Which one of this year’s eight Best Picture nominees can expect to finish the week covered in glory? Will the brass ring belong to Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper, considering it just became the first Best Picture nominee since Return of the King (2003) to earn more domestic dollars than the other nominees combined? (This is harder with more than five nominees; even the #1 film of all time, Avatar, couldn’t pull it off.) You might think that the country was fairly obsessed with Bradley Cooper’s latest film if you believed everything you saw on the “news” shows and read on the internet during the second half of January. Of late, enthusiasm seems to have cooled, and it would take a Navy SEAL-like campaign to get Clint his third Best Picture Oscar.
On the other hand, if you believed everything you saw on the “news” shows and read on the internet during the first half of January, you might think this year’s Oscars was a referendum on Ava Duvernay’s Selma, a film that was, during the narrow voting window for nominations, unduly savaged as historically inaccurate. On nominations morning, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was just as unduly savaged the other way – basically, as racist for ignoring the film’s director and star (despite the Academy’s long, long history of capriciously ignoring all sorts of highly qualified talent). Duvernay said it best when she said that Selma shouldn’t have had to serve as the Academy’s only non-white option. Anyway, there was a brief moment when Oscar pundits, noticing that Selma did in fact secure a Best Picture nomination, suggested that “protest voters” might secure Selma a plurality of Best Picture fillets…but that moment has passed quicker than a white man at a civil-rights rally.
Before January, from a distance, this race looked like it could have been The Imitation Game’s to lose (as my friend Dr. Timothy Shary predicted). It was Harvey Weinstein’s official horse, and to mix my animal metaphors, no one likes to bet against the Oscars’ 800-pound gorilla. With a late-breaking King’s Speech-like rollout in the works, Morton Tyldum’s film was poised to make King’s Speech-like money (more than $100 million), which would be more than any of the other nominees (before anyone realized that American Sniper was going to do a little better than Jersey Boys). Perhaps more importantly, the film seemed to tick all the Oscar boxes – biopic, WWII, Nazis, disability, LGBTQ persecution, inventing something we all use today (uh, computers), starring a classy up-and-comer that everyone already respects (in this case, Benedict Cumberbatch). In the end, did it tick too many boxes? Should it have been named something without the word Imitation in it? In a year where other nominees offered new techniques or urgent, untold stories, Imitation Game (which had already been made, as a movie called Enigma) felt slightly been-there, done-that.
If you feel like the Oscars are all a bunch of hooey anyway, you’re not alone: stars and directors often agree with you. If on the other hand, you’re sick of big stars and directors that disclaim the Oscars, look no further than outside the Best Picture race, into the categories like Animated Short, Live Action Short, Documentary, and the like. I’m not sure who’s going to win all these, but I am sure that the winners won’t be saying that Oscars don’t mean anything.
Never mind, let’s get back to Best Picture. Because nobody ever made a Best Picture case for Whiplash or The Theory of Everything (they’re in the just-happy-to-be-here slots), that brings us to the final three Best Picture nominees, namely your three Bs: Birdman, Boyhood, and Budapest. Don’t laugh: some people really were making a case for Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. Part of it is the relative non-gravitas of Birdman and Boyhood (obviously that’s arguable, but moving on): if they’re going to pick something light, why not the heaviest of the light, featuring a fallow period (the 1930s), fascists, and the fading of a country “once the seat of an empire”? Budapest Hotel, and particularly its star, Ralph Fiennes, matches up well with a certain George Sanders-Rex Harrison demographic of the Academy that is sometimes badly underestimated…but…come on, darling. GBH needed to win a few more precursors. As of this year Anderson is officially on the Auteur A-list, and that AAA-rating will have to be enough.
