Shakespeare in Love. Chicago. The Artist. Argo. And now Birdman. The Academy loves to reward movies about showbiz. (Extending the argument just a smidge, even Crash‘s controversial victory over Brokeback Mountain in 2006 could be seen to reflect a similar self-interested bias of Oscar voters for movies about well-meaning middle-class L.A. residents like themselves over a more challenging story about people who look and act quite differently.)
Alejandro González Inárritu’s twisty, impressionistic portrait of an aging action star struggling for artistic redemption fits snugly into the wheelhouse of Hollywood’s usual fixations: just how hard it is to be a creative type. Don’t get me wrong. Birdman is a terrific film, and the technical achievement of cinematographer Emmanuel Luzbecki’s seeming single tracking shot is a marvel. But I was surprised that such a dark, arthouse-oriented film connected so strongly with the broader Academy voting pool.
In a year with a dearth of non-white acting nominees, it’s also nice to see a Mexican-born director take Best Picture and Best Director for two years in a row. (Last year, it was Alfonso Cuarón for Gravity.) Of course, it’ would be nicer if supposed liberals like Sean Penn didn’t feel the need to make “green card” jokes just before bestowing the industry’s highest honor. It wasn’t the moment for sarcasm, or a star’s narcissistic intrusion into another’s Big Moment. But Penn’s not exactly renowned for his humor. Has the man cracked a smile since hanging up his baja hoodie from Fast Times at Ridgemont High?
It’s clear that there was a greater appreciation for Birdman than many prognosticators previously imagined, including me. The film even picked up Best Original Screenplay for Inárritu and his three (!) cowriters, over Wes Anderson’s solo script for The Grand Budapest Hotel, which many had tipped to win. (Still, Budapest tied Birdman with four Oscars overall, including a Best Original Score prize for eight-time nominee, first-time winner Alexandre Desplat.) Let’s just hope that secondhand underwear doesn’t become next year’s big Oscar fashion trend.
And despite the widespread critical acclaim for Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, the innovative indie evidently did not connect with a lot of Oscar voters. Sure, they rewarded Patricia Arquette for looking like herself during the awkward years when many middle-aged actresses strenuously avoid doing just that. But they even snubbed Boyhood editor Sandra Adair, who had to assemble 12 years’ worth of footage and did so with remarkable skill. (Birdman wasn’t nominated in that category, the first Best Picture winner without an editing nom since 1980; that prize went to Whiplash.)
In another surprise, the Academy continued its anti-sequel bias, passing over How to Train Your Dragon 2 for Best Animated Feature in favor of Big Hero 6 (which itself sounds like a late entry in a long-in-the-tooth franchise).
Finally, an apology to anyone who relied solely on my predictions for their Oscar pools. I was 16 for 24 overall, missing Best Picture as well as both screenplay winners. And my prolonged losing streak in Live Action Short and Animated Short continues unabated. I can find no year-to-year pattern for what the Academy favors there, including the nominee that I happen to like the best. (Statistically speaking, you are better off picking any film that I didn’t in those categories.) Better luck next year.