Off the Carpet: Unexpected virtue at the 87th Oscars

Posted by · 12:51 pm · February 23rd, 2015

The fact is I think Alan Sepinwall's review said it perfectly, right there in the headline, really. The 87th Oscars was a memorable event despite itself. A number of touching speeches and human moments on the Dolby Theater stage mostly mitigated some tone deaf writing, late-night-level jokes and an overall flatly produced show that started off so promisingly with an inspired opening number. It was, within that, a rather fitting and organic end to an unusual film awards season. And of course it ended on a note of PC outrage. Who would expect less in this day and age?

A number of socio-political statements were made by the evening's winners and none of them rang a false note. It was like the sincerity of significance was clawing past the show's need to go viral or something (thematically interesting to me given what's being studied in the Best Picture victor). Common or John Legend or Graham Moore or Patricia Arquette would register a meaningful and noble use of their air time and Neil Patrick Harris would be there to bat clean-up with a balls joke on the heels of suicide talk. High brow/low brow, right down to the damn telecast. Fascinating.

I do think we learned a couple of things, given the outcome. We learned that the British Academy's paradigm shift to the entire membership voting in the final round for every category (rather than branch-specific) has potentially eroded whatever suspense was left for the Oscars at this stage. Across the pond, “surprise” Oscar wins were presaged in the categories of Best Film Editing, Best Sound and Best Original Score. The membership crossover is what it is but at the end of the day, it's a significant voting pool made up of industry, i.e. like, minds. They don't vote for Best Picture with a preferential ballot and of course the categories of Best Director and Best Original Screenplay went their own way within the American Academy, but it's an interesting note nevertheless.

We also learned, as we ever do, that they can't see you coming. The spotlight needs to burn hot on something else, generally speaking. “Boyhood” came rolling into the second phase of the season with a full head of steam, emboldened by critics' awards dominance. It's hard to be the underdog under those circumstances, and that was always going to be the film's best play. But by the time the Oscar nominations were announced, that angle was simply no longer available.

So who's fault is that? I don't think it's as simple as that, really. But I do think the overall noise that makes up the “precursor circuit” has gotten so loud that it can have a negative impact. Not every film can survive as “the one” for so long like “The Hurt Locker” or “The Artist.” And the former arguably needed “Avatar” to be in the race as a wave to bounce off of throughout. I guess the point I'm more or less trying to make is that a film awards season contains multitudes, and if you join a chorus in anointing one of them too early (and “too early” stretches as late as the start of phase two, really), you're setting it up for defeat.

I went 20/24 on predictions, which I understand is good enough for tops among the punditry. But it seems like there is bound to be plenty of 20-plusers out there among you this year. Lots of different combinations in guessing these things could have been tested out.

The only true surprise of the evening was “Big Hero 6” zipping past “How to Train Your Dragon 2” in the final lap. I was, to be perfectly honest, a bit livid. But I'm passionate about this DreamWorks franchise because I think it represents the best of what the studio can be, as well as the direction they should be pointing creatively. So I wanted that recognized. (“Dragon” director Dean DeBlois, I should say, was delighted for Don Hall and Chris Williams when I saw him at the Fox after party. He, producer Bonnie Arnold, lead animator Simon Otto – they're all just happy the season is over so they can focus on bringing the trilogy to a meaningful close.)

In addition to the “Big Hero” blindside, I missed documentary short (expecting the artfulness of “Joanna” to push past the emotional procedural of “Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1”) and the two “Whiplash” wins that the BAFTAs hinted at: Best Film Editing and Best Sound Mixing.

Speaking of “Whiplash,” that film won three Oscars. Three Oscars! That's just sensational, and it's interesting that it became the Sundance 2014 standard bearer rather than “Boyhood” in the final analysis. It was a popular movie all year long and it was picking up new supporters all the way until the end. That adapted screenplay race may have been a true squeaker, and really, I couldn't be happier for Damien Chazelle, whose career is sure to just soar from here.

Emmanuel LubezkiThe Fox after party I mentioned was lively, dejected also-rans and jovial winners enjoying the end of the ride, desperately holding Monday at bay. Best Original Score winner Alexandre Desplat broke into a little celebratory dance. Michael Keaton slapped me a high five, still soaking it all in six months after “Birdman” first dropped in Venice. The “Grand Budapest” design winners represented Wes Anderson's film with pride. Emmanuel Lubezki snapped photos with friends and colleagues, humbled still after winning this recognition two years in a row.

But spirits are obviously going to be high at the winning team's shindig. Every time I turned around, there was someone clutching an Oscar. Fox Searchlight just owned it this year, leading the way in nominations with “Birdman” and “Grand Budapest,” and again with wins Sunday night – four apiece. They're cruising at this point, and given that it's one of the classiest games in town, you'll find very few who aren't happy for the mini-major and its success these last two years.

I circled the room a few more times, feeling the season slowly tick to a close. I congratulated Alejandro González Iñárritu on his way out, a member of an exclusive club with guys like Billy Wilder and Francis Ford Coppola who seized three Oscars in one night. I nibbled on a few more hors d'oeuvres and said some final goodbyes.

Then, it started raining again. I glimpsed Keaton scrambling to his car, quickly communicating the next move with his publicist. He slid out of sigh,t into the back seat of a sedan. The door closed, and suddenly – poof – it was over.

Next year will bring its own set of unique circumstances and, no doubt, its own bevy of talking points. González Iñárritu will be back, this time with Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy in tow. Richard Linklater, too. Joseph Gordon-Levitt will face off against himself in two high-profile biopics at the end of the year. Sundance gems will attempt to weather the storm like “Boyhood” and “Whiplash.” Steven Spielberg and Quentin Tarantino will be back after a couple years away from the circuit. Jonathan Demme and Gus Van Sant will have offerings. And Guillermo del Toro will try and insinuate genre into the discussion like his good friends González Iñárritu and Alfonso Cuarón have done with comedy and science fiction the last two years.

But that will be then. This is now. And now – once more, with feeling – it's over.

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