“And now, perhaps, three times in four years. Poor Harvey Weinstein. The appalling “Honor the Man — Honor the Film” campaign he’s been running for The Imitation Game has begged voters to factor in the historical importance of subject matter when the apparent reality turns out to be that Alan Turing, Chris Kyle, Martin Luther King Jr., and Stephen Hawking are all likely to be beaten by a mirror. Like Time magazine’s 2006 Person of the Year, the Best Picture winner is now always “You.” Or, as the Academy thinks of itself, “Us.” — Mark Harris, Grantland
The early part of this year’s Oscar race had pundits swirling around films that might win because they were just that good, or those that might win because the Academy might deem them “important” or might respond to them in other ways. “Some movies you feel.” In the end, though, the pundits and and everyone else forgot about the overarching power of self-love. Just as Narcissus found himself struck by his own reflection — a love that could never be fulfilled, just an endless ache for self — so does this industry return again and again to the reflecting pool to gaze lovingly at themselves. The rest of us fade into noise as Echo herself, trying to love that which only loves itself.
Birdman is the third of these films to reach for Best Picture in recent years, a proposition proposed by the best writer on the Oscar race, Grantland’s Mark Harris. “Birdman,” writes Harris, “Is about a man trying to make a film as good as Boyhood.” Only Harris can deliver those kinds of lines — that are both truthful and astonishing in their beauty and clarity. That is exactly it. Great art is so rarely achieved and in Hollywood, if the critics love it too much, that enrages the gods. Because Birdman skewers critics and celebrates the not-very-talented everyman in the industry it is embraced by an industry that often rejects the films the critics adore. This was the case going all the way back to Citizen Kane and How Green was my Valley.
The films that embody the reflecting pool for Narcissus are the ones that gently poke fun at the industry while not exactly taking it apart. Rejected are more scathing films like The Player or Maps to the Stars, and accepted are films like Argo, The Artist and now, Birdman. Poor stupid chumps just trying to do good work in a changing, evolving, rejecting industry. Poor everyman who can’t catch a break. They see themselves — oh, do they see themselves.
Or as Harris puts it:
I’m not sure why, in the last four years, Oscar voters have suddenly become so determined to turn inward, although they certainly live in a world that encourages it. Every year now, awards season seems to be twice as noisy as the year before. Given the glut of mailings, screenings, DVDs, trade publications, and blogs that exist because of Oscar advertising, roundtables, preliminary awards, dinners, contrived festival honors, panels, and Q&As, it’s easy for people who live and work inside the bubble to start to believe, between October and February, that the bubble is all there is. When they go home for the holidays in December, it’s with a stack of screeners; when they self-disgustedly flee Hollywood in January, they get only as far as Sundance. And this winter, the scandal over the Sony hack and The Interview provided an unusual corroboration of the idea that what Hollywood does really is front-page news with real-world stakes. In that context, a vote for Birdman, which might have looked like an act of self-absorption back in November, may now feel more like a defiant act of self-affirmation: We’re here, we’re deeply flawed but sincere — get used to it!
Why, one might ask, did the British voters reject Birdman (just one award, for cinematography) and embrace Boyhood, Grand Budapest and Whiplash? For some reason, they are not as captivated by their reflection this time around as they, too, have been in the past. That has left the Hollywood industry twisting in the wind as it reaches and embraces that one movie that pushes their buttons in the right way. The Globes, the Critics Choice and now the British film industry and all of its 6,000 voters said sorry but Boyhood is the better film. Boyhood is the more brilliant work of art.
With the BAFTA it obviously wasn’t even close, not even a screenplay win for Birdman. With Hollywood though? They can’t pull themselves away. They see their changing industry and they feel protective of the true artists who, like Harris said, are hoping to make movies as good as Boyhood. The shame of it all, the sad lament, is that when it comes to rewarding films with gold statues it always has to be more about them than it is about the art of the thing.
How great would it be for the American film industry to step up and also recognize the works by their best homegrown artists, like Richard Linklater. In the end, the pundits never saw the dynamic coming. They figured Birdman was divisive — so many people “out there” didn’t get it or didn’t like what they got, while others thoroughly loved it. But Boyhood is another movie that many people don’t get. Voters heard about the reviews and all of the awards won and they watched the film and thought, really? That’s it? That’s because their expectations had put it in some kind of crazy category — they kept waiting for something to happen. They maybe even thought, this is the case of the Emperor’s New Clothes. You might think that, of course, especially if you’re not a mother and if you haven’t raised children of your own. Or if you had it didn’t really profoundly impact you. Maybe you don’t feel the passage of time thrum through your circulatory system on a daily basis. Maybe you don’t contemplate the shortness of life, the swiftness of it all, the accidental success of merely reaching the age of 20.
