Projection: Oscar – On Reality vs. Fiction: Narratives and Expectations in the Oscar Game



Yesterday we talked about the DGA and BAFTA awards from last weekend, in which Birdman asserted total dominance over the Oscar race with a DGA win for Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, but then Boyhood finally notched its first legitimate industry accolade by taking Best Film and Best Director at the BAFTAs. For about 15 hours, it may have seemed like the Oscars were already decided, but once again there is a window of doubt just big enough to sneak through a myriad of feverish second-guesses.

Of that Boyhood window, I will say it’s difficult to gauge its relative size, since we can’t ever see how close the vote tallies were for any of the guilds (nor should we).

Of that Boyhood window, I will say it’s difficult to gauge its relative size, since we can’t ever see how close the vote tallies were for any of the guilds (nor should we). Since PGA uses a preferential ballot similar to the Academy’s, how many rounds did it take to crown Birdman the winner? How close was Richard Linklater in the final DGA vote? And conversely, did Birdman factor into the major BAFTA categories moreso than it would appear? Impossible to know any of those answers – which is precisely why no one can say anything with absolute certainty.


Michael Keaton in Birdman

Plenty are trying. I had countless Social Media conversations over the weekend from those stating flatly that Inarritu’s DGA win seals the deal for Birdman across the board to those who feel BAFTA now confirms Boyhood as the Best Picture winner. But we have to remember that all we can ever go on is what the industry tells us, in doses that are distributed over the several weeks leading up to the close of Oscar voting. And based on those indications, Birdman is still the clear leader for both Best Picture and Best Director. Winning PGA, SAG, and DGA is basically undeniable. No one can look that dominance in the face and attempt to discount all of it (much as some may try), nor can we assume Academy voters will look at their earlier guild choices and say “I think I’m gonna have to change my mind on this one!”

Something that has become a major focus for me throughout this Oscar season is the notion of how narratives are built, who formulates those narratives, and how each disparate faction of the Awards Season Machine falls into the trap of said narratives. What first got me thinking on the subject was early during the festival circuit, when a handful of Oscar pundits – one nameless blogger in particular – basically stated outright that Eddie Redmayne would be your Best Actor winner. Nevermind that Birdman was the biggest overall sensation coming out of Toronto, and that its own, more organic narrative – Michael Keaton’s perceived “comeback” within a quasi-meta film – would likely have carried the day (and it may yet – the envelope hasn’t been opened yet), if not for Oscar bloggers informing their readership what to think. And if you think that readership doesn’t include a bevy of industry voters, most of whom don’t attend festivals and haven’t yet seen the films and are kind of waiting to be told what to look for, you’re kidding yourself. By the way, yes, I am fully aware I am a part of that large swath of Oscar pundits, and I’m fully aware that we all want to inform our readers and be right, and I am certainly not implying that somehow narrative shaping is done with evil intent or even that it happens on purpose. What’s more, I’m not denigrating the Redmayne performance in the slightest, nor saying that without blogger promotion that it wouldn’t have been nominated or even won. I’m just saying acknowledging a film or performance’s greatness is different than stating it will win as a fact five months prior to Oscar Night.

Of that Boyhood window, I will say it’s difficult to gauge its relative size, since we can’t ever see how close the vote tallies were for any of the guilds (nor should we).

Boyhood’s narrative is kind of a different beast – tangentially related but ultimately its own animal. While largely acknowledged as an Oscar contender since its release, the film was never deemed an unstoppable frontrunner until the critics started chiming in. Once that chiming started, the noise never ceased. But it’s not as though critics groups across the country held a summit to shift the awards race in Boyhood’s direction; rather, our collective reaction set a narrative of expectation. We forgot that the critics and the industry professionals are different sects of the film community with varying tastes and strongly divergent populations. Films like The Hurt Locker or Slumdog Millionaire are exceptions that prove the rule. So the fact that Boyhood dominated the critics’ circuit ultimately means nothing in terms of its Oscar chances. Nor does winning big with a small group of foreign press members at the Golden Globes. The industry’s first chance to speak was at the Producer’s Guild Awards, and we see what happened – Birdman won the night. Boyhood saturation made it seem like a surprise, but it was actually only our first legitimate Oscar indicator.

Here is the crucial point that is often ignored: the guild announcements don’t represent a shift in the Oscar race, they inform us of what the Oscar race really is. When something like Birdman happens with PGA, we are so resigned to the Boyhood notion that we react as though it’s an upset or a shocker. But actually, it was the first piece of crucial information we had in terms of ascertaining the state of the Oscar race. And a mere two weeks later, we are still stunned that Inarritu wins at DGA, even though we had no contradictory information to go on, outside of a hangover of assumptions about Linklater and Boyhood.

Boyhood’s BAFTA win is crucial because it finally indicates the film is embraced by the industry for something other than Patricia Arquette’s performance. So this is confirmation that Birdman has competition, not an indication that the race is settling back into its previous state. This is an indication that we have a two-film race instead of a one-film freight train. But make no mistake: in terms of the industry response, if there was a freight train, it would be Birdman, not Boyhood.

Am I saying that Birdman will certainly win? Of course not. I’m saying its position is clearly strong based on the evidence. But what I am advocating for in this piece is perspective and sanity. And stating outright that either Birdman or Boyhood is sure to win Best Picture, Best Director, or both is lacking in perspective and is entirely insane.

Equally insane is presuming that a split is likely, or even natural based on the past couple years of Oscar results. Best Picture and Best Director have split in two consecutive years…but does that really indicate a new trend? Two years ago, the split occurred only because of the truly shocking Ben Affleck omission from the Best Director category. Can anyone say with a straight face that, had Affleck been nominated, Ang Lee still would’ve won? Last year was another unique case wherein not only was it the most closely contended Best Picture race in years, but there was also a clear dividing line between filmmaking prowess and general reverence for an overall film. Gravity dominated the Oscars. Minus the 12 Years a Slave element, it wins Best Picture going away. But last year was that unique case of Oscar voters strongly affirming the parts of one film and slightly preferring the sum of the other film’s parts.

So, no, there is no new trend. If there is an ultimate Picture-Director split this year, it will not be confirming some new paradigm, but rather simply indicating another hotly contested race between different films, both ambitious in different ways, with voters making decisions on what they like. Similarly, there is no legitimacy to the argument that, “well, if Birdman wins Best Picture and Linklater wins Director and Grand Budapest wins Original Screenplay, then the Academy gets to award each film and not favor one over the other.” And hey, maybe that will happen – as the last two years indicate, anything can – but it won’t be due to some deliberate Academy-wide decision to evenly distribute the awards. To presume such a broad split is to presume spreading the wealth; to presume spreading the wealth is to presume groupthink. And that just isn’t how the Academy works.

Take it from someone who despises being wrong: there is no surefire strategy for correctly predicting this year’s Oscars. There are very reliable indicators, and we reject them at our peril. But a definite formula for determining the vote tabulation of 7,000 industry individuals does not exist. So we follow a shifting set of narratives – some organic, some created – that open the pathways to a handful of very possible outcomes. And thank goodness for that, since being unsure on Oscar Night is so much more fun than being bored.


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.