And here we are, at Boyhood versus Birdman, like Gravity versus 12 Years a Slave before it, like The Social Network versus The King’s Speech before that, et cetera. I’ve already written plenty about Boyhood, but it’s true that it has suffered from a “what’s the big deal?” backlash among philistines. There’s never going to be another film like Boyhood for obvious reasons (it’s illegal – it’s considered indentured servitude – to sign an actor to a contract for more than seven years, so the leads of Boyhood worked on a handshake deal, which doesn’t seem all that likely in the future) and less obvious reasons (a story about growing up to be a normal person isn’t often considered the stuff of high drama). Three years ago, the Academy awarded Best Picture to another charming, “what’s the big deal?”, probably-unrepeatable experiment called The Artist, but there’s more than one way of reading that bit of voter creativity. Not only was The Artist Harvey Weinstein’s horse (by contrast, Boyhood’s campaign is run by the rinky-dink IFC Films), but that was about an actor having difficulty adjusting to the new realities of Hollywood…just like the charming, probably-unrepeatable “single take” Birdman.
Mark Harris is only the most eloquent writer to shrug his shoulders at the sudden frontrunner status of Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s Birdman, ever since it swept the top guilds, namely the Producers Guild of America, the Screen Actors Guild, and the Directors Guild of America. For the third time in four years (after The Artist and Argo), a film poised to win Best Picture says (in Harris’ terms) “Aren’t we a glorious mess?” (And to go beyond Harris, for the fourth time in fifth years – to add The King’s Speech to the generalization – a white man comes up with a soul-saving, career-saving performance in Act 3 to tie a happy bow on everything.) As it happens, Birdman is a better movie than The King’s Speech, The Artist, and Argo. It’s an artistically inclined film about the difficulties of being artistically inclined, and it doesn’t spare the warts. Michael Keaton as Riggan Thompson is brilliant, heart-breaking, inspiring, as well as an obvious 63 in his ripped tidy-whiteys. The film’s first half, when the single-take still seems thematic and Edward Norton and Emma Stone upbraid Keaton/Thompson like the Spanish Inquistion, is outstanding, and if the film loses some steam in the second half, perhaps that’s meant to parallel Keaton/Thompson’s career as well. The big deal, here, is in asking the pungent (if navel-gazing) question: what happens to all these actors we now know as superheroes, 20 years hence? (Were Christopher Reeve still with us, he’d have to at least play Thompson’s agent.) Birdman would have been the best movie in a lot of other years…but not one with the virtuosic artistry of Boyhood. Or as Harris put it, “Birdman, after all, is a movie about someone who hopes to create something as good as Boyhood. Where Academy voters feel they live along that spectrum, which is defined at one end by frustration and at the other by accomplishment, may tell us a lot about which film they decide to embrace.”
I started by asking which Best Picture nominee will end the week covered in Oscar glory, and the funny thing is that the answer may be all of them – there’s a very reasonable scenario in which every BP nominee wins at least one Oscar, something we haven’t seen since the BP category expanded from five. Whiplash is almost guaranteed to win Best Supporting Actor for J.K. Simmons’ outstanding work, Selma has a pretty great shot at Best Original Song (uh, its only nomination other than Best Picture), The Grand Budapest Hotel has a terrific shot at Best Production Design, American Sniper is considered likely to win one or both of the Sound categories, Boyhood will almost certainly win Best Supporting Actress (Patricia Arquette) if nothing else, Birdman is closing in on Best Cinematography, and The Theory of Everything is thought to be the favorite to win Best Score. This leaves The Imitation Game as a spy not having come in from the cold, but some guess it will win Adapted Screenplay as a consolation prize (especially now that the pre-nomination favorite, Gone Girl, didn’t even get nominated), and there are other places where it has a decent shot.
This all leaves a lot of suspense over Best Actor, Best Director, and Best Picture. Probably Eddie Redmayne will take it for his astonishing work as Stephen Hawking, but Michael Keaton can’t be ruled out for a film that the Academy has obviously taken dearly to heart. (And who knows? Bradley Cooper could whisk in on his tank and take it home.) There’s a new theory that the Academy’s preferential ballot, only in effect for Best Picture and only for the last four years, has unhinged the traditional pairing of Picture and Director, favoring split-votes like the ones we’ve seen in the last two years. If Picture and Director are different this year, that’ll be the third time in three years. But that’s not the way to bet. The guilds have spoken, and you should bet on Iñárritu and Birdman soaring away with the whole thing. But some of us will be rooting for an unlikely ’hood.