shoutout to Narcissus.”

That’s what “Birdman”‘s four-Oscar triumph– including Picture, Director, Original Screenplay and Cinematography– comes down to. The movie is a reflection of the Academy itself, another inside portrait of show business in a long line of Best Picture Oscar winners from recent “The Artist” and “Argo” to “Shakespeare in Love” and “All About Eve.” The Academy’s dominant actors, along with multiple craft branches, pushed “Birdman” to four wins in the most crowded and contested field in years–and a rare Best Picture win with no Editing nomination.  In a year of hard-to-read anomalies, the Academy gave “Birdman”‘s single takes their respect. 

“Two Mexicans in a row, that’s suspicious,” said DGA winner AG Inarritu, who went up to the winner’s podium three times and thanked his amigo Alfonso Cuaron, who won Best Director for “Gravity” last year, and their shared cinematographer Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki, collecting his second Oscar in a row. Inarritu was wearing real Michael Keaton tighty whities, he admitted. “That little ego loves competition.” 

Read: Emmanuel Lubezki on Filming ‘Birdman’

On the red carpet on the way into the Oscars, IFC Films chief Jonathan Sehring was cautiously optimistic, but finally, indie heart-tugger “Boyhood,” the first major Oscar contender for the New York indie that financed its production over 12 years, couldn’t match up to the power of the “Birdman” mirror. (No matter how wily and well-played the campaign masterminded by Cynthia Swartz.) At the start of the night, when “Whiplash” stole the Editing prize, that spelled “Boyhood”‘s fate, which was to take home one win, for Supporting Actress Patricia Arquette (who like many winners Sunday used her global pulpit to espouse a political cause).

Watch: Patricia Arquette’s Rousing Oscar Speech

Fox’s specialty label Searchlight, which has notched 12 Best Picture nominations in the past 11 years, more than any other company, also fought long and hard for Wes Anderson’s March opener “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” which added four Oscars to “Birdman”‘s haul for a total of eight Fox Oscar wins. (NYT profile here.) On the red carpet, German filmmaker Wim Wenders, nominated for doc “The Salt of the Earth,” wished his “Everything Will Be Fine” composer Alexandre Desplat “Bon Chance.” Desplat finally did win–after eight nominations–for “The Grand Budapest Hotel.”

What’s in the Oscar Nominee Gift Bag? Watch Jimmy Fallon Tell Us

Searchlight is the gold ring of distributors for indie filmmakers because the company has not only learned over the years how to score in the awards derby, but it also plays a canny box office game. Run by marketing whiz Nancy Utley and distribution master Stephen Gilula with production expertise from Claudia Lewis, only the Weinstein Co. and Sony Pictures Classics come close to their institutional depth. And Searchlight has not only pushed “12 Years a Slave” and “Slumdog Millionaire” to Best Picture wins, but has taken that film and such Oscar nominees as “Black Swan” and  “Juno” past $100 million at the domestic box office, which is a feat for anyone these days. 

Watch: Oscar Host Neil Patrick Harris’ Song-and-Dance Opening Act 

Focus Features was relieved
 that all their hard work paid off with a Best Actor win for Eddie Redmayne for paying twisted ALS victim Stephen Hawking in Working Title’s “The Theory of Everything.” He was the poster child for working the room over a lengthy awards circuit, and his plummy British charm extended to Oscar night: “I am a lucky lucky man!” he said. “I will look after him,” he said of his Oscar. Backstage Redmayne promised that he would “go to Cambridge to share the award with Professor Hawking.”  The race was close, but the SAG winner repeating at the Oscar streak continues for the 11th year. Michael Keaton had to take his bow along with the “Birdman” Best Picture winners.

Read: What Happened with the Battle of the Brit Biopics? 

Harvey Weinstein seems to have lost some of his awards mojo, as his Saturday pre-Oscar party was all about his upcoming Broadway venture “Finding Neverland,” and his company insisted on selling “The Imitation Game,” after its eight Oscar nominations, with a heavy-handed “Honor the Man” campaign. TWC wound up with one Oscar for cherub-cheeked rookie and Alan Turing obsessive Graham Moore, for Adapted Screenplay. (He’s working on his second novel and denying that he’s gay, which seemed to be the tenor of his moving “stay weird, stay different” speech Sunday.) 

