Before last night’s 29th annual American Society of Cinematographers awards dinner, I caught up with Birdman nominee Emmanuel Lubezki — or Chivo as he is known to just about everybody — who seemed stunned at the awards heat his movie has been gathering in the past few weeks of endless guild dinners. “We are so surprised at what’s happening,” he told me. “We just made a movie we hope kinda worked.”
Kinda is an understatement. Fox Searchlight and New Regency, which teamed on last year’s Best Picture winner 12 Years A Slave, looks like they may be making it two in a row if the Guild adulation of their Birdman is any indication. I had no doubt Lubezki would triumph at ASC — and he predictably did, as Deadline reported Sunday — winning the top Cinematography prize for a feature film for a record-tying fourth time. (His previous wins were for The Tree Of Life, Children Of Men and last year for Gravity.) Now with a prize for his high-wire act of shooting Birdman and making it appear to be just one continuous shot he has a fourth ASC honor, tying him with the late Conrad Hall. He’ll almost certainly repeat at the Oscars, just as he also did last year with the equally challenging and innovative Gravity.
And Birdman has just been on a tear, cherrypicking awards this holiday weekend for its sound mixing from CAS, sound editing from the Golden Reels, and hairstyling from the Make-Up Artists and Hair Stylists Guild. It was ineligible at WGA or it might have won there too — who knows? Add this to other laurels from PGA, SAG and DGA and you have a movie that has been overperforming ever since the guilds starting weighing in on a race that looked to be heading in Boyhood’s direction (if the opinion of Critics Groups and Golden Globe voters matter). Only its near-complete shutout (at the hands of Boyhood) at BAFTA last weekend (save for that single BAFTA for Lubezki) has marred the movie’s ride to the Oscars in the past month or so.
But does that mean — with all the guild results now in except for Costume Designers, who hold their awards show tomorrow — that Birdman is a sure thing for Oscar? No. This is still too tight a race and voting has been coming in extremely late this year. Oddly, when talking to members — some even casting their ballots as we speak — I don’t get a unanimous verdict on anything. Whiplash, in fact, remains the mentioned movie with those I talk to. One Academy member said, “It would be AMAZING if Whiplash wins. There will be many stroke victims in the audience”. This member voted for it across the board. And despite the guilds, that pair of triple BAFTA wins for both Boyhood and Whiplash carry significant weight.
Back to ASC. I have practically been living lately in the ballroom at the Hyatt Century Plaza in Century City. Can anyone think of any other place to do one of these dinners? I’m getting so sick of the beef main course and fighting with the overly aggressive wait staff who want to take the food away almost the minute they put it down. (I do like the fact they include breadsticks on every table.)
That said, ASC’s awards gala was hopping. It was jammed and every available space for tables was used as it was similarly for the DGA and PGA — as opposed to my guild, the WGA’s comparatively much sparser turnout for Valentine’s Day. What does that say about who has the real power in town? ASC also produced an elaborate and beautiful photograph-heavy 120-page program book (WGA basically had a pamphlet). These are cinematographers, after all. On its cover was this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award winner John Bailey.
What’s great — rather than just the so-called horse-race aspect — about all of these annual guild dinners are the special awards. And ASC did not disappoint. I especially loved the tribute to Bailey, whose long list of credits include shooting The Big Chill, Silverado and The Accidental Tourist for director Lawrence Kasdan (who presented). He also shot, among many, many other films, Robert Redford’s Oscar-winning Ordinary People as well as his latest, A Walk In The Woods, which just premiered at Sundance. Redford was supposed to present actually but came down with the flu and Kasdan filled in admirably.
Bailey, who started as a camera assistant, seemed very moved by it all, and he listed a long roll call of all the other famous directors he has worked with. But most notably he made special mention of 27-year-old Sarah Jones, the ICG member who found her passion with cinematographers but was killed by a train during filming of Midnight Rider. “One unforgettable Friday evening I was one of hundreds in a candlelight walk from the DGA to the ICG offices to honor the so-young Sarah Jones,” Bailey said. “Sarah was an extraordinary woman who has become a mission. She was taken from us a year ago this week, ” he added to emotional applause. He also got big applause with a stirring endorsement of film, the endangered form so dear to cinematographers. “Bless FotoKem, last Hollywood film lab standing. Bless them for believing that film matters in the face of those who tried to bury a hatchet in its back,” he said.
That’s an opinion seconded by at least one director in the audience, The Imitation Game’s Oscar-nominated Morten Tyldum, who was there to support his own ASC-nominated cinematographer Oscar Faura. Tyldum told me that with all the talk of the death of film in recent times, how ironic that of the five Best Direction Oscar-nominated films, four of them — including his — were shot on film. The one exception was Birdman, which Tyldum thinks Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu probably had to shoot digitally due to all the unique technical requirements.
Typical of crazy awards season, Tyldum was determined to be at ASC for Faura, so he came at the beginning and the end — and in-between had to race to Hollywood to receive some kind of award for Imitation Game from the Los Angeles Italia Film Festival (a Norwegian getting an award from the Italians at the Chinese Theatre for a British movie — gotta love it!). This being the season for all things awards, Tyldum just brought along the creepy looking Silver Mask trophy to Faura’s table at ASC. Hey, it’s not an Oscar but every bit helps, right?
The other big highlight of ASC for me was the Governors Award presentation to Barbra Streisand, an actress and director who definitely knows her way around cameras and lights. Her heartfelt, funny and revealing speech in which she talked about numerous cinematographers with whom she has worked over the years was long but perfectly pitched to this room. She talked of legends like Harry Stradling, who shot Funny Girl in 1968. “I was so lucky because I got to work with the best cinematographers in the world. And thank god the extraordinary director William Wyler, who I adored, chose Harry Stradling to shoot my first picture, Funny Girl. When I arrived in Hollywood I didn’t have the usual qualifications for a movie star,” she said. “I have a strange face, very different from each side. People who are easy to photograph typically have very symmetrical faces, big heads, big eyes. I have a small head, a very odd nose, my mouth is too big and my eyes are too small. But Harry enjoyed the challenge and we became fast friends. We spent hours experimenting with the light, hard lights, eye lights… Harry even rigged up what he called a ‘Strei-light’ held by a best boy who followed me around when I moved. It was fantastic.
“He was born in 1901 and had photographed all the great stars like Marlene Dietrich, Vivien Leigh and Katherine Hepburn. He was used to women with strong opinions, and we had a wonderful collaborative relationship. I felt so safe in his hands, so much so I wanted him for every film I made, and so he did my first four films until he retired.” Streisand went on to tell more anecdotes about several other great cinematographers with whom she has worked including Laszlo Kovacs, Robert Surtees, David Watkin, Stephen Goldblatt, Andrzej Bartkowiak (who presented her the award) and James Wong Howe, whose final film Funny Lady was, like Stradling’s, a Streisand movie.
The best story however was about the late, great Gordon Willis, who shot Up The Sandbox, a 1972 film in which she plays a housewife and admits no one went to see, but she loves it anyway. “When we first started shooting I told him I preferred the left side of my face because it’s more feminine. And actually when I directed Yentl I used the right side of my face as the boy, and the left side as the girl. It came in handy. Gordie was determined to show me that the right side was better, or at least as good. I said, ‘Gordie, photograph me any way you want.’ And Gordie, with his brilliance, made me look damn good. The funny thing is, at the end of the shoot he came up to me and he said, ‘You know what? Your left side is better.’ So the point is, I never felt self-conscious asking for that again because Gordie said so,” she said to huge laughs.
These are the kinds of things you can learn only on the awards circuit, and usually at the Hyatt Century Plaza!