Why the Oscars chose Birdman over Boyhood for Best Picture

Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is clearly the superior film, but the Academy isn’t considering long-term trends or trying to make a statement. Like an impetuous child, it just grabs the thing that feels good in that particular moment.

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During the morning after the Oscars before, it is customary to read a narrative into the results, or to suggest that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is somehow sending a message to the world. This logic has its flaws. It’s doubtful that thousands of voters of varying ages (though not, admittedly, widely varying ethnicities) huddled together and agreed on a party line. Any political, social and racial filtering happens way before the nominations are even announced: it’s what decides which films are made or distributed, and which have the advertising budgets to break through into the popular consciousness.

But once we get down to the shortlist, it’s just people in the industry voting for their favourite movies of the past year, or the ones that their friends made, or that their enemies didn’t, or the ones that came with the most attendant wining and dining and social hoopla. Cruellest of all, it is simply about the ones that voters got around to watching. DVD screeners, sent to Academy members by the studios and PR companies, pile up on the doormat around Christmas time, and who can say if every one of them is watched? One of the reasons why the excellent Selma, for instance, failed to make the grade was arguably, and boringly, a lack of voter convenience; discs were made and distributed so late in the day that many people who were unable to attend screenings may simply not have got around to seeing it in time for voting deadlines. As someone who votes in the London Film Critics’ Circle Awards (a ceremony with only fractionally less pizzazz than the Oscars, and no danger whatsoever of Neil Patrick Harris turning up in his pants), I can attest that we faced the same scheduling problem with Selma. It was logistics not quality.

Selma received two Oscar nominations – one for Best Picture, another for Best Original Song. (It won the latter, for John Legend and Common.) So it did get seen, and heard, by some voters, which renders absurd the absence of David Oyelowo from the Best Actor nominations. That controversy aside, I don’t know what message could possibly be read into the final results. By choosing Birdman as Best Picture and Alejandro González Iñárritu as Best Director, were voters telling Richard Linklater that the 12 years he spent making the Best Picture favourite Boyhood were for nought, and that everyone in future should just stick to the standard two-month shooting schedule? No. I think they were merely saying: we liked Birdman, it was bright and fun, it was both self-deprecating and celebratory about a world we understand (acting) and it made us ask “Ooh, was it all really shot in one take?” (No.)

It doesn’t change the fact that, if we are playing favourites, Boyhood is the superior film. The Academy isn’t voting for longevity or trends or statements. It is like an impetuous child grabbing the toy that makes it feel good or important or excited right now, right this second. Also, Birdman is a terrific movie – yes, despite the annoying fact that the Oscars have now ratified it as such.

It’s disappointing that Iñárritu’s picture didn’t get the one award it really merited above all others – Michael Keaton as Best Actor. Eddie Redmayne is perfectly good as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything but the conception of that part is only as interesting or adventurous as the film surrounding it (which is to say: not very). I was happy that Pawel Pawlikowski’s quietly devastating Ida took the award for Best Film Not in the English Language. And even as someone who has no desire to ever again check in to The Grand Budapest Hotel, it would be churlish to begrudge Wes Anderson’s movie the most deserved prize of the four it took home – the one for Anna Pinnock and Adam Stockhausen’s production design.

As a Boyhood fan through and through, it feels almost cruel that the movie left with just one trophy (Best Supporting Actress for Patricia Arquette). But let’s not shed too many tears. Great films have a prize that cannot be forged in gold. They got made. They have been seen and will go on being seen. That’s enough.

 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

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