Monday, January 26, 2015

Flying high: Birdman takes two big steps toward Oscar glory

The cast of Birdman poses together after taking home the best ensemble prize from the Screen Actors Guild Awards.

If you had asked me before this past weekend what would win Best Picture at the Academy Awards in a few weeks, I would have told you Boyhood, and I would not have hesitated. Director Richard Linklater’s popular coming-of-age drama has picked up award after award from critics groups and other organizations, it is the best-reviewed movie of the year, and almost no one who sees it dislikes it. Until now, it seemed unstoppable, but a funny thing happened on the way to the Dolby.

Birdman, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s satire of the entertainment industry, picked up two big industry awards this weekend, the best film award from the Producers Guild of America and the best ensemble prize from the Screen Actors Guild. That is a whole lot of support thrown behind Iñárritu’s grand takedown of the modern media culture.

The last time a film won both the Producers Guild and the Screen Actors Guild but did not win Best Picture at the Oscars was in 2006, when Little Miss Sunshine took home both awards but Martin Scorsese’s The Departed brought home the big prize. After that, No Country for Old Men (2007), Slumdog Millionaire (2008), The King’s Speech (2010), and Argo (2012) all pulled the trifecta.

The reason those two Oscars precursors are so predictive is two-fold. The actors make up the largest voting branch of the Academy, which means any film embraced by the actors has a tremendous voting bloc behind it. In addition, the Producers Guild uses the same preferential ballot system as the Academy (which you can read more about here), and support within that system is usually widespread, meaning a film is not only voters’ favorite but is other voters’ second or third favorite. The higher up on the majority of ballots a film places, the more likely it is to win.

I, for one, am thankful Birdman has thrown a bit of a monkey wrench into the season. So many years recently have been over before they have gotten underway with films such The Artist and the aforementioned Slumdog Millionaire simply steamrolling their way to Best Picture. Last year, when 12 Years a Slave and Gravity duked it out to the end – they tied for the Producers Guild award – was the most thrilling Academy Awards race in years. It is nice when the writing is not on the walls.

A couple more things to take away then: Boyhood is probably still the frontrunner despite this surge from Birdman. It is a crowd-pleaser that will end up near the top of a lot of ballots, if not in the No. 1 spot. On the other hand, Birdman is more divisive, a love-it-or-hate-it movie, in spite of the broad support the Producers Guild win suggests.

One major thing Birdman has going for it is a lot of support from below-the-line workers. The film is a technical marvel, which it proved by tying for the most Oscar nominations this year with The Grand Budapest Hotel, in addition to an acting showcase. It should draw support from a wide range of craftspeople, as well as the actors, writers, directors, and producers.

Another takeaway from the televised broadcast of the Screen Actors Guild Awards was the support for Selma, which was not nominated in a single category last night. Clips from the film played during the show’s “Celebration of Diversity” montage, and whenever Ava DuVernay’s movie flashed on screen, a roar of applause went up from the audience. Despite netting just two nominations, Selma could be a real threat in the Best Picture category, particularly as it has been in the news almost constantly since the nominations announcement. Only time will tell on that front.

In the other categories from last night, the only real surprise for me was Eddie Redmayne winning best actor for his portrayal of Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, beating out the favored Michael Keaton. We probably will not know who is going to win that award at the Oscars until Feb. 22, when the envelope is opened, and while I am pulling for Keaton, added intrigue is always welcome in the Oscar race, particularly when the other acting awards seem all but sewn up. Julianne Moore, Patricia Arquette, and JK Simmons have not missed a step yet, and I see no reason why they would on the way to the Academy Awards.

The next few weeks will be telling as more industry guilds hand out their honors, including the art directors, cinematographers, and directors, which will be a big indicator. It all leads up to the big event the last Sunday in February, so until then, enjoy the mystery.

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