The lead-up to the 87th Academy Awards ceremony on Sunday reflects more uncertainty than usual for Hollywood’s biggest night of the year.
Many of the top categories like best picture (“Boyhood” vs. “Birdman” vs. “American Sniper”), director (Richard Linklater vs. Alejandro G. Inarritu) and lead actor (Eddie Redmayne vs. Michael Keaton vs. Bradley Cooper) are still considered open races, where anything can happen after the envelopes are pried open.
On what is forecast to be a rainy afternoon in Los Angeles, security at the Dolby Theatre is expected to be heightened as a result of the recent Sony Picture hack, which led to a flood of embarrassing emails between executives to be made public.
Neil Patrick Harris, who is hosting the Oscars for the first time, may find himself presiding over a more serious awards show given the grim background of world events, such as ISIS, the Charlie Hebdo attacks and the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, following the death of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown shot by a police officer.
Some of the nominees this year embody recent political tensions. “Selma,” which is up for best picture, tells the story of the 1965 civil rights marches. Its song “Glory,” which will be performed by John Legend and Common, has been playing at protests around the country as part of the “Black Lives Matter” movement. But the Academy has been facing criticism for not nominating the film’s lead actor (David Oyelowo) or director (Ava DuVernay)— this year’s Oscars are the first time in nearly 20 years when all the acting nominees are white.
The top-grossing movie at this year’s ceremony is “American Sniper,” Clint Eastwood’s drama about Navy SEAL Chris Kyle that has struck a chord in both red and blue states, amassing more than $300 million at the domestic box office. The likely winner in the best documentary category is “Citizenfour,” which tells the story of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.
Throughout history, the Oscars — which started shortly before the Great Depression in 1928 — have often reflected the current mood of the times. Some of the films that were nominated and won best picture during George W. Bush’s presidency (“The Departed,” “No Country for Old Men,” etc.) were bleaker than those awarded during Obama’s first term (“Slumdog Millionaire,” “The King’s Speech,” “The Artist”), when Hollywood had bought into the idea of political hope and change.
“Birdman,” which tied Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel” with nine nominations, speaks to the Academy because it’s a story about Hollywood against the backdrop of economic struggle. The comedy about a washed-up actor (played by Michael Keaton) trying to resurrect his career — and not understanding Twitter — is relatable to many in the industry as movie stars continue to disappear and box office drops (down 5% in 2014). “Birdman” has picked up momentum heading into the Oscars best picture race after winning the SAG ensemble, the DGA and the PGA.
But Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood,” which took 12 years to make, also recognizes the need for innovative filmmaking in an industry that’s now dominated by reboots and sequels. It could benefit from the Academy’s preferential ballot, which rewards movies that are widely liked as opposed to passionately loved by a smaller bloc of voters.
In the lead actor race, the frontrunner is Eddie Redmayne for playing physicist Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything,” but he’s up against strong competition from Keaton (“Birdman”) and Cooper (“American Sniper’s” star, who enters this year’s Oscars ceremony with his third consecutive acting nomination).
The other acting categories might be easier to call. In the supporting races, both Patricia Arquette (“Boyhood”) and J.K. Simmons (“Whiplash”) have landed nearly every precursor award. Julianne Moore, who has been nominated for five Academy Awards, is expected to win her first Oscar for playing a woman with early onset Alzheimer’s in “Still Alice.”