Critics Debate the Best and Worst of the Oscars

Oscars Birdman Wins Best Picture

Three Variety critics agree to disagree about Oscar winners and losers both onscreen and on the Dolby stage.

PETER DEBRUGE: Last year, the Academy made a statement in giving the best picture award to “12 Years a Slave.” This time around, over the course of a spread-the-wealth evening, it was the winners’ turn to speak their minds, and they did so in force, using Hollywood’s prom as a podium to demand equal rights — for women (“Boyhood’s” only winner, Patricia Arquette), for African-Americans (Common and John Legend, accepting “Selma’s” only win), for gays and misfits (“The Imitation Game” writer Graham Moore, urging young viewers to “stay weird, stay different” as he collected the film’s lone statue), for those with disabilities (both Julianne Moore and Eddie Redmayne turned the spotlight on talents who achieved while coping with ALS), and for immigrants (Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, offering a plea on behalf of his fellow Mexicans while accepting the night’s top prize for “Birdman”).

Samuel Goldwyn once decreed, “Pictures are for entertainment, messages should be delivered by Western Union,” but there’s no question that the Oscars have turned political, which begs the question: What does “Birdman” stand for? Yes, the film’s win reflects the Academy’s affection for stories about the industry itself, but here — unlike the glory of “Argo” or the nostalgia of “The Artist” — the view is a distinctly critical one, as if written with the same poisoned pen as “All About Eve” and “Sunset Blvd.” (which went head-to-head back in 1951), but filmed with a virtuosity never before possible. The message, as I see it, is that artists should never settle.

This year, there were three comicbook movies nominated for Oscars: “Guardians of the Galaxy,” “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and “X-Men: Days of Future Past.” A mock-angry Jack Black got up during the opening number and railed against them, singing, “All we get is superheroes … Sequel-Man, Prequel-Man, formulaic scripts!” And guess what? Despite bland host Neil Patrick Harris’ mock offense, it seems a huge chunk of the Academy shares his disgust. A vote for “Birdman” was a vote against superhero blandness, a call for originality in the face of sequel fever, a demonstration of the medium’s ongoing power to surprise — and a cause that I can get behind.

JUSTIN CHANG: It’s one I could get behind too, Peter, if “Birdman” were a better movie — if it had even a scintilla of the suave wit evinced by those 1950 classics you mention, or if it had gone about attacking its targets in less crudely scattershot fashion. That bludgeoning aspect is, of course, part of its appeal for some — it’s a big, brassy, bull-in-a-china-shop kind of movie, and to continue the evening’s unusually generous strain of testicular humor, I suppose that on some level you have to admire Inarritu’s cojones. But a movie that rages against the machine the loudest isn’t automatically the worthiest advocate for its position, and I can’t applaud the triumph of “Birdman” when there were so many other pictures — “Boyhood” not least among them — that found vastly subtler, more artful and moving ways to stand up for originality and oppose Hollywood’s assembly-line mentality. To quote the unimprovable words of Grantland’s Mark Harris, “Birdman” is “a movie about someone who hopes to create something as good as ‘Boyhood.’ ”

We’ll have to agree to disagree on this one, which is fine and not exactly a surprise at this point: I don’t share your high opinion of Inarritu’s film, you don’t echo my love for Linklater’s, and griping about the Academy’s taste is perhaps, to quote the sadly Oscar-less “Foxcatcher,” “a low sport.” But a movie like “Boyhood” — one that touches so many rich dimensions of emotion and lived human experience while quietly advancing our sense of what the medium is capable of — comes along much more rarely than just once every 12 years. And rather than feting that achievement — or, for that matter, the richly transporting pleasures of “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” or the urgency and political anger of “Selma” — the Academy opted to bestow its highest honor on a superficially critical yet highly flattering mirror image. That strikes me as less a statement of the industry’s principles than an emblem of its failure.

Speaking of “Selma,” I take some consolation in the fact that Ava DuVernay’s film, which never achieved the traction it deserved this season, nevertheless achieved the night’s most remarkable moment — John Legend and Common’s performance of their deserving original-song winner “Glory,” staged and sung with such spare gravity and raw lyric power that it brought a teary-eyed audience spontaneously to its feet. It was a heroic, even redemptive highlight of an otherwise rickety evening where, in a reversal of the norm, the musical performances (including Lady Gaga’s transformative tribute to Julie Andrews and “The Sound of Music”) provided some of the telecast’s more bearable moments. Certainly they offered a welcome respite from the flat comedic stylings of the usually terrific Neil Patrick Harris — who, even when he wasn’t treating Octavia Spencer like the help for the sake of a mirthless gag, sadly proved that not even a consummate awards-show host can overcome writing this embarrassingly subpar.

