DGA Awards: Alejandro G. Inarritu Upsets, 'Birdman' Looks Tough to Beat at Oscars (Analysis)

Over the last 66 years, the winner of the top prize at the DGA Awards went on to win the best director Oscar on all but seven occasions and his or her film went on to win the best picture Oscar on all but 14 occasions.
Alejandro G. Inarritu at the DGA Awards  Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP

Well, at this point, it looks like nothing can ground the soaring contender that is Birdman.

Alejandro G. Inarritu's dramedy won the Directors Guild of America's 67th DGA Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures — aka the DGA Award — on Saturday night, which, on the heels of the film winning the top prizes of the Producers Guild of America and Screen Actors Guild, suggests that it will take something of a miracle to stop the film from winning the best picture Oscar on Feb. 22.

Over the 66 years in which the DGA Award was previously presented, its winner went on to win the best director Oscar on all but seven occasions (most recently two years ago when Argo's Ben Affleck won the DGA Award but was not even nominated for the Oscar), and his or her film went on to win the best picture Oscar on all but 13 occasions (most recently last year when Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave beat Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity). And over the 21 years in which the PGA, SAG and DGA awards were all presented, only one film that claimed the top prizes of each of those guilds did not go on to win the best picture Oscar — that was Apollo 13, 19 years ago.

Read more DGA Awards: 'Birdman's' Alejandro Inarritu Takes Top Film Honors

Boyhood's Richard Linklater was almost universally regarded as the frontrunner heading into the DGA Awards. (The other nominees were The Grand Budapest Hotel's Wes Anderson, American Sniper's Clint Eastwood and The Imitation Game's Morten Tyldum.) After all, he is a longstanding member of the guild and an American, like most of its members, and unlike Inarritu, who is Mexican and has about a decade less experience in the "big leagues" of filmmaking.

But while there is widespread respect for what Linklater did on his film (which was shot with the same people over a period of 12 years and is measured and understated, like its filmmaker), there is apparently even more admiration for what Inarritu did on Birdman (a live-wire project shot in what appears to be one continuous take that possesses the energy and smarts of its director).

Interestingly, Linklater had never been nominated for the top — or any — DGA Award prior to this year. Inarritu, however, was nominated for the top prize eight years ago for Babel (2006) and won a DGA Award for outstanding directorial achievement in commercials just two years ago.

While the news is surely demoralizing for the team behind Boyhood and the other films that are Oscar-nominated opposite Birdman in the categories of best picture (American Sniper, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game, Selma, The Theory of Everything and Whiplash) and best director (The Grand Budapest Hotel's Anderson, Foxcatcher's Bennett Miller and The Imitation Game's Tyldum), there are still a couple of reasons to believe an Oscar Night surprise could still happen.

(1) Birdman does not have an Oscar nom for best film editing, without which no film has won the best picture Oscar since Ordinary People 25 years ago. True, Birdman wasn't really expected to land one (it purposefully avoids cuts to maintain that aforementioned look of being a continuous shot) and it shouldn't really matter anyway (the film editors branch of the Academy accounts for less than 4% of its full voting membership), but that's still a pretty daunting stat. For what it's worth — and make sure you're sitting before you read this — Inarritu's film was nominated for the American Cinema Editors award for best film editing of a comedy, and lost to The Grand Budapest Hotel (Boyhood won in the drama category), and is nominated for the best film editing BAFTA Award, whereas Boyhood somehow is not.

(2) Another film could still win at the BAFTA Awards tomorrow night — if not Boyhood, then perhaps The Grand Budapest Hotel, which goes into the event with a field-leading 11 noms (one more than Birdman) or The Imitation Game (the hometown favorite). That would be somewhat significant in light of the fact that several hundred people belong to both the Academy and BAFTA, and that the best film BAFTA winner has overlapped with the best picture Oscar winner in each of the last six years. Beware of a possible false-positive if The Imitation Game wins, though: the last time BAFTA and the Academy failed to agree, it was when BAFTA rewarded the hometown favorite Atonement over No Country for Old Men, which the Academy later reversed.

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But, in all likelihood, at this point, Inarritu will become the fifth consecutive non-American to win the best director Oscar and Birdman will become the third best picture Oscar (he will be the second consecutive Mexican winner, after Cuaron) winner in four years — after The Artist (2011) and Argo (2012) — to revolve largely around people from the world of show business. Like the Oscar race four years ago, the early frontrunner (that season The Social Network, this season Boyhood) appears to have been toppled by a late bloomer (that season The King's Speech, this season Birdman).

To quote Birdman, "Popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige." And to quote Boyhood, "You know how everyone's always saying seize the moment? I don't know, I'm kind of thinking it's the other way around, you know, like the moment seizes us." Or it doesn't.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg

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