2015 Academy Awards: The Aftermath
Last year’s Oscars was a bit of a strange bird. It was one of the more easily predictable Oscar ceremonies in a long time (I personally went 22/24, having only missed out on a few shorts), but part of the reason for that predictability was that, for the most part, the “right” films won. The battle between 12 Years a Slave and Gravity played out essentially in the way it should have, with 12 Years taking the biggest prize and Gravity feasting on the technical awards, and while it had some sense of drama, it was not difficult to see how things would pan out. In 2015, the ceremony had a similar battle to follow, this time pitching Austin filmmaker par excellence Richard Linklater’s Boyhood against professional misanthrope Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Birdman. It seemed like the sort of race that would exist above the text in a way, letting all of the other nominees fight their little battles on their own personal fronts while they duked it out in the Director and Picture race. This is similar, then, to the 12 Years a Slave v. Gravity, but a hell of a lot more one-sided. Gravity got its awards. It got more awards than 12 Years a Slave, but 12 Years got the statue that mattered. For many of us, Boyhood was the 12 Years a Slave of 2014. For many of us, 2015 did not go to plan.
The writing was on the wall. Birdman won the PGA, the DGA, the SAG, the Golden Globe. Boyhood couldn’t keep its momentum, despite winning its own Globe and the BAFTA. It was a foregone conclusion for the better part of two weeks. So people like myself, and Scott Tobias (and pretty much everyone from The Dissolve, for the most part) just had to sit there, grinning and bearing it through four hours of terrible and often questionable puns and a magic trick that couldn’t possibly live up to itself in order to watch Hollywood pat itself on the back with another movie about itself. It was fitting, then, that Sean Penn sauntered out to music from Dances with Wolves, the film that beat Goodfellas. It would have been just as fitting to play the music from Forrest Gump (victor over Pulp Fiction in 1995) or Kramer Vs. Kramer (victor over Apocalypse Now in 1980) or In the Heat of the Night (victor over The Graduate in 1968) or How Green Was My Valley (victor over Citizen Kane in 1942). Hyperbole? Perhaps, but time will tell, and time is much more likely to be kind to Boyhood than Birdman.
Of course, Birdman’s demolishing of Boyhood for the most part only took place in the ceremony’s final hour. Prior to that final hour, the ceremony provided more than its fair share of surprises. The biggest was easily Big Hero 6’s conquering of the Animated Feature category (a category most found invalidated by the conspicuous absence of The LEGO Movie) over presumptive favorite and Golden Globe winner How to Train Your Dragon 2. The Disney machine is a leviathan (both halves of their November release, including animated short “Feast” were victors), and it steamrolled its competition into the strange world of a Marvel movie (well, sort of a Marvel movie) winning an award for something that wasn’t technical. I’d love to be happy for such an upset, such a jolt of energy into a staid broadcast, but Big Hero 6 was the fourth-best movie of the four movies I saw in the category, so it’s not exactly the type of moment that would make me shout in joy.
Luckily, it wasn’t all bad. Everyone knew that the night would begin with an award for Whiplash thanks to JK Simmons’ status as a mortal lock and the Best Supporting Actor category’s traditional position at the front of the broadcast. What most of us did not expect, though, was that, as the credits rolled, Whiplash would end the night with more Academy Awards than Boyhood and The Imitation Game and American Sniper and literally every movie save Birdman and The Grand Budapest Hotel. The most gratifying moment of the night occurred when Tom Cross’ name was read for Best Film Editing. I wanted Whiplash to win for editing more than I wanted Boyhood to win for Best Picture. That film is as good as it is because of Simmons and Teller and the screenplay and the music, but the editing, more so than any other film this year, and any other film for many, many years, unites everything with incredible precision. The editing pushes Whiplash’s at times unreal pace, and is integral to the success of its powerful third act. Sure, the win for Whiplash sealed the fate of Boyhood, but that film’s fate was otherwise preordained, so this just removed any lasting suspicion that anything other than Birdman would win about an hour and a half before Birdman won. On a night like this, a night when The King’s Speech defeats The Social Network or Crash beats Brokeback Mountain, you look for wins wherever you can find them. And Whiplash’s three awards, two more than anyone rightfully expected it would win, and more awards than any other movie save Birdman and The Grand Budapest Hotel, provided a bit of a salve for the burn.