SCOTT FOUNDAS: “Argo” and “The Artist” weren’t the only recent precursors pointing in the direction of a “Birdman” win. So too did “The King’s Speech,” the true hero of which, let’s not forget, was an amateur Australian actor (Geoffrey Rush) who becomes a de facto drama coach for Colin Firth’s King George VI, at the moment when the growing popularity of radio was forcing politicians to become performers. And can we really be surprised that the Academy — a group composed predominately of actors — is seduced by movies that flatter their chosen profession? “Birdman” may be tough on an industry that repeatedly sacrifices art at the altar of commerce (especially in the comic-book-tentpole era), but it’s also a movie head over heels in love with actors, the risks they take, and the pieces of their own souls they sometimes bare under the guise of performance.

There’s something else, less quantifiable, that I think may have given “Birdman” the edge. As the nearly identical parody segments at both the Oscars and the Spirit Awards indicated, “Birdman” is a movie that already feels iconic. The dressing-room levitation; the constantly moving camera; the unyielding jazz drum score; the backstage wrestling; the tighty-whitie march through Times Square — these are moments that will live on in Oscar-night montages (of which there were mercifully few this year) and lifetime-achievement tribute reels for decades to come. And while this kind of indelibility may not be the ultimate mark of a movie’s greatness, it’s the kind of thing that can nudge a voter one way or the other when marking that final ballot.

In any case, I’m glad a movie won that might benefit in an appreciable way from the attention. There’s been so much hand-wringing in the press about the fact that both “Birdman” and “Boyhood” (and, for that matter, pretty much every major nominee this year that wasn’t “American Sniper”) failed to make major waves at the box office, and that this in turn would lead to a low-rated Oscar broadcast. But even in an off year, the Oscars are watched by upwards of a billion people worldwide, which isn’t too shabby, and certainly a major platform for movies that haven’t benefited from the ginormous advertising budgets that accompany most major-studio releases. That seems to me a reason for celebration rather than hemming and hawing over whether or not the mythical “average moviegoer” in flyover America has or ever will see the movies in question. To quote one famous best picture nominee, “If you build it, they will come,” a sentiment I’d argue applies to art as well as baseball.

Peter, you pointed out the political dimension of the ceremony itself, which certainly isn’t anything new. From Marlon Brando’s infamous proxy acceptance speech delivered by a Native American rights activist calling herself Sacheen Littlefeather (nee Marie Louise Cruz) to Michael Moore’s vitriolic anti-Bush ravings onstage in 2003, the Oscars have long courted their share of controversy — and with precedents like those, you can be sure the Academy and their advertisers break out in a sweat the minute any winner starts to go off script. What set apart the speeches by Arquette, John Legend, Common and the two Moores was that they spoke to significant social issues in a way that didn’t feel the least bit self-serving, and which enlivened a ceremony that was otherwise agonizingly staid. Indeed, the winners seemed far freer to speak their minds than host Neil Patrick Harris, who was fatally hemmed in by writers unwilling to go out on even the sturdiest of limbs, lest an elaborate joke backfire or an A-list celebrity’s ego get bruised. Such concerns thankfully failed to deter past hosts Chris Rock, David Letterman and the master, Billy Crystal (who actually got away with quite a lot behind his gently pleasing facade). But well before Harris walked out on stage with his barely concealed manhood in full public view, it was clear that, in every other respect, he’d been neutered.

DEBRUGE: It’s worth pointing out that the other hosts you mention were all comics, whereas Harris was merely playing one onstage, something he winked at after his opening number, by delivering the scripted line, “That whole thing? Completely improvised!” Disappointing as his hosting duties were, Harris gave a far better performance last night than he did in either of his 2014 bigscreen roles, as a “Gone Girl” obsessive or “A Million Ways to Die in the West” hat-pooper, tricking many into thinking that the evening was more extemporaneous than it was — not that the Academy’s like to award him for it anytime soon.

