‘Birdman’ Soars As PGA Sets A New Course For WIDE OPEN Best Picture Oscar Race
During the cocktail reception before Saturday night’s Producers Guild Awards began I ran into Oscar-nominated Screenwriter (and Director) Dan Gilroy and wife Rene Russo, there supporting one of the ten PGA Darryl F. Zanuck Best Picture nominees, Nightcrawler. Russo, admittedly not a staple at this type of awards-season banquet, asked me if they were going to serve food at this event. “Yes,” I replied, “it’s a dinner.” “So what do you think will win, Boyhood or Birdman?” she wondered. That was an interesting and somewhat surprising way to distill what has been thought to be a wide open race to Oscar until Boyhood basically cleaned up on the critics circuit, capping its run with Golden Globe and Critics Choice Movie Award wins, while Birdman scored for Michael Keaton but actually lost to Fox Searchlight stablemate The Grand Budapest Hotel in both respective comedy categories. But now with the PGA awards we finally arrived at the first indication of where the actual industry vote might be going, as Guild memberships often mirror Oscar-voters’ sentiments better than critics groups. Russo’s off-hand comment that this could be a night for Birdman took me a little by surprise. And indeed it was. So what does the triumph for the Fox Searchlight and New Regency film actually mean? It’s once again a wide open race, even after publications like Entertainment Weekly jumped the gun and declared the little indie that could, IFC’s Boyhood, the clear front runner on its cover last week. It does a disservice to the film, as there is only one way for a front runner to go: down. It’s best at times like these to recall the 2010 race when The Social Network had similarly run the table right through the Globes only to be upended at the first industry test at the PGAs by The King’s Speech, which went on the sweep through the rest of the season, ultimately taking the Oscar for Best Picture.
I have tried to avoid jumping on the Boyhood prediction train until at least the Guild awards started rolling in. Before Saturday’s ceremony, when asked I said if Boyhood wins with the PGA it will have the momentum to go all the way, but if fill in the name should win, all bets are off and the race is back on.
There is no question the absolutely terrific Boyhood and its remarkable 12-year saga would be a deserving Best Picture. So would the risky high wire act of the absolutely terrific Birdman. Or the absolutely terrific The Imitation Game, The Theory Of Everything, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Whiplash. All these movies have their supporters and the split could be on allowing a possible surprise. Maybe a big one. I would still say based on conversations with Academy voters that Imitation Game and Whiplash are often the most-mentioned outside of the Boyhood/Birdman contingent. Boyhood, highly admired, has yet to seal the deal, but there will be many more opportunities to rack up some wins.
One six -time Oscar winning veteran producer told me after the PGA ceremony that he was surprised by the result and thought “that movie about the 12 year old boy or Imitation Game” would take it. Perhaps the unprecedented performance of American Sniper now finds an opening as the race continues. It is certainly the blockbuster that the Oscar show’s producers have been praying for to help goose audience interest in the telecast this year. Or even Selma, which with only Best Picture and Song nods and no major Guild or BAFTA nominations, would be completely unprecedented but not out of the question if we are really dealing with a year about to produce real splits among voters.
The last film to take Best Picture and only one other Oscar was another Paramount title, The Greatest Show On Earth, in 1952. Selma could ride its perception of being the year’s most “snubbed” film to “Glory” at the Dolby, to quote the title of the film’s nominated and Golden Globe winning song.
Or not. Is the PGA result really telling us the industry would rather avoid controversial movies, British movies, tiny indie movies and go instead for a film about themselves? That’s Birdman. It’s about many things, but it is very show biz -centric and something clearly the actors branch, and perhaps Sunday night’s SAG ceremony, will really embrace. It would be a fools errand to discount the power of the actors vote, by far the largest branch of the Academy. A one-two punch at the first two major Guild awards could put it in the catbird’s seat. OR open this thing up completely. And don’t forget recent Best Picture winners like Argo and The Artist had strong show biz roots to them as does Birdman which touches both coasts with appeal to Hollywood and Broadway artisans. The last film to do that so completely that won Best Picture is probably 1950’s All About Eve, another Fox product.
