Projection: Oscar – The Theory of Birdman


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What, exactly, do we make of this scenario?

Boyhood dominates the critic’s circuit, Boyhood wins the Golden Globes, Boyhood is nominated across the board with all the industry guilds, so Boyhood is the presumed frontrunner. Freight train. Unstoppable. Right?

But that Birdman, tho….

Last weekend represented the first time the industry actually expressed itself. All these weeks of hand wringing and teeth gnashing obviously makes it feel as though Hollywood is holding press conferences three days a week to update everyone on the status of the Oscar race, but no, actually not…last weekend’s PGA and SAG presentations were the first we’ve heard from the actual industry voters on the subject of what they like best. And so far, it doesn’t seem to be Boyhood.

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Birdman was the big winner coming out of the weekend, claiming the PGA award in a surprise and taking Best Cast at SAG in something less than a surprise, though the combination of the two prizes makes the film incredibly potent for the remainder of Phase Two. The one-two punch of PGA and SAG typically indicates something of an Oscar juggernaut for the film in question, though we have seen similar aberrations in the past – most recently 2006, when Little Miss Sunshine claimed both and eventually lost the Best Picture Oscar, in a year that was similarly murky to this one. What tripped up Little Miss Sunshine, one might posit, is that its filmmakers, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, failed to claim the Director’s Guild award. That went to one Martin Scorsese for The Departed. Fast forward to Oscar night, when Scorsese claimed Best Director and The Departed took Best Picture (in a side note that hints at irony for this year, but not really: the early frontrunner that year was Babel, directed by Inarritu).

This year hasn’t seemed to be as messy from the outset as 2006, since Boyhood was the apparent frontrunner from the moment the New York Film Critics Circle awarded it Best Film. But lest we forget, critics are a different beast than the film industry itself. Perhaps this year will more resemble the old pattern, well established in the early 2000s, where a smaller indie phenom dominated the critics’ circuit (hello, Lost in Translation and Sideways), only to lose out at the Oscars. That used to be a given: indie movies were “critic movies,” not “Oscar movies.” It took mavericks like Slumdog Millionaire and The Hurt Locker to throw that paradigm into upheaval, though one year removed from Locker, The Social Network attempted to keep the trend going and got slapped. For Boyhood, it’s hard to ascertain what this all means. Maybe we are in for something unprecedented. As pundits, we keep trying to follow the trends and compare one season to another, but each subsequent season seems to tweak our presumptions just enough to prove that no two seasons are exactly alike.

Yet even if we can’t base the events of this season on the events of past seasons, one thing we can do is follow the indications the industry provides. PGA nominates a similar number of Best Picture nominees as Oscar, and it is the only guild to use a preferential balloting system similar to the Academy’s. Within that system, with all the top contenders squaring off against one another, Birdman walked away with the trophy. The very next evening, SAG – an organization with significant Academy crossover, in the largest AMPAS branch, no less – also awarded Birdman its top prize. I don’t care what anyone else says, there is no other way to look at it – Birdman is currently the Best Picture frontrunner.

Some will argue that Inarritu is not the DGA frontrunner, and indeed, if Richard Linklater wins DGA on February 7, the Oscar race will remain uncertain until the very last envelope is opened. A great many have also pointed to the fact that Birdman is not a Best Editing nominee at the Oscars, and a film winning Best Picture without an Editing nomination is so rare it hasn’t happened in 34 years, when Ordinary People did it. Regardless of any excuse, valid or far-fetched, there is no denying Birdman’s strength, and no denying its current frontrunner status. If we want to talk DGA, we really have no clue what to expect, since –once again – the only Best Director prizes have been awarded by critics groups and the Hollywood Foreign Press (the group that handed Best Director to James Cameron for Avatar and David Fincher for Social Network). Plus, let’s be honest: no one can honestly tell you that Linklater’s work is somehow better or more visually or thematically ambitious than Inarritu’s. Frankly, on the basis of the work as it is presented, Inarritu seems like a shoo-in Best Director winner. And regarding the Best Editing problem, remember that Birdman is designed to look like one continuous take, with very minimal editing that is entirely hidden from the viewer. Its lack of Editing nomination doesn’t hold the weight that a more conventionally edited film’s might.

Of course, all this talk of Birdman’s strength, but what to make of the fact that Michael Keaton, the film’s most central figure and its strongest single element, ended up losing the SAG Lead Actor award to The Theory of Everything’s Eddie Redmayne? Never would I have thought that Birdman could win a veritable ‘Best Picture’ award when Keaton loses Best Actor. It seemed more likely that Keaton could win Lead Actor and the film still lose Picture. Chalk it up as yet another kink in the race, one that likely won’t be straightened out until the winner is announced on February 22.

The next significant industry guild award will be handed out this Saturday by – go figure – the American Cinema Editors. Hopefully Birdman will win for comedy (since it did land a nomination in ACE’s expanded field) and Boyhood will win drama, so we can continue down this path of delicious uncertainty.

And speaking of delicious, I just went a whole column without mentioning American Sniper, so….high five!


About Author

I married into the cult of cinema at a very young age - I wasn't of legal marriage age, but I didn't care. It has taken advantage of me and abused me many times. Yet I stay in this marriage because I'm obsessed and consumed. Don't try to save me -- I'm too far gone.