Actors like performances that make acting look hard. I disagree with those who insist that “Still Alice” was among Julianne Moore’s “easiest” roles and cherish how relatable she managed to make the Alzheimer’s experience. Patricia Arquette’s been great many times before (hearing the “True Romance” score in the Samsung commercial merely reminded me as much), but never more casually relatable than she is in “Boyhood.” That said, technical difficulty surely goes a long way to explain how Eddie Redmayne managed to steal the Oscar from Michael Keaton, who fooled us into thinking he was playing himself in “Birdman.” As Harris can attest, there’s an art to making a well-rehearsed routine look improvised, which is yet another of the things I admire about “Birdman” — and perhaps the reason that Justin and others have pointed out that the experience isn’t quite the same on second viewing. I’m of split minds as to whether that matters, since the film is a magic trick so intriguing you can’t help looking for the strings.

“Boyhood” is altogether different. As with many of Linklater’s films, I suspect everything was carefully planned and scripted in advance, but the performances are so natural and the style so loose that I can never be entirely sure. Much has been made about the novelty of shooting the film over 12 years. That’s an incredible achievement to be sure, both in terms of commitment (for the financiers/producers as much as the cast and crew) and sheer workload. Many were stunned that the film didn’t win best editing, a prize that instead went to “Whiplash,” which not only sustains white-knuckle tension for every scene of its 107-minute running time, but finds and foregrounds the two great performances at its core, aiding J.K. Simmons to his well-deserved supporting actor win.

At nearly three hours, “Boyhood” is a more wandering experience — and deliberately so — though I’m never entirely sure why Linklater checks in with his characters at the moments that he does, and I’m unclear whether it was a great idea to edit the film year-by-year, as opposed to identifying the takes to use and assembling it at the end, the way Polish director Hanna Polak did “Something Better to Come,” a fascinating 14-year portrait of a young woman who grows up in a landfill outside Moscow. That longterm approach is relatively common in documentary filmmaking, which isn’t to take away from the value of seeing characters age on film, but it might explain why the story behind the film has captivated me less than it has those who feel the 12-year commitment somehow entitled “Boyhood” to more wins. Those who think the film “lost” on Sunday night are missing the point. It’s not the Academy responsibility to mirror the public’s taste any more than it’s ours to agree with theirs — or maybe that’s the unexpected virtue of ignorance talking.

FOUNDAS: With all this talk of popularity versus award-worthiness, it’s worth remembering that when the Oscars were first handed out, way back in 1929, there were actually two different best picture statuettes: one, the official “best picture” award as we know it today, went to William Wellman’s WWI action-romance “Wings”; the other, called “best picture, unique and artistic production” went to “Sunrise,” the gloriously expressionistic melodrama by German emigre director F.W. Murnau that remains, arguably, one of the most unique and artistic movies ever made in Hollywood. Had this bifurcated best picture system continued, it’s intriguing to imagine how Oscar history might have differed. Would Jean-Luc Godard have snagged a nomination this year for his indisputably “unique and artistic” experiment “Goodbye to Language,” a movie many critics (including myself) ranked among the year’s very best?

Well, like the Avignon Papacy, such things were not meant to be, and, for the 80-odd years since, movies unique, artistic and otherwise have had to fight it out in the same ring — one that has expanded and contracted in size over the decades as the Academy has tinkered with the precise number of best picture candidates: first five, then 10, then five again, then 10, and now a floating number between five and 10. What’s next, decimals? The latest expansion of the best picture category was supposed to make room for more meat-and-potatoes movies of the sort John and Jane Q. Public of the heartland embrace over the artsy fartsy fare favored by coastal liberals (the supposed “Dark Knight” rule). Only, it hasn’t quite worked out that way: the last two mega-blockbusters to win best picture, “Titanic” and “Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” did so in years when the category was still at five nominees, while recent years have seen a proliferation of smaller films (like “The Tree of Life,” “Nebraska,” “A Serious Man,” “Winter’s Bone,” et al.) earning nominations, not bigger ones.

