Oscars 2015: A Weird Season Ends With Something for Just About Everyone (Analysis)

THR's awards analyst performs a postmortem on the winners, the show and his own predictions.
AP Images/Invision
The cast of 'Birdman'

The 87th Oscars ceremony took place on Sunday night in Hollywood. Now that the winners have been announced and the red carpets have been rolled up and put in storage — at least until May's Cannes Film Festival — it is incumbent upon me to try to perform a postmortem on the results (and my own performance as a prognosticator). What happened and why? Let's take a look.

The main answer is that the Academy reminded us, as they last did four years ago when The King's Speech beat The Social Network to win best picture, that they are a unique beast — a different animal than the general public, which propelled American Sniper to higher grosses than all of the category's other nominees combined, and than the critical community, which almost uniformly backed Boyhood. Once the guilds started weighing in, they went, pretty much as a bloc, for Birdman.

Why did Birdman appeal more to filmmakers than to other constituencies? One major reason is surely that its story revolves around people from their own professional universe, just like two other movies that recently won best picture, The Artist and Argo — that's a grand total of three in four years. (Hollywood might be a little narcissistic? I'm shocked!) Conversely, Boyhood is about a family that couldn't be further from the sphere of showbiz.

Read more The 87th Annual Academy Awards: TV Review

In the end, Birdman bagged four wins — not a huge total for a best picture winner, and one that was tied by The Grand Budapest Hotel, which won exclusively below-the-line categories — and the other seven best picture nominees all claimed at least one. (Who could have imagined, just a few weeks ago, that Whiplash would be awarded as many Oscars as Boyhood, American Sniper and Selma combined?!)

One of the big takeaways from this season is that releasing an awards contender in mid- to late December — especially one that engenders controversy and debate, as did Christmas releases Sniper and Selma — is something to be avoided, at least as long as the major guilds insist on beginning their nomination voting periods in the first week of the month. Why? Because it causes a distributor to spend its entire campaign trying to dig itself out of a hole. Neither Sniper nor Selma received a single SAG Award nom, for instance. Sniper's phenomenal box-office success enabled it to overcome that early setback and land Bradley Cooper an Oscar nom, but Selma had no such luxury and that — along with a late screener mailing and an outcry over some historical inaccuracies in its story — didn't do any favors for David Oyelowo. (Both films' directors, Clint Eastwood and Ava DuVernay, were also left out.) There is no good reason why these guilds need voting periods that start so early and last so long, especially those that conduct their voting online.

Speaking of the acting categories, the outcomes of three of the four were never really in question: Still Alice's Julianne Moore was the obvious standout in an otherwise poor year for female performances, and I called her best actress win back in Toronto and never wavered. Whiplash's J.K. Simmons had the showiest part of the best supporting actor nominees and was never not the frontrunner. And Boyhood's Patricia Arquette essentially sealed the deal on best supporting actress the minute The Theory of Everything's Felicity Jones and/or her team opted for a push in the leading category; I believe that Jones might well have won had she stayed in the supporting category, in which people who played similar parts — i.e. My Left Foot's Brenda Fricker and A Beautiful Mind's Jennifer Connelly — did come away winners. But maybe it was more important to her/them to establish her as a leading lady, which has happened. To each their own.

The one acting race that was fascinating to watch right through Oscar night was best actor. Twenty men gave performances that were worthy of a nom this year, and of the five who got one I would argue that any one of them could have won in a lesser year. The fact that Theory's Eddie Redmayne — a young Brit who was certainly not a household name at the outset of this season — did is attributable to a variety of factors. First and foremost, he gave a performance for the ages — but that in itself is not enough, since many would argue that Birdman's Michael Keaton did the same thing. What he did that Keaton did not is he completely transformed himself in order to play another person — Stephen Hawking, who was familiar to just about everyone, making Redmayne's challenge harder — and he pulled it off so well that that Hawking himself offered him a ringing endorsement. In spite of all of this, Keaton, a popular veteran, might well have won had he embraced the fact that he was playing a version of himself, but he did not. Plus Redmayne simply out-campaigned him — good luck finding a hand in town that Redmayne has not shaken or a baby that he has not kissed.

Other takeaways? While one "rule" is now no more (no film had won best picture without a best film editing nom since Ordinary People, 34 years ago, until Birdman, with its simulated single-shot, did it), several others were reaffirmed. Do not bet against the DGA (the group, which picked Birdman's Alejandro G. Inarritu over Boyhood's Richard Linklater, has now called all but seven best director Oscar winners in 67 years). Do not bet against the PGA-DGA-SAG combo (like every other film that won the top prizes of all three groups except for Apollo 13, Birdman went on to win the best picture Oscar). SAG is a pretty solid predictor alone (all four of its winners repeated at the Oscars, and SAG has now anticipated each of the last 11 best actor winners). Muckraking docs tend to win (see best doc feature Oscar winner Citizenfour). Black-and-white and Holocaust-related films tend to win (see best foreign-language film Oscar winner Ida). Animated sequels tend not to win, even if they are very good (see Big Hero 6's victory over How to Train Your Dragon 2 in the best animated feature Oscar category). And the list goes on.

Read more 'Birdman' Wins, as Hollywood Atones for Its Superhero Movies

(Admittedly, I myself forgot or ignored some of these rules, as is reflected on my predictions tally this year, which was not nearly as strong as it usually is. I did, however, pick the correct best picture and best actor, while many others went down with Boyhood and Keaton — a small consolation.)

The Oscars ceremony itself — while always a great thrill to attend — did not strike me as one of the better ones in recent memory, despite the fact that it was hosted by the most capable person in the world for that job, Neil Patrick Harris. I was disappointed that the Harris that people know and love — the loose, singing, dancing and joking showman — was largely replaced by a guy with a few good, if not great, scripted one-liners, and a running gag about his own Oscar predictions that never really paid off. Fortunately, he was bailed out, in a sense, by several great music performances: all of the nominated songs were good and went over well — even if several of them were cut to pieces, apparently for time — especially "Glory" from Selma, and Lady Gaga's Sound of Music tribute and Jennifer Hudson's In Memoriam tribute were both showstoppers as well.

Also interesting was a return to acceptance speeches calling for social change — ironically, not as much from the Citizenfour folks as from Arquette (equal pay for equal work), Selma's Common and John Legend (reforms to laws that land blacks in prison in record numbers for nonviolent crimes) and The Imitation Game's best adapted screenplay winner Graham Moore (anti-bullying).

So, as we put another season in the books, let me congratulate all of the nominees and winners, including those that won a category for the second year in a row: Fox Searchlight and New Regency with best picture; Focus Features with best actor; Sony Classics with best actress; Disney with best animated feature; Radius-TWC with best documentary feature; and Birdman's Emmanuel "Chivo" Lubezki, who won best cinematography for the second year in a row. Also, IFC's class-act chief Jonathan Sehring deserves a tip of the cap for backing Boyhood over those dozen years; that film needed him as much as anyone to exist.

Let me also express my gratitude to my family, friends and colleagues for their support throughout the long Oscar season. And let me thank you, the readers of this blog, for your interest in what I have to say, which inspires me to work as hard as I can at a job that I love. We'll be in touch — the Tony season starts soon, the Emmy season not long after that and, before you know it, we'll be right back here talking Oscars all over again.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg

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