OK, as I suspected the guilds were right and the critics groups and Golden Globes were wrong. With Birdman triumphing as Best Picture, Director for Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Best Original Screenplay and Cinematography, it followed the path of exactly what the guild victories at PGA, DGA, SAG and ASC were predicting. And SAG went even farther in cementing its powers of prescience with the Oscar victory of The Theory Of Everything‘s voter-charmer Eddie Redmayne, who took Best Actor over Birdman‘s Michael Keaton.
I predicted these wins (save Original Screenplay, which I thought might go to Wes Anderson like it did at WGA — Birdman wasn’t eligible) simply by listening to the guilds. WGA also predicted a win for Graham Moore for The Imitation Game and added to my tally of the major winners. Moore’s speech, in which he pleaded to young teens to not try to take their life at 16 like he did, was easily the best and most heartfelt in a night full of great acceptance speeches.
In fact, it was those speeches that really saved this Oscars. Neil Patrick Harris was, as usual, a capable host, but his writers let him down. What happened to a monologue? (Sources tell me there was one, but it was ditched in favor of keeping the show moving.) Instead of making us laugh Billy Crystal-style, Harris launched into a Tony Awards-like opening number and then straight into Best Supporting Actor. The musical number, celebrating movies, was swell, but at least from my vantage point in the first mezzanine we could have used a few more zingers. NPH’s punchlines often centered on himself.
Comedy suffered on this Oscarcast, most pointedly in a lame magic bit in which Harris pretended to make all-knowing predictions about how the show would turn out. He even enlisted Octavia Spencer, sitting there in the front row, to watch his briefcase with those locked-and-loaded predictions to make sure no one fiddled with them. Spencer looked perplexed — and she was. At the Governors Ball, she told me she had no idea Harris was going to call on her. And she didn’t seem thrilled to be the butt of this joke which didn’t pay off until the end of the show. Rule #1 for Oscar Host: Don’t drag a lame comedy bit into the last quarter of the show. At that point we are invested in the results of the major categories and could care less about a dumb, obviously fake, magic trick.
Thank god for the musical numbers because this show could not rely on some really weak comedic attempts. There was the buoyant “Everything Is Awesome” musical extravaganza saluting the nominated tune from The Lego Movie complete with Lego Oscars (an instant collectible; I saw Oprah carrying one to the Governors Ball). There was the stirring nominated song, and eventual winner, “Glory” from John Legend and Common on an incredible set re-creating the Edmund Pettus bridge in Alabama. There was the touching performance by Tim McGraw of Glen Campbell’s “I’m Not Gonna Miss You.” Jennifer Hudson’s In Memoriam song was terrific, too.
The In Memoriam segment was beautifully designed and featured a good cross-section of Academy members from all branches who passed in the last year. Some complained Joan Rivers wasn’t included, but at best her film resume consists of the inconsequential Rabbit Test and she probably didn’t win a lot of fans at past Oscars by drilling stars on their fashion choices. She belongs more to the Emmys and Grammys I would say.
But best of all, a revelatory Lady Gaga nailing several songs from The Sound Of Music to celebrate the film’s 50th anniversary. She’s got pipes. And the segment really soared when, at the end, Julie Andrews herself showed up to present Best Original Score. Pure magic. Oscarcast producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron might be accused of trying to restage their own NBC special The Sound Of Music Live for the whole Oscar audience, but it doesn’t matter. It worked beautifully and is the kind of thing that absolutely makes a show like this. Twentieth Century Fox chairman Jim Gianopulos was approached by Zadan with the idea. He told me he asked who would be singing, and when Zadan said Lady Gaga, he immediately said Fox was in. And why not? It is a bonanza of publicity for the upcoming Blu-ray restoration release later this year.
