The Chateau Marmont sits on a slump of a hillside off Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood, at the mouth of the Sunset Strip. Black cars lined up outside for the valet, trailing down Sunset and clogging traffic. As we walked in, we were just behind Boyhood’s star, Patricia Arquette, who was right behind Ellar Coltrane heading down the makeshift red carpet on the way in. After several smiling people working the party noted our names on their iPads we headed through the door, up the stairs, following the sound of laughter and clinking glass. The party for the BOYHOOD Blu-ray and DVD was hosted by Diane Keaton and Jon Hamm. In attendance, in addition to Arquette and Coltrane, were the film’s other star, Ethan Hawke and the film’s director, Richard Linklater. This was a celebration for the film that is destined to take the Best Picture Oscar, amid some doubt by people who cover the Oscars who can’t see how a movie this small can actually win Best Picture. They might not remember 2011 that well. Or 2009 for that matter.
Little films these days have the edge over bigger films, as Hollywood’s energy and money focuses more on blockbusters and opening weekend hits than it does prestige pics. That term has been coined recently because that’s the only way to describe this industry, the awards industry, the business of making films for the small population of people who are still interested in the art of film. There are films that fall way outside the box, like Goodbye to Language or Under the Skin. There are films that fall way outside the box in different ways, like Guardians of the Galaxy. But the term prestige picture usually implies movies that are made for “them.”
It isn’t often I get to spend an evening with Academy members. At first I wasn’t sure who the attendees would be. This crowd seemed much older than the hipper faces I saw the last time I partied at the Chateau during Oscar season. This crowd were generally men and women over 40, into their 50s, 60s, and 70s. 90% were white. Their faces looked almost famous. I saw an almost Tea Leoni and an almost Robert De Niro. I saw tightened skin covering features that once must have been striking and angular. I saw a lot of comfortable people, relaxed in who they were, drinking, hugging, chatty. The mood was bubbly and celebratory. I saw Indiewire’s Bill Desowitz. When I said, “wow. This is quite the scene.” He said, “this is what it feels like to be at a party with the frontrunner.”
Later in the evening, when the crowd thinned, Arquette, Hawke and Coltrane made their way out. You won’t meet a more laid back group of filmmakers, truth be told. Arquette is warm and friendly, always with a big smile and welcoming expression. She is very mother-like. Hawke is dashing and tall, not as scruffy as you’d expect, with a beautifully chiseled jaw. Like most men, dammit all, he’s settling into age with apparent ease.
Coltrane seemed unfazed, as you would expect from his thoughtful demeanor in Boyhood. Soft spoken, not a schmooze, just an honest person with his new family that he’s known for 12 years finally reaping the rewards of a dedicated film shoot. It was clear from the smiling faces everyone was happy with this choice for the frontrunner.
“So these are Academy members,” I said to Anne Thompson. “Yes,” she said bluntly. “These are Academy members.”
As I squeezed down a corridor a man addressed me as Sheila. “Sheila, hi!” He seemed to think he knew me. I kept saying I wasn’t anyone he knew but he insisted on striking up a conversation. Turned out, he was in the foreign language branch. “I saw all 83 of the contenders,” he said. When I looked shocked he said “well, when you’re retired you have lots of time on your hands.” He said the one film that popped for him was Wild Tales. He liked it so much he’s seen it about three times.
The slim waitresses passed out glasses of milk with chocolate chip cookies. I couldn’t figure out if this was some tradition at the Chateau or if it was in keeping with the film’s title, Boyhood. They were passing out tiny burgers and rice balls. There was champagne flying off trays, bartenders serving crowds with red wine, whiskey and coke, and lots of beer. Journalists were co-mingling with Academy members and the whole thing kind of had the feel of an upscale Hollywood wedding reception celebrating the union of frontrunner and membership. “People want to be on the winning side,” someone said to me when marveling at how many had braved traffic to be here.
It was the last night before ballots were to be turned in. In an email to Kris Tapley, Anne Thompson and Steve Pond I found out most Academy members had likely already voted, voted early, probably at the same time the other big industries were voting. There simply isn’t time for one awards announcement to influence another. The race is its own fossil – caught in a moment and destined to remain there.
Boyhood, like most every other significant work of art, is too good for the awards race. It’s too good to be treated in competition with other films. But one thing I can say about it is that if there ever was a movie awards were built to reward it’s this one. It’s truly a marvel. I had been worried that there was a whisper campaign afoot revolving around Boyhood that it was a “gimmick.” That if you take the whole 12 years thing out of it it’s nothing extraordinary. This was worrying me because I know how whisper campaigns work. Voters who really want to vote for another movie are let off the hook with a whisper campaign to give them a reason not to vote for something. “It’s only about the first 45 minutes,” was the one stuck to Saving Private Ryan. “It’s a history lesson” stuck to Lincoln. They can be hard to get rid of once they hit the circuit. That’s why it was important for Linklater and his cast to get out there and show voters how serious they are, how friendly they are, which is really how you win Oscars in this town. You can’t not show up and win.
I didn’t want to poll Academy members to find out what they thought about other movies. I don’t want to know because it’s too heartbreaking. I look around at them and I think they seem like perfectly nice people. They love movies. They like being Academy members and what’s not to like? Free movies, wonderful parties, access to famous people. It’s like the Golden Globes only slightly more uptown. But the thing about them is that you take one look at the Academy and you can’t imagine how in the world this group could ever relate to the majority of ticket buyers in the country and the majority of people, period. They are so shut off from the struggles of every day life, most of them. Or they seemed that way to me. Thoughtful, liberal, wealthy – very very wealthy – what they need from a film is going to be different than what I need. What unites them and us is often the ONLY thing that can win Best Picture, the one film anyone can watch.
Boyhood’s biggest competition is The Imitation Game. They had a party at the Chateau late last year that I wished I’d attended. That is the movie to really fear up against Boyhood. Ironically, it’s kind of the same people who went head to head in 2010, when The King’s Speech beat The Social Network. Boyhood isn’t what the Social Network represented. They are two different directors entirely. I note that Kris Tapley, in his coverage of last night, gives his own opinion that The Imitation Game is going to win Best Picture but that they will have another split, giving Linklater Best Director. I myself have never liked splits. I see how it kind of worked last year with Gravity and 12 Years a Slave but I don’t think we have two equal contenders here. I think we have one contender and one that will do very well – like win Best Actor perhaps. But remember, it isn’t The Imitation Game and Boyhood. There are two other films that are important, like Birdman and the Grand Budapest Hotel. In many ways, it’s a four-picture race. But the mood last night sealed the deal for me, though I’ve had no doubt since Telluride. This is Boyhood’s to lose.
I think I said something terribly embarrassing to Linklater. It was something about what a good storyteller he is. What I meant by that was that he is a good organic storyteller and a good raconteur in the grand tradition of the southern raconteur. His films are filled with people talking – and the talking leads the story because what they say is important enough to move the plot along. The extraordinary in the ordinary. Whatever beats boyhood will need to be extraordinary.
By the time the cookies were nothing but crumbs on the trays, it was time to leave the make-believe world of the cultural elite in the Chateau Marmont. There were too many people inside, even still, the party going on and on. You’d never know by the smiling faces inside that the Oscars are still a game of winners and losers. They’re a game of moneyed campaigns and dirty tricks. They simply get their ballots and fill them out. They will tell you nothing extraneous influences them. We know from the bottom line and from history that isn’t true. It is the illusion we all maintain because the show must go on. Like the headlights streaming down La Cienega look like gleaming stones on an imaginary river, so do the Oscars, the gossamer of a thousand dreams.