Much like a piece that I wrote in December regarding Selma's Best Picture chances, I have decided to create a series of essays chronicling what I feel is the trinity of potential winners. Of the two candidates that have proven themselves to be the most interesting of the eight nominees, there is something alluring about director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's Birdman: a film that chronicles frustrated actor Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) as he seeks to make a comeback in a theatrical production. With the gimmick of the film being that it was shot in one take, it's amazing to see the film peel away from its novelty and go to a deeper and more metaphysical core that has clearly struck a chord with the awards season. For this and many more reasons, it is likely to be the threat that the season needs.
If there is one thing that the Academy loves, it is commentary on the things that define their very title AMPAS: Performing Arts. Next to war films, including their first Best Picture winner in 1927 called Wings, the theater has been a constant draw for the Academy going back to The Broadway Melody of 1929. While the award is predominantly given to films recognizing an overall success in both narration and visual stimulation, there's been something about the art of performance that they have gone to time and again.With various winners over the years including All About Eve and Shakespeare in Love, there's an unapologetic nature when the right film lands in the Oscar race.
In the case of Birdman, it comes at arguably the most opportune time in the award's run. Over the course of the past five Best Picture winners going back to 2009, there have been three films about performing arts to have one this category. They are The King's Speech in 2010, The Artist in 2011 and Argo in 2012. While each film focuses on a different subject and era, these three films are evident that with the Academy Award now in their late 80's, they have grown overtly nostalgic for their craft.
The only thing actually separating these three films from Birdman is that they're each period pieces while this year's nominee is a contemporary film. While the Academy isn't shy about nominating modern subjects, they have been very timid about recognizing them. In the past 15 years going back to 1999, only six have won that could have been considered contemporary upon their release (American Beauty, Million Dollar Baby, Crash, The Departed, No Country For Old Men and The Hurt Locker). While the odds are a little below half, it is tough to break this mold, especially with the past four being period pieces. There's no precedent for it being the clear favorite on this account.
However, the race has proven to have gone in a very ambitious direction. Unlike the past few years, the two front runners are indie films that aren't the most immediate accusers of being Oscar bait. With the Academy also nominating only eight films in the Best Picture category as opposed to the nine that have been present the past three years, it seems like things will be going in a different direction. Also, with the film being considered a dark comedy, it lowers its chances of winning, specifically because a comedy hasn't won since 1999 with American Beauty.
While I had no traction to go off of Selma, we are very deep into the awards season at this point and it appears that Birdman and Boyhood are neck and neck for each awards' top honor. Starting with the Gotham Awards, Birdman has become quite the upset, proving to win for such honors as the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), AFI Awards with a potential win for the BAFTA: an award that often is considered the definitive predictor for Academy Awards' top prize. The only thing keeping Birdman from being a definitive lock is that Boyhood has only won in fields where it wasn't in direct competition with Birdman. This is most specifically the case at the Golden Globes in which Boyhood won Best Picture for Drama while Birdman lost Best Picture for Comedy or Musical to The Grand Budapest Hotel (which is at best an outlier of the race and has shown little chance of a massive threat).
If acclaim was measured in awards, Birdman has this award all lined up. It has continuously won. There's some speculation to be made that Boyhood simply came out too early (July) in the year to maintain the momentum compared to Birdman (October). The Oscars have predominantly paid attention more to films that come out post-September which is known as Oscar season. The fact that this year is more divided and features films that were out as early as March (The Grand Budapest Hotel) shows that the Academy got the memo and chose to recognize films that came out before October: an unfortunate trend of the 2013 nominees. Still, the chance of them shedding their fascination with Oscar season films has yet to be seen in recent years.
It all depends on how far the vote is split. There is a strong chance that the Academy may continue to split the winners between Best Picture and Best Director. With last year's Best Director winner being Alfonso Cuaron for Gravity, there's some explicit similarities beyond both being of Mexican heritage. In both cases, their films were recognized for being technically impressive with emphasis on single takes that pushed the film medium to fascinating new places. Say what you will about their stories, but the camerawork in both is dazzling and brought a certain personality that emphasized the undertones nicely. Along with Best Director in 2012 winner Ang Lee for Life of Pi, there's a growing sense that the Academy is starting reward films on their technical merit more than the general enjoyment of the film. While the directing awards have been predominantly going to Richard Linklater for Boyhood, there's still some odds that could split it as long as the notion that Boyhood is the better film yet Birdman is the better direction.
|Scene from All About Eve|
However, Birdman's biggest defense remains the one factor that has been present in the past few years of Best Picture winners. It is a film all about performing arts. With the story focusing around Thomson's comeback, he is forced to deal with the behind the scenes aspects of theater while discussing craft in clever and humorous ways. There's even a lot meta context in which Thomson's problematic past with a Birdman franchise is very relevant to that of actor Michael Keaton's own success with Batman in 1989. In fact, Birdman is seen as Keaton's comeback the way that the fictional production in the film is Thomson's comeback. It is the perfect allegory for a film getting any Oscar debate.
The predominant hook here is that this is Keaton's comeback role. If the Academy likes something, it is their obsession with giving out awards to actors who have turned in a noteworthy role after a long and tumultuous period of nothingness. Think to last year's ceremony in which Matthew McConaughey won Best Actor for Dallas Buyers Club. Prior to this film, the actor was largely perceived as a washed up romantic comedy actor known more for washboard abs than charismatic acting. While the performance has to speak for itself, Keaton delivers a rather credible performance, which won Best Actor for Comedy at the Golden Globes. To say the least, his performance is very showy.
More than Argo or The Artist, the real component in Birdman's ultimate success comes with 1950 winner All About Eve. While there were performing arts movies that won prior, this was the one that serves as the right borderline between Oscar bait and actual quality. It is full of vicious wit while following the story of jealousy and how hellish the game is for actors of a certain age. It is a film that resonates because its subtext is all about Hollywood and deals with more complicated themes regarding passions and career. While Birdman fails to be as good, it still has a lot of the same components in its DNA that suggest that the film is an embrace of the form more than using it specifically as a plot device to describe why movies make the world go round.
Of course, one of the predominant reasons that Birdman stands any chance is because everyone is talking about it. Whether it is for the meta context or even the directorial style, the film has a lot of compelling elements at play. Much like last year's Gravity, it manages to carry the spectacle and make everything else better as a result. The only question is if Birdman is capable of being taken more seriously. Likely because of the Oscar bias, this will be the case. It has not only grossed more than Boyhood but has been more consistently present at awards shows. While it doesn't have the subtext and importance of Selma, it does have Oscar bias in its corner, and that may be enough to make a difference.