The Oscars 2015: For the Birds

Alejandro González Iñárritu accepts the Best Picture prize for “Birdman,” surrounded by the film’s cast and crew.Birdmania sweeps Hollywood. “Birdman” won four awards, and big ones, at Sunday’s Oscars—Best Picture; Best Director, for ‎Alejandro González Iñárritu; Best Original Screenplay; and Best Cinematography. As I suspected, “Boyhood” peaked early. (Its sole award went to Patricia Arquette, for Best Supporting Actress.) Shot over twelve years, Richard Linklater’s movie, though sanctimonious about its virtuous youth and family values, is still the slightly better film. The director’s perceptions are finer and subtler, his sense of milieu truer, his compositions both more precise and more relaxed. Linklater sees; Iñárritu shows.

Fear seemed to be the main factor in the planning and staging of the evening’s safe and turgid ceremonies. The host, Neil Patrick Harris, is a smart and breezy actor, but not a gifted improviser—not a comedian. He’s an amiable presence who poses little danger that he’ll depart from the script. When he hits a dud in the text (and the filtered-out safety of the script leaves little else), he brushes bravely past it like a trouper. The Oscars still haven’t recovered from the Brett Ratner fiasco: in November, 2011, he was rightly pressed to resign as the show’s producer after using a vile epithet in public. But his chosen host for the 2012 ceremonies, Eddie Murphy, soon left, too, and the role hasn’t been satisfactorily filled since. (I’m a fan of Ellen DeGeneres, but she seemed cautious last year.)

Music fills the void left by the absence of humor. Common and John Legend righteously brought the house down with “Glory,” from “Selma,” and when they later won for Best Original Song, their speeches, with references to Charlie Hebdo and Hong Kong, as well as to the threat to voting rights here and the gross injustice of the mass incarceration of black Americans, were high points of the evening. And Lady Gaga—whose talent has, to my mind, always exceeded her public image of flamboyant showmanship—made “The Sound of Music” sound, well, like music.

The fulsome and ridiculously misplaced tribute to that insignificant musical, which absurdly won five Oscars, including for Best Picture and Best Director, highlights a contrasting and notable trend: in recent years, some good movies have actually found their way to major nominations, and even some awards. “The Grand Budapest Hotel” took four awards, too, for Production Design, Costume Design, Makeup, and Original Score. Seeing Wes Anderson in the house and hearing the winners in these categories give him well-deserved thanks is a rather amazing experience: there’s no more original, audacious, or authentically profound filmmaker working anywhere near Hollywood. (Only Terrence Malick comes close.) The very fact that he and his film turned up at the Oscars to applause is a sign of great progress.

In other regards, there’s a lot of progress needed. The near-shutout of “Selma” took place, to begin with, in the nominations (most egregiously, I think, for it screenplay and Best Actor). And, in the big question of the evening—whether Best Picture would go to “Boy…” or to “… man”—it was all the more evident that none of the Best Picture nominees was centered on a woman. (This is how Julianne Moore’s strong performance in a trivial film won her Best Actress.) Given that most of the movies in contention are independent films (and, for those who doubt it, compare the Oscars to Saturday’s Independent Spirit Awards—they’re almost exactly congruent), there’s a desperate need for the independent financiers behind the core of today’s more ambitious and personal movies to expand the reach of the projects that they seek and develop.

I’m much more emotionally invested in the World Series, because its outcome actually reflects the performance of the teams in competition. But, after the last out, the slate is wiped clean and all thirty teams start the next season with equal chances. The Oscars, by contrast, diverge drastically from the actual consideration of merit, both in the short-term eyes of enthusiasts and in the long span of movie history. Yet the Academy Awards matter greatly because of the boost that they’re likely to give careers. It’s as if the teams that make the playoffs start the next season with some extra wins on the books or a few more draft picks. In that respect, this year’s awards are of mitigated merit. There’s nothing comparable to Martin Scorsese’s award for “The Departed” to spark anticipation—unless the four “Grand Budapest” prizes will prove a moral victory.