Politics took center stage at the 87th Academy Awards on Sunday, as winners and presenters used the widely watched telecast to draw attention to everything from civil rights to whistleblowing.
It was also a very good night for “Birdman,” which beat out its chief competitor “Boyhood” for best picture, director, original screenplay and cinematography honors, tying with “The Grand Budapest Hotel” with a leading four wins. The backstage comedy was clearly embraced by Oscar voters, although it remains little seen by the general public. With domestic ticket sales of less than $40 million, it ranks as the lowest-earning Best Picture winner since 2009’s “The Hurt Locker” and one of the lowest-grossing recipients in the past 40 years. It’s also an unlikely winner in that it takes on Hollywood’s comic book movie fixation with its portrait of a superhero franchise star desperate to hang up the cowl, daring to poke fun at the film industry’s most successful genre.
If “Birdman’s” victory represents a triumph of art over commerce, it owes a great deal to the collapse of “Boyhood.” Richard Linklater’s 12-years-in-the-making coming of age film had been viewed as the front-runner, but stumbled at the Producers and Directors Guild awards. The film only managed to win a supporting actress statue for Patricia Arquette, getting shut out in five of its six nominations.
“Birdman” director Alejandro G. Inarritu was a three-time victor, earning statues for producing and writing his satire of Hollywood’s superhero obsession. He embraced the politically charged atmosphere in his Best Picture acceptance speech. Referencing the politics unrest in his native Mexico, Inarritu said, “I pray that we can find and build a government that we deserve.” He also offered a message for anti-immigration factions in the United States, urging them to treat immigrants with “…the same dignity and respect as the ones that came before and built this incredible immigrant nation.”
Keaton couldn’t prevail in the Best Actor race, however, losing to “Theory of Everything’s” Eddie Redmayne for his portrayal of theoretical physicist and ALS sufferer Stephen Hawking.
“I’m fully aware that I’m a lucky, lucky man,” said Redmayne, before noting that the award “belongs to all of the people around the world battling ALS.”
Julianne Moore earned an Oscar for playing a woman struggling with early onset Alzheimer’s in “Still Alice” — her first statue after four previous nominations. Like Redmayne she also spoke passionately about the disease at the center of her film and the people who are afflicted with the illness.
“So many people with this disease feel isolated and marginalized…people with Alzheimer’s deserve to be seen,” Moore said.
“Boyhood’s” Patricia Arquette and “Whiplash’s” J.K. Simmons scored supporting actor honors, winning for their performances as a single mother and a demanding jazz instructor.
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” scored in key technical categories, earning a leading four Oscars for costume design, production design, score and for achievement in makeup and hairstyling. “Whiplash” ranked as the second most-honored picture, nabbing best sound mixing and film editing Oscars, in addition to the award for Simmons.
Most victors used their speeches for more than a litany of thank you’s to agents and spouses. In his best adapted screenplay acceptance speech, Graham Moore, the writer of “The Imitation Game,” offered a message of hope for teenagers struggling to fit in, revealing that he tried to kill himself as a depressed adolescent.
“Stay weird, stay different,” he said.
Arquette also had a polemical moment, delivering a rallying cry to women in the workplace that was in keeping with the character she played in “Boyhood’s” struggles to balance raising children with her professional growth and achievement.
“We have fought for everybody else’s equal rights,” she said. “It’s our time to have wage equality once and for all, and equal rights for women in the United States of America.”
Not every speech was a piece of agitprop. Inarritu did offer a moment of levity in a ceremony that was often somber in tone.
The Mexican director said he had a lucky charm.
“I am wearing the real Michael Keaton tighty whities,” he told the crowd, a reference to a scene where the “Birdman” star runs through Times Square in his underwear.
In fact, tight underwear was a theme of sorts during the night. Host Neil Patrick Harris also copped Keaton’s look at one point in the show, walking across stage in his briefs.
It had been expected to be a politically-charged broadcast given the hack attack at Sony Pictures and the snub of “Selma” in many major categories. Host Neil Patrick Harris didn’t disappoint, kicking off the evening with a reference to the controversy that has dogged the Oscars due to the lack of people of color nominated for acting, directing or screenwriting.
“Tonight we honor Hollywood’s best and whitest…sorry brightest,” joked Harris.
It was a criticism that did not go unanswered. Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences President Cheryl Boone Isaacs addressed the need for diversity in film, pairing it with a plea for freedom of expression that brought to mind the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo and the cyber assault on Sony Pictures over the release of “The Interview.”
