I asked our contributors to write up brief explorations of the Oscars now that it’s over. Peter and I were able to put together some thoughts. Here they are. I’ll start with Peter and finish with mine.
2014 was an exceptionally unusual year in films. When the Oscar nominations were announced, not a single one of them had topped $60 million at the box office, making The Grand Budapest Hotel the highest grosser. Since then, American Sniper built an audience on its controversy and an appeal to a group of people who may have entirely misjudged the purpose of the film. It has now made more than $300 million at the box office and Grand Budapest has slipped to third on the list behind The Imitation Game, which will be lucky to top $90 million at this point. 2013 saw four Best Picture nominees top $100 million, 2012 had six films, and 2011 had one. Clearly the Oscars found a way to honor more independent films than it ever has before (as evinced by the fact that the Spirit Awards, which honor only low-budget pictures, featured four of the eight Best Picture nominees in its five-film Best Feature slate.
We had a critics group front-runner that stumbled as it travelled through the guilds leading towards the downfall of a 34-year predicting titan: Best Film Editing wasn’t necessary for a Best Picture win. Ultimately, the show was predictable to a point, this was the best many of us had done when taking into account runners-up (I personally predicted every category for either the winner or the runner-up). It’s just a matter of deciding which direction the tea leaves are pointing. Birdman was clearly stronger than many of us though. It’s thwarting of a Wes Anderson victory in Best Original Screenplay was one of the first signs, the other being Boyhood‘s failure to top Whiplash. Once again, the DGA is the big winner, forecasting Best Picture on a more consistent basis than even Best Director. BAFTA was largely competent in its foreshadowing, with a few minor misses.
Has the traditional prediction model been entirely upended this year? No. There were enough signs of the potential victories (except Animated Feature) that interpreting them correctly is the difficult part. Some voted more with their hearts and others did not. They were right and wrong in equal measure. So, it’s impossible to learn much about this year, except that even long-standing bellwethers can still crumble in the face of unusual challenges.
As to the show. Well, that’s an entirely different matter. It was at its best when it was staging grand production numbers: The Sound of Music tribute, “Glory” performance and Glen Campbell interlude were all marvelous. Yet, the jokes didn’t land nearly as well as they should have and Neil Patrick Harris, an affable and competent host in his Tonys and Emmys guises, fell flat for the most part. Perhaps he was hampered by the poor production job of Craig Zadan and Neil Meron. Either way, the show was not the spectacle or competent force it has been in the past. Perhaps we need to get some new blood in, some blood that won’t rely so heavily on their own previous material to bolster their profile.
The highlights of the night were the speeches including those from Patricia Arquette; Documentary Short Subject winners Ellen Goosenberg Kent and Dana Perry; Ida helmer Pawel Pawlikowski; Adapted Screenplay winner Graham Moore; and especially that of Common and John Legend accepting the Best Original Song award for “Glory,” a performance and victory that yielded three standing ovations. Perhaps it’s best to let the best parts come from the acceptance speeches. It makes the show feel more about the achievement than the pomp and circumstance. The Oscars are still in need of an overhaul, but whether the Academy can give it that attention or not remains to be seen.
Bringing in a new production team will help. Adding some more interesting new categories could bloat the broadcast, but draw attention to under-recognized achievements. Re-expanding Best Picture to a full ten instead of a random assortment from five-to-ten might enable some of the blockbusters to get in that have typically kept ratings low when not included. There are many things that could be done, but no one knows what will work and what won’t, but it’s worth experimenting.
Peter J. Patrick
It says something about the current state of the movie business when the highlight of the Oscar presentation was contemporary artist Lady Gaga singing a medley of songs from a fifty-year-old movie in classic style with the star of that movie, an almost 80-year-old Julie Andrews, proving to be the evening’s nicest surprise.
I guess it was foolish of me to base my predictions on early winners of critics’ awards instead of on awards that won their various unions, or guilds. I thought the Academy membership was more discerning. I guess it was silly of me to think they would go for Boyhood for Best Picture and Richard Linklater for Director while adding to The Grand Budapest Hotel‘s haul by giving the Original Screenplay award to Wes Anderson. It’s not that I dislike Birdman. Far from it, the film was my second favorite of the year behind Boyhood. They gave Birdman four awards but failed to award the film’s greatest asset, the performance of Michael Keaton. It’s not that I have anything against Eddie Redmayne either. I’ve watched his career blossom over the last decade. He’s a truly wonderful actor, but The Theory of Everything was more mimicry than acting. What I really object to, though, is the herd mentality, “as the union goes, so goes my vote”. Maybe the Academy should do what it did for a while in the 1930s, let the guild membership vote in their various Oscar categories instead of having their own awards. That way, they might restore the nail-biting suspense that’s been missing from the Oscars for some time.
