Yes, Birdman is for real. If there was any lingering doubt that industry awards voters are dead serious about honoring a movie that is about a lot of things but especially about themselves, the DGA’s top honor erased those questions. Now after triumphing at the PGA, winning the SAG Ensemble Cast prize and DGA Directorial Achievement Award for Alejandro G. Inarritu this movie has flown past the competition and left what was thought to be a front runner, Boyhood, in its dust. It’s an important moment for the film as its victory occurred on the very weekend Oscar balloting begins.
The Boyhood momentum was created by critics and pundits based on its sweep through the critics portion of the season where it pulled a Social Network by winning everything right thru the Golden Globes for 2010, only to be trounced by The King’s Speech once the Guild prizes started rolling in. I was pretty much alone in believing, great as it is, that the Boyhood critical tide might not translate to the industry, thinking that this year would produce a divide between critics and the people who make movies, but I had the wrong pony. I thought a consensus picture for the industry would likely be The Imitation Game, but that highly regarded film has, somewhat inexplicably, had a harder time gaining needed momentum and precursor wins in the race, and Birdman is clearly resonating.
Is it ‘game over’? Can it be stopped? Sure. This is still very much a fluid year, but the key indicators of Oscar success are lining up nicely and common wisdom says Birdman is going to have a very strong Oscar night. The winner of the DGA award has gone on to win the Oscar for Best Director all but seven times in 67 years. And usually the winner of the Best Director Oscar also matches Best Picture. The last two years were not the case with the Oscar-snubbed Ben Affleck getting DGA sympathy in 2012 for an Argo win while Ang Lee took the Oscar for Life Of Pi. And last year it really seemed Oscar voters specifically separated the DGA-winning directorial achievement of Alfonso Cuaron for Gravity apart from the picture itself, choosing instead 12 Years A Slave for top honors.
Since Inarritu’s high wire act is a model of directorial art that’s hard to ignore, but the movie itself may not be for every taste, that could happen again and voters could look elsewhere to bestow Best Picture, most likely on the wild card, American Sniper which seems to be popular in the Academy (not to mention a boxoffice phenomenon). But there are any number of scenarios and outside possibilities. However if you are a reader of tea leaves, at this point at least the smart money has to be on Birdman. Boyhood appears to have a tougher climb now as its Guild losses give those in the Academy resistant to the charms of this wonderful indie marvel license to go to something else and not follow critical opinion. Sunday a Birdman win at BAFTA could close the lid. A loss might retain hope for its competitors as BAFTA has been very predictive in the past, and has a strong cross membership with the Academy. Next week’s last major Guild test at the WGA won’t mean as much since Birdman was ineligible there for a nomination. By the way, Inarritu makes great acceptance speeches. At the DGA he was amusingly humble. “If you go to bed to make love with your wife you don’t say ‘let’s make the best children in the world’. They just come,” he said to laughs. “If this is considered a great film it has nothing to do with me. It’s a miracle”.
It’s interesting that with the all-important DGA awards and BAFTA both taking place thousands of miles apart on the same weekend, all three directors (Inarritu, Richard Linklater, Wes Anderson) nominated for both showed instead in L.A. for the DGA party along with fellow nominees Clint Eastwood and Imitation Game’s Morten Tyldum, while almost all the actors in their films headed to London. “Who came up with having the idea of putting the DGA and BAFTA on the same weekend? All the actors are there and all the directors are here,” said Tyldum. Normally the DGA affair would have been more star-studded as those actors would likely have presented the nomination medallions to their directors (Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley did it via a pre-taped speech for Tyldum).
One top star who was in the room was Sniper’s Bradley Cooper who didn’t want to miss the chance to present to Eastwood, the only DGA nominee who got a standing ovation. Cooper bent over backwards to be there to do it as he is appearing on Broadway in The Elephant Man and the show is a sell-out thru its closing on the day before Oscars. Cooper performed in the show Saturday afternoon, hopped a plane and made it to the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza in the nick of time. The show went dark Saturday night and Sunday matinee so he could be in L.A. to honor his director. It was worth it. His presentation was hilarious and right on the money, and he does a great Eastwood impression. When he was introduced Cooper got by far the biggest applause of any of the night’s presenters, although Bill Murray’s intro to his Grand Budapest Hotel director Wes Anderson was also pretty terrific. Eastwood, after jokingly complaining the guild paid off his pension too early said, “I’ve had a wonderful life in this business and it’s not over yet”. That’s for sure, especially after Sniper has become the biggest hit of his career – or just about anyone else’s.
Boyhood’s Linklater (introduced by Before Midnight star and writer Julie Delpy) had a great speech (all the nominated directors get to make acceptance speeches upon receiving their medallion) when he noted that his application to join the guild was endorsed by Robert Altman, Peter Bogdanovich and Francis Coppola. Not bad people to get a recommendation from. When he asked Bogdanovich who sponsored him for entry into the DGA, the director replied John Ford, Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock. Try and beat that! Tyldum (at whose front row table I was lucky enough to be seated) got laughs quoting the late, great Mike Nichols who once said, “directing is like sex. You rarely get the chance to see others do it”. Although I know he would love to have won, Tyldum told me the real honor as a first-time nominee making his first English language film is just to be in this company. He touted the camraderie of this year’s nominees who all appeared earlier in the day at a DGA symposium. Multiple DGA and Emmy winner Don Mischer was raving about it and told me Wes Anderson nearly stole the show talking about how he couldn’t believe he was actually sitting with Eastwood on the same panel.
Jane Lynch hosted again, as she did last year, and the directors pulled off a breezy evening, albeit one that lasted about four hours. Near the end of those four hours Steven Spielberg appeared to make some news. Beginning next year the Guild is adding a brand new category for Achievement By A First Time Feature Film Director. The announcement was preceded by a reel showing one great film after another that repped the movie debut of their helmers. It was a nice touch to an evening that also produced great tributes to not one, but an unprecedented two Lifetime Achievement winners for Television Direction: James Burrows and Robert Butler. Burrows was very funny, pointedly taking a shot at Les Moonves whose CBS network recently abruptly cancelled his second year sitcom, The Millers. Burrows told me later he would have hit the milestone of directing 1000 episodes of TV if the show had continued. “Guess I will have to wait until next year now,” he laughed. As for Butler he had one of the best lines of the night. “I believe what we do IS Rocket Science,” he said. The ballroom full of directors roared.