Still, what are pundits really talking about when they say a movie like “Birdman” or “Boyhood” wasn’t seen by “most” people? With the U.S. population now hovering around 320 million, only a movie selling 160 million tickets (which, at the current average ticket price of roughly $8, would mean a domestic gross in excess of $1 billion) could truly claim to be seen by “most” people. And in historical terms, only a select few films can lay claim to anything of the sort: “Gone with the Wind,” “E.T.,” “Star Wars” and, of course, “The Sound of Music,” which helps to explain why that execrable bit of museum-piece moviemaking from the inglorious end of Hollywood’s golden age of musicals was handed such a lavish 50th anniversary tribute last night. Despite its enormous and enduring popularity, “The Sound of Music” seemed fusty and antiquated even in 1965, when American cinema was already starting to quake with the bold new voices (Cassavetes, Lumet, Peckinpah, Penn) who would lead the charge into the “New Hollywood” cinema of the ‘70s. And on some level, it seemed last night, the Academy has never quite recovered from that seismic shift.

Justin, you called Lady Gaga’s “Sound of Music” medley “transformative,” and I think that speaks to exactly what I found wrong with it. Anyone who’s been paying attention to Gaga since she first appeared on the scene knows that she’s a classically trained musician with serious credentials on her resume (including early admission to the competitive CAP21 program at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts). And unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past year, you know about her hit album of duets (and accompanying sold-out concert tour) with the legendary Tony Bennett. But it seemed last night as if the Academy really thought it was showing us a side of Gaga that we’ve never seen before — a touch of, “Hey, we know she’s got a lot of tattoos and weird stage antics, but she’s really just a nice Italian girl with a  golden voice.” Gaga killed it at the Oscars, that’s for sure, but if that came as a revelation to anyone, I doubt they were under the age of 70.

CHANG: I suppose this is the point at which I must drop my supercilious highbrow veneer and confess that — while I can’t contradict a word of your formulation against it, Scott — I adore every twinkly, treacly minute of “The Sound of Music,” much like the 320 million or so other Americans for whom it was basically the entertainment equivalent of mother’s milk. Indefensible as filmmaking, perhaps, but enduring for reasons that clearly transcend taste, it’s a picture that Pauline Kael, Judith Crist and other critics of the day tore to shreds with a vitriolic abandon that makes even some of the harsher notices for “Birdman” seem warm and generous by comparison — and there’s little question that the Academy’s choice of Inarritu’s film will hold up better with time, even if it’s scarcely the best choice they could have made.

All of which points to the futility, perhaps, of trying to impose something so subjective as one’s own taste on these proceedings. Certainly I’m not suggesting, Peter, that the Academy has any obligation to reflect public opinion in its choices — only that it would be nice if they reflected something other than their own concerns once in a while. (When they do — as in the case of “The Hurt Locker” and “12 Years a Slave,” the two finest best-picture winners of recent vintage — the results can be exemplary.) If voters were inclined to follow the tide of public opinion, of course, they would have bypassed the small commercial potatoes of “Birdman” and “Boyhood” altogether and thrown their weight behind that $300 million juggernaut “American Sniper” — which, admittedly, would have struck me as an altogether preferable outcome.

And perhaps a few others as well. Late into Oscar weekend, some prognosticators were going out on a limb and suggested that “Sniper’s” commercial supremacy and cultural profile might give it an unexpected edge for best picture, or that three-time nominee Bradley Cooper might squeeze his way past Eddie Redmayne and Michael Keaton in the actor race. Or that “Whiplash,” clearly one of the most passionately beloved underdogs of the evening, might wind up staging the night’s final shocker. But in the end, it all played out much more simply and predictably than anyone expected, suggesting that the need to inject suspense and uncertainty into the Oscar race is a burden that weighs far more heavily on media types than on Academy voters themselves.

“Birdman’s” wins for picture and director mirrored its victories with the PGA and the DGA, perhaps permanently laying to rest any temptation to second-guess the guilds in future. “Boyhood,” a film that some of us dared to hope might prevail on the strength of the organization’s more discerning factions, instead joins the worthy recent company of “Brokeback Mountain,” “Letters From Iwo Jima,” “Black Swan,” “The Social Network,” “Amour” and “Zero Dark Thirty” in that immortal category of also-rans that will outclass the actual winners for years to come (starting right about, oh, now). And Mr. Harris? He may have crashed and burned more spectacularly than Riggan Thompson on Broadway last night, but if you can take anything away from “Birdman” — and by you, of course, I’m addressing that insular, self-infatuated showbiz universe with which the Academy mainly concerns itself nowadays — it’s that everyone’s next resurrection is waiting just around the corner.