While we’re talking about change, how about changing the writers on the show? Neil Patrick Harris was aces hosting the Tonys three times and the Emmys once so far. He was sappy hosting the Oscars with the lame material he had to work with.
Oh well, next year I’ll probably end up basing my predictions on what I think ought to win instead of what the guilds are telling me their membership, and by extension, the Academy, wants.
It will be interesting to see next year how all of this affects how we look at our predictions. We had all the Best Picture nominees win an award, something I doubt will happen again in the near future, but how do we take everything else that happened? For the first time in 34 years our Best Picture winner did not have a Best Film Editing nomination, something that has foreseen some recent upsets at the Oscars; can we chalk that up to the unique, one-take vision of Birdman, or is this a sign that one of our biggest signposts is no more? After a couple of years where BAFTA looked like our best predictor, it almost completely ignored Birdman this year and didn’t line up well at all; is this a fluke? Yet again, we had a year where the front-runner fizzled out with the guilds; does this mean we should stop trying to cement things before the beginning of February? I don’t know what any of this will mean for next year, but this was a wild year, and I’m hoping it is a sign that things will continue to be hard to lock-down in the future. That is what makes this whole game fun.
The Oscars are over, and many went as reasonably predicted. A couple of surprises, but not too many.
Birdman had a better night than many, including myself, had forecast. It may not have been a big film, but I was pleased to see it win the Oscar for Best Picture. It is a weird but wonderful film, one definitely to all tastes. Even with many of the precursors headed in its direction, though several also pointed at Boyhood, I just wondered if it was too polarizing a film to win. At the start of the evening, the only one Oscar it was assured was for cinematography, but with wins for direction (reasonably expected) and original screenplay (not as expected), it did look headed for a win. I am sorry the love didn’t carry over for a win for lead actor Michael Keaton, who turned in a bravura performance in it. This was Keaton’s first Oscar nomination, and it wouldn’t surprise me if it is his last. It did mark a career comeback, which the Academy does not award as much as one expects. Winner Eddie Redmayne did have an Oscar bait performance, playing a real person with a debilitating disease, and the Academy does love to award those. He did a fine job, but I imagine this will not be his only nomination and he may get to do something more original in the future. I am not sorry he won, but I am sorry that Keaton lost.
The rest of the acting awards went as expected. Julianne Moore was classy, but unexciting in her listing of everyone to thank. Patricia Arquette was surprising in her call for equal pay for women, a rousing and impassioned plea that was unexpected but well received. J.K. Simmons was sweet in talking of his family and how everyone should call their parents. Perhaps the best speech was by The Imitation Game’s screenwriter Graham Moore who talked from personal history about being weird and different and not fitting in and to take that to heart, not conform, but embrace it in yourself. It was a heartfelt moment, one of the few in the telecast.
The show itself was fine, if a bit dull most of the time. Neil Patrick Harris opened with a great number, which promised a better show than was delivered. He was a decent host, but never seemed as comfortable as he has been at the Tonys or the Emmys. A lot of his jokes fell flat, and it was a bit uncomfortable as I had high hopes for him. It won’t kill his career as an emcee, but I doubt he will be back next year. Though perhaps he and Hugh Jackman could combine as cohosts…
There were a couple good musical numbers, and several dull ones. Glory from Selma was emotional and it would have been awful if it hadn’t shortly won the Oscar for best song. Everything Is Awesome was fun, but seemed to go on forever. A colorful production, but I don’t remember it being that long in the film. The Glen Campbell tune went well, but the other two nominated songs were rather non-entities. The song after, not during but after, the in memoriam section felt pointless and incredibly unneeded. The tribute to the 50th anniversary of The Sound of Music may have also been slightly pointless, but Lady Gaga did impress with her singing. Who knew that she had such a classically trained voice. I didn’t, and was impressed with her renditions. The whole bit may not have been needed, but was a musical highlight.
There were not many surprises, Whiplash winning for editing was deserved but not totally expected. The Whiplash win for sound mixing was a bit surprising, but also deserved. It was the first time in a while that the sound awards went to two different movies, much to American Sniper’s chagrin. The biggest upset of the night was Big Hero 6 prevailing in the animated feature category over the expected winner How to Train Your Dragon 2. While the sequel was not as much fun as the original, it was a reasonably prohibitive front-runner. I did like the heart of Big Hero 6 more, and hoped it would win, but really never expected it. It is always nice when the Academy throws a curveball, especially if you like where it goes.
Anyway, we will have to wait a year to see what comes next. Perhaps we should be paying attention to what Guillermo del Toro is making, to see if he will become the third Mexican director in a row to win. So see lots of movies and we’ll be back next year with more predictions and comments.