The ceremony itself was a strange one. It started preternaturally strong, with Neil Patrick Harris singing and dancing like everyone expected he would, only to be joined by Anna Kendrick in Cinderella mode and an interloping Jack Black out of the crowd, but once the song and dance faded into memory, all that was left was Harris, saddled with the Academy’s increasingly out of touch pun-heavy jokes, and no life preserver in sight. Harris is a funny actor, but that does not make him a comedian, and as he slowly died on the vine over the course of three and a half hours, everyone seemed at a loss for what had happened to who was otherwise an ebullient host of other award shows. But, for better and for worse, the Oscars are not like other award shows. They have their suffocating sense of self-importance, their pomp and circumstance, their Bruce Villanch jokes. Hosting the Oscars is a thankless job, and everyone knows that, but most of us believed Harris could still do work within the constraints of the system and find some spark to keep the show lively. He did, twice, with the opening number and a cute Birdman/Whiplash skit, but that was both the beginning and the end of it. A comedian might have found a way to make the ceremony’s central gag, a magic trick about Harris’ predictions for the show, work even a little, but as the bit soldiered on, long after anyone stopped caring, Harris could do nothing to save it. Such was the story of the night for him, trapped in a bad gig with no out in sight.
Despite this, somewhat magically, the telecast did for the most part manage to remain engaged. This was a very good year for acceptance speeches (which is such a bizarre sentence to write), with Pawel Pawlikowski, director of Ida and winner of the Foreign Language Film award, just talking his way through the play-off music without a care. This wasn’t quite a Cuba Gooding Jr situation, but it had its own legitimate charms. Pawlikowski was not automatically a shoo-in (though Ida was the presumptive favorite, Leviathan had won more than its share of awards), and seemed genuinely touched, which is always a nice moment. Politically-tinged speeches from Patricia Arquette, Imitation Game screenwriter Graham Moore and Original Song victors Common and John Legend kept the proceedings lively even as its interstitials lagged.
The musical performances were hit and miss, with Adam Levine and Rita Ora’s songs, as well as Jennifer Hudson’s post In Memoriam performances lagging a bit, the fever dream spectacle of Tegan and Sara and The Lonely Island (and WIll Arnett and Mark Mothersbaugh and Questlove…) performing “Everything is Awesome” and Lady Gaga’s technically impressive but thoroughly unnecessary Sound of Music falling into the hit-and-miss category. But at the same time, you had the touching (and devastatingly sad) performance of “I’m Not Gonna Miss You” from Tim McGraw, and the thunderous performance of “Glory” from Legend and Common were so excellent and captivating that they continued to keep things afloat no matter how often Harris’ jokes bombed or other questionable moments occurred (John Travolta, we’re all looking at you), there was always some baseline amount of momentum conserved.
It was an odd night of more ups and downs than usual, and while many people were perfectly fine with Birdman’s dominance, it did leave a bad taste in the mouth of us contrarians. No one’s ever going to be truly satisfied with an Oscar telecast. There will always be terrible jokes (the treason crack about Edward Snowden) and cringe-worthy directorial moments (finding EVERY SINGLE BLACK PERSON in the crowd after the “Glory” performance and shoving cameras in their faces) and presenting pairs with no charisma. The self-importance of The Academy is legend; nothing will ever change that. So you work within the formula. Sometimes it works, often it doesn’t. And sure, the winners are technically what matters, and last night the winners managed to assert a modicum of dominance through their own words, the only time there is not a rigorous script dominating the proceedings. You see these moments when these great actors (Eddie Redmayne) or actresses (Julianne Moore) or composers or editors or producers lose themselves and just give in to it all. This is what we should remember, and it is often what we do, but our memories are also saddled with all the bad. It’s unfortunate and unnecessary, but it is a fact of life, and a fact of the Oscars.