Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.
Recipient: Patricia Arquette
Born: April 8, 1968 (47 years old)
Nomination: Best Supporting Actress - Boyhood (won) as Mom
It seems a little silly to be talking about Boyhood and its Oscar status so close to this year's ceremony. However, that is what happens sometimes when dealing with Birthday Takes. The film racked up six nominations including Best Picture and seemed like a surefire hit when awards season began to reward it countless statues. However, when the night was over, the results looked a little different than one would expect. The only win among the many nominations was for Patricia Arquette, whose role as the mother is one of the more thankless roles and one of the few that required the most attention in the third act. While the notoriety of the Best Picture loss is now stuck in history, the performance is there to be recognized for what it did very well.
The charm of Boyhood was that it was a film all about naturalism and depicting random moments in protagonist Ellar Coltrane's life. We see it through the eyes of him and his family as he ages over the course of 12 years. Along with that, we see characters make tough decisions, specifically the main parent known on IMDb as Mom. She is the one who the children initially demonize because she is forced to uproot them to another town and free them from a traumatic marriage to a drunken alcoholic. She sacrifices a lot for her children to a sympathetic point that by the time the film's third act emotional breakdown comes, it feels more than earned. It is a moment that should feel more like a neon sign blaring the words "Oscar please," but thanks to Richard Linklater's keen direction, is more nuanced.
While some could decry the film's status during awards season, one should be more willing to note of how bizarre it was that it was a front runner to begin with. The film is by no means shaped like a Best Picture nominee. Its narrative moves freely and without the typical focus. Its characters don't exactly have arcs so much as grow. Time is the catalyst for all events and while Ethan Hawke, who was also nominated, may have been the fun parent, the only logical nomination if forced to predict in July of the film's Oscar chances was always going to be Arquette. The film benefits from feeling like a real family and thus appeals to the broadest possible definition. Everyone has a mother and thus it's easy to sympathize with her character.
Of course, there's the general conceit that the film is shot over 12 years. With the sacrifice of time and aging, we saw a woman who was depicted on screen as not always being the ideal mother. She was complicated and sometimes villainous. Yet, we never hated her because she felt like her requests were pure. Boyhood in general is an odd film because while the focus seemed to be on newcomer Ellar Coltrane, it shifted towards Arquette during the awards season with very little actual nominations for the boy of the title. This is more indicative on how accessible the parental roles were to the older voters. They in some ways could relate in ways that they couldn't to a boy experiencing life in the 21st century.
It does seem likely that it will be hard to talk about her win without the famous "equal wages for women" mentality that fueled the back half of her speech. However, if one can tear themselves away from their personal politics, there's a lot that can be admired about the Academy's choices that year. They went smaller and focused on ambitious independent films that helped to shape 2014. They went with naturalism over sensationalism; a tactic that could easily be applied to actual winner Birdman. Boyhood may not be always the most successful film, but its dedication to realism and time in general just shows a compelling side to what film could be and how integral some performances are to making us believe in the mystery.