When I caught up with him in the Hyatt Century Plaza ballroom lobby right after he made his acceptance speech for the Darryl F. Zanuck Outstanding Producer of Theatrical Motion Pictures, Birdman’s co-writer, co-producer and director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu told me that just 20 hours ago he was on the Calgary set of his new film, The Revenant, and was so tired he found himself nodding off at his table. So when his name was called it was a totally surreal moment. He was clearly energized by it and repeated to me what he said in his speech, that it is a great year for films with individual voices. Clearly those voices are being heard by voters. Inarritu is living a killer schedule with the six month shooting schedule on the uber-ambitious Revenant continuing until after the Oscars through March. He says star Leonardo DiCaprio is truly extraordinary in the film. A publicist working on the film lamented that they wish he could be here more especially as the campaign is heating up. But (directing) duty calls.
Those that didn’t win at the PGA can take heart that the guild’s results are only right some of the time. Last year it was a tie between 12 Years A Slave and Gravity that went neck and neck all the way to the Oscars. But in recent years it has generally hit the nail on the head. Since instituting the top prize in 1989, they have deviated from the ultimate Academy (whose producers they also vet) Best Picture choice six times, most recently in 2006 when they chose Little Miss Sunshine while Oscar went with The Departed. And by the way Inarritu isn’t the only one feeling a little surreal. Whiplash writer/director Damien Chazelle told me his head was spinning just trying to deal with the fact that just a year ago he took his little film to Sundance where he won the Grand Prize. Now here he is at a ritzy Hollywood awards ceremony with an Oscar and PGA nominated Best Picture. Inarritu saw him in the lobby after the show. “Damn, I can’t believe you beat me by 10 days,” he laughed in comparing Birdman’s 29 day shoot to the 19 day production schedule of Whiplash. I wonder how the fact that Boyhood had a 12 year production schedule might figure into this conversation?
With 16 more awards ceremonies of various levels of import to go, this race looks like it is just getting warmed up. And if you are looking to the PGA for clues in other film races like Animated Feature or Documentary Feature, forget about it. Snubbing their nose at Oscar’s nominees, the PGA chose The Lego Movie and the Roger Ebert film Life Itself as the top dogs in those respective categories. Neither got an expected Oscar nomination. In the case of of the latter it was sweet revenge for filmmaker Steve James who has been repeatedly overlooked by the Academy for great films like Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters. He alluded to that slyly when he began his acceptance saying, “I’ve been a member of the Academy seven or eight years. I think I want to join the PGA now.”
My Deadline colleagues already recounted the blow-by-blow of the show itself in our live blog but, though long, I thought it had a number of highlights and was smartly produced, making for a nice effort for the maiden voyage of new PGA Presidents Gary Lucchesi and Lori McCreary (who told me that with 1,400 attendees they more than filled the massive ballroom this year). The idea of interstitial video segments with producing war stories from the likes of Norman Lear (who also presented the Visionary Award to Brad Pitt’s Plan B), Brian Grazer, Mark Johnson, John Lesher, Richard Linklater and others was inspired and often very funny. There were great speeches from honorees, especially Mark Gordon, Gale Anne Hurd and Pitt, who upon accepting that “Visionary” award said “if anyone can tell us how to make a visionary film and not cut our price it would be greatly appreciated.” Jennifer Lawrence stole the show as far as presenters go, with her hilarious stumble through the overlong teleprompter praise of Milestone winner Jon Feltheimer. She saluted him (or rather his “assistant”) for having “great taste” in picking star gifts, and hopes to have a “strong and lasting relationship with Lionsgate until my career dies at 35.” And speaking of presenters , the PGA lineup was crawling with Oscar nominees getting face time in front of a room full of potential voters including J. K Simmons, Edward Norton, Eddie Redmayne, Steve Carell, Common, and Ethan Hawke. Expect to see a lot of them as the Guild banquets keep unfolding and balloting gets closer. It’s a rite of passage for newly minted Oscar nominees.
And one more note. I believe this PGA ceremony will finally be the last hurrah for Breaking Bad, which even though it has been off the air in first runs since September 29, 2013, it somehow still qualified for the Outstanding Drama Series category. Turns out the PGA sticks to the same calendar as the Emmys (June though May) and their eligibility for these awards started in June of ’13 and actually ended way back at the end of May 2014. Even Executive Producer Mark Johnson was a little stunned to be back in the winner’s circle as was star Bryan Cranston, who accepted. “We are so grateful and I’m sure you’re still surprised we are here,” he said.
Enjoy the victory, PGA winners. But tomorrow is another day, another ceremony. I will be live blogging the SAG awards on Deadline Sunday night starting at 5 P.M. PT.