Perhaps the most impressive part of the whole production was the sets. The production design of this show was immaculate. Forty-four artists contributed different designs for each category and the In Memoriam segment, and they were stunning. Where the show went wrong was in the writing, and most jokes in the first half were falling flat. One former Academy official also told me he didn’t appreciate the attempts at humor on the Academy’s diversity woes (Harris opened with “Welcome to the best and the
whitest, uh brightest“). This is not to say there weren’t funny bits including a Birdman spoof that saw Harris strip to his underwear à la Michael Keaton. A similar sketch was tried at Saturday’s Spirit Awards, right down to having Whiplash‘s Miles Teller playing the drums, and oddly it seemed to work better there. The at-home Oscar audience might not have been familiar with Birdman, so the sight of their clean-cut host stripping down to his tighty-whities might have been a bit disconcerting, especially in the Midwest. You have to hand it to Harris for being game, though. He’s a pleasant host, spectacular even on the Tonys, but this was a tough gig.
As for the Birdman triumph, this was the second consecutive year Fox Searchlight and New Regency have landed a Best Picture winner after last year’s 12 Years A Slave. At the hopping Fox after-party at Boa, Searchlight co-president Steve Gilula was beaming and talking about how they have even passed The Weinstein Company now in terms of Best Picture nominees and winners with 12. He gives much credit to the Searchlight team including co-president Nancy Utley who started winning Oscars 15 years ago with Boys Don’t Cry. With four Oscars for Birdman and another quartet for The Grand Budapest Hotel, the specialty label is on fire. Boyhood, which was thought to be the big rival for Best Picture, was also at one time offered to Searchlight but they passed. Gilula told me having three bona fide Best Picture contenders like that might be too much, especially since Birdman and Budapest were their productions.
Birdman, by the way, becomes the second movie set in the Broadway theatrical world to win Best Picture in over 60 years. The first, 1950’s All About Eve, also came from the Fox studio. One major topper at Fox asked me if any director has won two years in a row (yes, but rare) because the studio and New Regency are extremely high on Gonzalez Iñárritu’s currently filming The Revenant with Leonardo DiCaprio as an awards play for next year.
And as for Boyhood, in the end it had to be content with just one win for Supporting Actress Patricia Arquette, but IFC Films’ Jonathan Sehring, who shepherded it for 12 years, told me he is just thankful for the ride. “We had a great run, you can’t complain,” he said at the packed Governors Ball. That film, great as it is, never seemed to be the passion play with Oscar voters that it was with critics. An ill-timed Entertainment Weekly cover declaring it the frontrunner didn’t help matters, and once again the Producers Guild took the opportunity to turn this train around when they went against the prevailing common wisdom and awarded Birdman instead. It was a very familiar scenario, reminiscent of 2010 when The King’s Speech steamrolled over heavy favorite and critics darling The Social Network at the PGA Awards.
In this case though, there is no underestimating the appeal of a story that hits home with the showbiz community, particularly actors who make up such a large part of the Academy. It’s interesting though that Eddie Redmayne was able to stop any potential Michael Keaton tide at both SAG and the Academy. The race between them was thought to be very close, but when the nominee names were read Sunday night, the applause for Redmayne was clearly bigger than for Keaton. Redmayne left no stone unturned in this quest and it paid off. “I think he’s great. He’s also so nice and it was a remarkable performance,” said SAG president Ken Howard, who was seated right in front of me.
For Birdman, it meant a movie about actors brought no gold home for any of its cast. The victory was more like one for Billy Wilder’s The Apartment in 1960, winning three Oscars for Gonzalez Iñárritu (just like Wilder) plus one for Cinematography. But no actors were rewarded in either film. Earlier in the season, I told Gonzalez Iñárritu his movie might be the kind Wilder would have made in his heyday. Wilder would have loved the edgy, biting nature of it all. He indeed said Wilder was one of his personal inspirations for it. When I cornered Gonzalez Iñárritu at the Governors Ball, he was besieged by well-wishers including Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs who came over to offer her congratulations. “I thought your speech tonight was perfect, it was very meaningful,” he told her about her remarks regarding the protection of artistic freedom.
Now Birdman is a part of Oscar history, lightening up an Oscars that richly rewarded projects about ALS, Alzheimer’s and suicide prevention. This film flew its own quirky path and succeeded beyond all expectations.