Isaacs said that the group behind the Oscars had “a responsibility to ensure that no one’s voice is silenced by threats,” while calling cinema a “universal language.”
Best song winners John Legend and Common, recognized their work on the civil rights anthem “Glory” from “Selma,” used their acceptance speech to draw attention to issues of importance to the African-American community.
“There are more black men under correctional control than there were under slavery,” said Legend.
The evening’s political bent extended to the best documentary category with “Citizenfour,” a look at Edward Snowden’s exposure of the NSA’s widespread domestic surveillance program, taking home the award despite the fact that popular opinion is widely divided over whether or not the film’s subject is a hero or a traitor.
In her acceptance speech, director Laura Poitras thanked Snowden for his courage in coming forward and also paid tribute to whistleblowers everywhere.
Snowden returned her praise. In a statement released via the American Civil Liberties Union, the NSA whistleblower said, “My hope is that this award will encourage more people to see the film and be inspired by its message that ordinary citizens, working together, can change the world.”
There were also a few detours away from incendiary topics, including a tribute to “The Sound of Music” featuring Lady Gaga, in honor of its 50th anniversary.
“Big Hero 6” was the evening’s big animated film winner. The Disney hit won Best Animated Feature, while “Feast,” a 3D romantic comedy that debuted in theaters with “Big Hero 6,” won Best Animated Short. “The Lego Movie” had been expected to be the animated feature victor, but a strange thing happened on the way from prognostication to nomination — the picture failed to score a nod. Harris alluded to the snub shortly before the category’s winner was called, advising anyone with an arm’s reach of the team behind “The Lego Movie” to distract them.
Polish drama “Ida” scored a best foreign language film statue. Director Paweł Pawlikowski noted that his film about a woman on the verge of becoming a Catholic nun dramatizes the virtues of quiet contemplation — something in contrast to the sturm und drang of an awards show.
Hotlines received attention in the shorts categories. “The Phone Call,” a 20-minute drama about a woman (Sally Hawkins) working in a crisis center helpline, nabbed a Best Live Action Short honor, while “Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1,” a look at the Department of Veterans Affairs’ 24-hour call center for servicemen and women, earned a Best Documentary Short statue.
It marked Harris’ first time hosting the Academy Awards, although he has had ample opportunities to practice, having previously emceed the Emmys and Tonys. The opening of the show also took advantage of the “How I Met Your Mother” star’s prowess as a song-and-dance man, pairing him with Anna Kendrick and Jack Black in a musical ode to movies, with a few references to the likes of “Fifty Shades of Grey” and the threats posed by digital technology.
Harris also poked fun at the low-grossing Best Picture nominees, joking that “American Sniper” with its $300 million-plus haul was the “Oprah” among a sea of also-runs. This year’s contenders for the top prize are the weakest in terms of ticket sales since Best Picture expanded from five to a possible ten nominees.
“American Sniper” had to settle for box office success. The biopic about Navy SEAL Chris Kyle was largely shut out. Despite receiving six nominations, it only took home an award for sound editing.
The telecast was a somewhat awkward dance between tradition and the digital future that threatens to upend the entertainment business. The backdrop of the stage at the Dolby Theater was outfitted to look like a classic movie theater, complete with red-hatted ushers opening doors for presenters. At the same time, there seemed to be an urge to acknowledge that the old way of seeing movies is changing. Harris spiced up his jokes with references to social media, Black sang about people watching films on their smartphones and the red carpet coverage leading up to the big event was filled with ABC News reporters gushing about various fashion moments exploding on Twitter and Facebook.
Even the red carpet itself became a forum for political statements, with the hashtag #AskHerMore being embraced by stars and fans alike as part of a push for reporters to query actresses about more than the dresses they were wearing. The message took on a life of its own after “Wild” nominee Reese Witherspoon shared the hashtag on Instagram.
“This is a movement to say we’re more than just our dresses. It’s great, the dresses are beautiful, we love the artists who make these clothes,” she told ABC’s Robin Roberts.
The show’s producers also invited John Travolta back to present the award for best song, along with Idina Menzel, the “Frozen” star whose name he mangled at last year’s telecast, inspiring the meme “Adele Dazeem.” A play, it seemed, at creating another viral moment.
Instead the most tweet-able moments came from the winners themselves. Each statement of political belief found itself endorsed, shared, digested or disagreed with in the space of 140 characters and a few clicks of the cursor.