Most of us think we’re on the losing side, which is how the Oscar race often flips from the most critically acclaimed film of the year to the sudden and unexpected popular choice. Suddenly the loser becomes the winner and the winner goes back to being the loser. Calculating how people think of your film is the publicist’s job and every one of them knows that if you come out of Telluride with people thinking you’re the winner, your goose is mostly cooked as human nature has voters picking what they think is the underdog. No year has been more of a heartbreaker for that myth played out than this one.
All the same, it was a delight to see Michael Keaton’s genuinely happy face when the Birdmen team took to the press room, their statuettes in hand, claiming the season as the Miss Right Now. He looked happier than anyone I’d seen for some reason. Maybe because he thought, like everyone else did that the independent spirit was embodied most thoroughly in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, which was put together on nothing but faith, stitched carefully together with a devoted team of filmmakers and actors, and that surely these voters would recognize that even if the industry could not and would not. Alas, the Spirit Awards, like the Gothams earlier in the season, picked Birdman over Boyhood.
A journalist I’d been speaking to off and on had seen Boyhood five times. She had such a personal attachment to it and was hoping it would take the top prize. The sense in the press room was that most everyone felt that way. A crowdpleaser, though, is a crowdpleaser is a crowdpleaser and there just isn’t anything you can do about it.
2014, like 2010, has to be thought of as a year with two winners. The same way it was ludicrous to assume 2010’s Best Picture was really The King’s Speech after The Social Network had won everything else leading up to the industry votes, Boyhood can also be thought of as the film the critics and the British film industry chose, while Birdman was the favorite of the Hollywood industry. Just like the 2010 race, I will always think of 2014 that way.
Should the Oscars choose to split the awards, like the Spirit Awards did, that would be a fair compromise, just as there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that David Fincher should have won, at the very least, Best Director in 2010. I do not know if tonight’s awards will play out as fairly as the Spirits did. My experience tells me that delightful surprises like last year’s split are so impossibly rare you can’t depend on them. What I do know is this: the trick is not minding.
I’ve long since figured that awards should mean something more than just to represent a snapshot in time, who people were, how they defined themselves, what they defined themselves AS, what they worshipped, on whom they chose to project their dreams and aches. The most apt comparison I can think of is high school in the US. Is it simply human nature that requires that we segregate the popular people from the huddled masses?
Back in the 1980s you didn’t become a cheerleader because you were the best dancer or the most enthusiastic athletic supporter. You became a cheerleader because you represented the prettiest girls at school. I wish I had the kind of brain that could tune out stuff like this because honestly it breaks my heart each and every time I attend any awards show. It just the same thing playing out: we like to watch the pretty people, to put ourselves beneath them, see them rewarded with statues, attach ourselves to their career plight, or their lack of recognition. Can’t someone make my brain just quiet the fuck down?
Woody Allen captures it best in Stardust Memories. He captures hungry and overly interested fans. He captures apathetic celebrities who don’t do anything near important enough to warrant such worship. He captures the hunger just to dwell among them. Mostly he captures that glossy-eyed look we humans are stricken with when gazing at those we’ve designated better than ourselves.
Yesterday at the Spirit Awards I heaved my body up atop my high heels to clack clack clack outside of the press tent to use the “facilities.” When you’re a woman, and if you choose to dress up, everything hurts all night long until you take it all off at the end of the night. We were almost done and I was almost home where a pair of well worn Birkenstalks were calling my name. I happened by Paul Thomas Anderson standing with his cast from Inherent Vice. There they were, a couple of feet away. Genna Malone, Catherine Waterston, Benicio Fucking Del Toro.
You think you’re above it all until you are suddenly not above it all. There were clusters of people watching them in wide-eyed amazement, as though they were seeing a newly born litter of rare snow foxes in the Antarctic. The smell of champagne wafted out of the billowing tent, along with scattered laughter and applause. Behind the tent a crowd had gathered to watch even farther back. Beach dwellers, mostly, star gazers. The real star of the event, the Pacific Ocean, churned in the distance, as the clouds parted to invite pointed sunbeams, setting the surface of the ocean alight with a glittery sheen.
At one point, Jared Leto popped his tent in the press tent, with that ubiquitous playful look on his face, he said “Hi everyone! You miss me?” He laughed, tickled at the whole thing like he always is. Leto seems to note the surreal circus that it is and he just has a great time. I remember how funny he was last year to the press people. That jacket, that hat.
Later, Bennett Miller wandered into the press room after Foxcatcher had earned some kind of tribute award. Why, I have no idea. Perhaps to honor Megan Ellison, who uses her wealth to promote and build independent film. “I don’t know what I’m doing here,” he said. He wasn’t required to talk to the press – but he stood there anyway. A reporter in the front row asked a question which I didn’t hear. It was something about Steve Carell. “I’m sorry,” Miller said. “But I’ve heard that question too many times.” The reporters chuckled a little but then it got uncomfortably quiet as it sometimes does when anyone goes off script. “I’m happy when people talk about the movie, when it means something to them,” he said but dashed out as soon as he was given the opportunity.
I don’t think anyone thinks any of this means anything. You can’t, right? It is a way to arrange and categorize who we are. We rank members of our species based on wealth, good looks and popularity. That is what awards shows are usually about. Though this one was especially funny because of its hosts, Kristen Bell and Fred Armisen who seemed to be the only ones willing to poke fun at Birdman.
When Justin Simien won for Dear White People he took the moment to encourage other filmmakers to have their voices heard to become “part of the culture.” A brave and ballsy soul, he is. Here’s to hoping he keeps kicking down doors the same way Ava DuVernay has. Clearly, the Spirit Awards were not going to do an about-face and suddenly reward Selma. Remember, people want to be on the winning side so once one thing starts winning, well, it usually can’t be stopped. All other priorities rescinded.
“So why do you do it if you hate it so much,” I always get asked. I want to answer that with “It’s hard out there for a pimp.” But instead I usually say that I feel that what I do is worthwhile. There are enough people who report on the awards and there are plenty of fans — most people love to hate them, or certainly how they turn out. I know that I’m lucky. I’ve worked hard to be allowed a ticket to the show. Hate is much too strong a word, though. How can you hate something that is barely there in the first place? I don’t have to hate the work to hate the final outcome of the season. And when I think about hating the season I’m just going to remember Michael Keaton’s happy face. That Julianne Moore is finally winning what she should have won ages ago. That Patricia Arquette always takes a moment to talk about what matters and is one of the few actresses who isn’t starving herself to be on the red carpet so that the ordinary among us can look at the extraordinary and not feel so much like we’re on the “other train.” It’s the little things.
The Spirit Awards are becoming part of the awards consensus overall. Part of that is that anyone can join. So you’re kind of looking at a hipsters People’s Choice. The DGA is mostly an “anyone can join” establishment now so it, too, is a version of the People’s Choice. The industry is just a cluster of the same kinds of people who all live and work in the entertainment business, which makes up much of the population of Los Angeles.
The last awards show of the season is waiting for me in a couple of hours. Until then, Oscarwatchers, until then.