The Oscars aren’t really about much anymore about that self-reflecting pool. Birdman will probably win and it’s a worthy winner, to be sure. It isn’t a movie like Boyhood that you have to reach in to understand. You can pretty much get it because it’s all there on the surface with each character shouting the theme of the play/movie.
How alive and funny and vibrant Birdman is. How well connected Chivo’s camera is to Michael Keaton’s changing face. Keaton is the best thing about the film and yet he may not be winning any more awards. Birdman IS Michael Keaton. It is his actor’s showcase. How bizarre that the film would be winning yet not its anchor. A friend of mine loved Birdman so much she went back and saw it a second time. I myself love the movie too, but not that much. I don’t remember it, even after seeing it three or four times. I only remember Keaton and how badly I felt for his character. I remember the skewering of modern society and the film critic. But that’s about it. Good thing I’m not in charge of picking the year’s best.
In a year about all of the problems of men, where every single dusty corner of the white male experience is explored, where women and people of color are mostly forgotten, it sort of adds insult to injury that the big life problem the industry has decided to mourn is the death of traditional Hollywood in the face of Superhero movies. Here is Ava DuVernay making history come alive with Selma, giving voice to the voiceless, opening doors, inspiring young women to make movies, inspiring black artists to be heard. There was Gillian Flynn adapting her own novel into a screenplay, one of the few R-rated movies to hit $168 million. There is Wes Anderson making the best film of his career with the Grand Budapest Hotel and there is Boyhood, the masterpiece by one of America’s most humble and experimental storytellers, making the lament of time and age and personal evolution come alive in two hours of film. Yet here is Hollywood, gazing upon itself yet again. “Poor us. Poor sad us.”
That our industry could walk on past a film like Boyhood just because it makes a generation of older men shrug is one of the many reasons why when it comes time to walk away from the Oscar race I will do so with a smile. It isn’t that Birdman isn’t a good film. It’s as Mark Harris says, when these are the two films up for the award it’s a pretty good year. It’s that some films are worthy of gold statues because they represent what the Oscars proclaim they’re about: the highest achievements in film. I look at the short categories, the foreign language and the documentary — in all of those categories achievement and effort and execution are all taken into account. It is only the best picture that must continually dumb itself down to a consensus that doesn’t seem to understand that it is supposed to be about Miss Right, not Miss Right Now.
All the same, whatever message Hollywood is sending to itself about itself is being read loud and clear by its own ears. It knows what it wants and where it wants to be. And it’s listening. To itself. It pities itself for being caught out of time. It knows that the rest of the world is about to swallow it up and it is grasping for dear life to whatever refuse the giant ship discarded. It will hold on and while it’s clinging to life the shimmering water will appear in front of them and as their bodies start to freeze they will once again see themselves and they will once again fall madly in love. Behind them they might hear the faint echo of those who loved them that they could not see.
My predictions are going to fall into wishful thinking. I don’t think a film can win the major guilds and not win Best Picture, despite what the BAFTA did or didn’t do. Fuck it, it’s about the industry so let’s put the thing to bed, shall we? There is no turning it around once it gets to this level. But I refuse, as I did with the Social Network and Lincoln, to abandon my own stubbornness. Thus, I’m going to white knuckle it through with Boyhood and Linklater because I remain stunned that they’re actually going to reject this film for the top awards. Thus, my predictions are both a protest vote -— as I take a sad pointless stand and there is always that slight chance that the awards will once again split, with Boyhood or Linklater taking one of the top awards. Thus, if I predict both, there’s a good chance one or the other will win. But DON’T YOU BE LIKE ME. If you want to win your office pool, the smart money is on Birdman for both.
Richard Linklater, Boyhood
Eddie Redmayne, Theory of Everything
Julianne Moore, Still Alice
JK Simmons, Whiplash and Patricia Arquette, Boyood
Birdman (or Grand Budapest Hotel)
Production Design, Costumes, Makeup and Score
Grand Budapest Hotel
How to Train Your Dragon 2
Live Action Short