TWC arm RADiUS did take home a win, as expected, for Laura Poitras’s “Citizenfour,” a case where the narrative of the rigors of making the Edward Snowden NSA whistleblower film and its place in history had as much to do with the win as the film itself. It premieres on HBO Monday night. 

Read: Snowden Congratulates Poitras on ‘Citizenfour’ Oscar Win 

Along with their three surprise “Whiplash” wins, Sony Pictures Classics scored their second consecutive Best Actress win, following Cate Blanchett’s “Blue Jasmine” with Julianne Moore’s “Still Alice.” The room gave Moore a heartfelt standing ovation as she spoke up for Alzheimer’s patients and explained that her co-director Richard Glatzer couldn’t be there because he suffers from ALS–Stephen Hawking’s disease.

SPC’s scabrous Argentinian comedy “Wild Tales,” which is just opening in theaters, lost to Music Box’s long-running Holocaust-themed “Ida.” More voters saw it. At the Governor’s Ball, Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs comforted elegant foreign film director Abderrahmane Sissako (“Timbuktu”), while some folks wondered if the Oscar voters watched all five films, even when screeners were sent to them.

Read: Oscar Box Office Details: Mixed Bag with Few Breakout Hits

Disney had a good night, as their animated short “Feast” and animated narrative feature “Big Hero 6” took home Oscars in a year when Pixar had no entries in the race. Last year, the Disney Mickey Mouse short “Get a Horse!” didn’t win, but “Frozen” did, so this marks two consecutive years when Disney animation czar John Lasseter took kudos for non-Pixar wins. 

Oddly, two winning Oscar shorts were about crisis hotlines, live action Brit film “The Phone Call” and HBO documentary “Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1.”

Read: Oscars 2015: Backstage Live-Blog, Full List of Winners 

The show, which was down 10-14% from Ellen DeGeneres’ 2014 hosting gig, leaned hard on promoting movies, but its purpose should not have been so obvious. Per usual with producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, the show’s best moments were musical, as a live chorus lifted off the roof singing behind Common and John Legend’s “Glory,” from “Selma,” which wound up winning Best Song. And Lady Gaga brought welcome sincerity and fabulous pipes to a medley of songs from Oscar Hammerstein’s 50-year-old classic, “The Sound of Music,” heartily applauded by the Dolby Theatre crowd as well as original star Julie Andrews. 

The show both rushed and dragged. Why at the beginning of the night could “Ida” director Pawel Pawlikowski not have time to thank his dead parents? And why did we need Jennifer Hudson to sing after the Memoriam, and not during? Harris did not work the room effectively with the likes of Steve Carell and David Oyelowo (whose name he mangled), and while Octavia Spencer (who swore to me at the Fox afterparty that she knew nothing in advance) was game, the magic box gag did not pay off. When Harris showed up looking fine in his skivvies, the cameras failed to catch him walking offstage patting his butt and nipples. I’m sure the Emmy and Tony veteran learned a lot about the peculiar hazards of Oscar hosting and will improve over time. 

In the end, the usual reason for the Oscar show pulling viewers is the films that are nominated. The kudocast does better when there’s a rooting interest in such populist fare as “Avatar” or “Lord of the Rings.” In this case, the contenders were almost entirely indie–outside of blockbusters “American Sniper,” which won Sound Editing, and “Interstellar,” which won Best Visual Effects. That does not a crowd-pleasing show make.

After the show, winners and losers alike took off to eat Wolfgang Puck’s salmon Oscars at the Governor’s Ball –where the winners got their statues engraved. “Whiplash” filmmaker Damien Chazelle, chuffed at his three wins, was heading, heavy Oscar in hand, to his first Vanity Fair party. And at Boa on Sunset, Keaton and the Fox contingent partied late into the night. 

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