IS BIRDMAN THE NEW OSCAR FAVORITE?

The 87th Academy Awards will take place on Feb. 22, 26 days from today.

 
PGA and SAG
Last weekend, the Producer’s Guild (~ 6,500 members) and the Screen Actors Guild (~120,000 members) gave out their highest awards. And to the surprise of many, they were not given to Boyhood.
 
Birdman won the PGA Award for Best Theatrical Motion Picture on Saturday and followed it up with a SAG Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture the next day. That one-two punch has led the brunt of Oscar prognosticators to consider the film the new favorite to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. (“Birdman’s win…consolidates the Alejandro G. Inarritu film…as the current frontrunner,” writes the Hollywood Reporter. “The win places the Alejandro G. Iñárritu-helmed pic squarely in the frontrunner category for the Best Picture Oscar,” writes Deadline.)
 
It seems a bit surprising that two guild awards are responsible for such a significant perceived change in momentum. But the PGA has been ruthlessly predictive of Oscar success, going seven for seven since No Country for Old Men won in 2007 and 18 for 25 since the PGA Award began. And when PGA and SAG align, the odds are even better: Only two films in history, 1995’s Apollo 13 and 2006’s Little Miss Sunshine, have won both and lost at the Academy Awards. Famously, The Social Network seemed to be gearing up for the Oscar with widespread critical support and a Golden Globe. It then lost the PGA, SAG, DGA and, ultimately, Academy Award. 
 
The race is nowhere near over. There are three reasons to doubt Birdman’s recent surge:
 
First, Oscar voting does not close until Feb. 17. There is plenty of time for the tide to shift back in Boyhood’s favor, and not being the frontrunner can give the film some time to escape criticism and a growing label as a gimmick movie. The potentially more important Director’s Guild award will not be announced until Feb. 7, and Boyhood power at the BAFTAs on Feb. 8 (surprising as Birdman scored double the nominations, but definitely not implausible) may help swing the momentum back in its favor. 
 
Second, Birdman has been underperforming in recent guilds. It lost two awards it really should have won — the Golden Globe and Critics’ Choice award for Best Musical/Comedy Picture — and, given that it was a film with a large cast of actors playing actors, it was always supposed to win SAG. Some people claim that the Best Ensemble award may have done more harm then good. The Daily Beast wrote that “the rambly, slightly masturbatory and scattershot speeches given by the cast of Birdman might not have done the film any favors.”
 
Third, Michael Keaton is falling behind. The expected Oscar favorite lost on Sunday to Eddie Redmayne, who “delivered an articulate, heartfelt speech that seemed to hit all the right notes.” Every SAG acting winner last year repeated at the Oscars and every SAG Best Actor winner since 2003 has taken home the Academy Award on Oscar night. Why does this matter? It shows that even SAG love for the film is not all-encompassing. As Sasha Stone writes, “Michael Keaton did not win the SAG, as Jean DuJardin did for The Artist and Colin Firth for The King’s Speech. While it doesn’t necessarily mean something, it certainly doesn’t mean nothing.  It could mean that the PGA win was kind of a fluke and the actors aren’t as 100% behind Birdman as everyone thought. Or it could mean that Birdman will not be an actor’s showcase for Keaton but rather a director’s showcase for Inarritu.”
 
Regardless, the Best Picture (and Best Actor) races have become far more competitive and leave me with far more dread for Feb. 22. According to Scott Feinberg, “If Boyhood had won the PGA Award, most people would be declaring the best picture Oscar race over; the fact that Birdman bagged that prize doesn’t mean that Boyhood has now lost the Oscar any more than it means that Birdman has now won it, but rather that we may now have a real race on our hands.”
 
The rest of the SAG Awards went as expected — Julianne Moore, J.K. Simmons and Patricia Arquette each took a turn at the podium to practice his or her Oscar speech. (If they don’t win the Academy Award, it would be a huge surprise: According to The Hollywood Reporter, “the only people who have ever won [Critics’ Choice, Golden Globe and SAG awards] and not won an Oscar are Russell Crowe for 2001’s A Beautiful Mind, who may have been hindered by his boorish behavior at the BAFTA Awards; Eddie Murphy for 2006’s Dreamgirls, who may have been hindered by Norbit; and Julie Christie for 2007’s Away From Her, who may have been hindered by her aversion to campaigning.”)
 
The rest of the PGA Awards were less expected — The Lego Movie won Best Animated Picture and Life Itself won Best Documentary. Neither was even nominated in its respective category at the Oscars.
 
Spotlight on Oscar campaigning
With nominations out Jan. 15, we have entered what many call “Phase Two” of the Oscar season, the 34-day span in which nominees try to woo voters to reward them with a 8.5-pound golden statue. It is a month of extensive campaigning governed by many rules to prevent abuse. Films can send no more than one email per week to Academy members, films can no longer serve voters complimentary food and booze and films are limited to four screenings with Q&As.
 
With the need to be more strategic in Phase Two campaigning, “providing a rationale”  behind the film is essential. According to an awards-season specialist interviewed by Entertainment Weekly, “It’s about answering the question ‘Why should this film win?’ It should take voters back to an emotional place, to what they loved about a film enough to have nominated it in the first place.”
 
Harvey Weinstein is the undisputed master of the Oscar campaign. Vulture writes that “through a mix of big schmoozy events, whisper campaigns, and old-school cold-calling, Weinstein has developed a reputation over the last 25 years for getting award nominations. The results speak for themselves, with his films having secured more than 300 Academy Award nominations to date.” I highly recommend reading the article, which details Weinstein campaign tricks since 1990. Staples include political relevancy (My Left Foot actor Daniel Day-Lewis testified in the Senate for the Disability Act and Philomena Lee, the real woman who inspired the Weinsteins’ Philomena, met with senators Claire McCaskill and Chris Murphy to push for making adoption records more easily accessible) and high-profile endorsements (Chocolat earned praise from the Anti-Defamation League and The Reader was well regarded by Elie Wiesel). (Here is an interview where Harvey says he’s really nice now.)
 
Below are some of the campaign strategies/campaign news of films this year. I’m cynical.
 
The Weinstein’s Imitation Game has one of the most preposterously effective PR-moves going on. Last week, Weinstein offered the return of his own British honor — the Commander of the British Empire appointment he was awarded in 2004 — if it could be granted posthumously to the hero of The Imitation Game, Alan Turing. British supporters are gathering 49,000 signatures to push for pardons to 49,000 Brits prosecuted for being homosexual. Chad Griffin, of the Human Rights Campaign, supports the movie. So does comedian Stephen Fry, who insisted that Turing to appear on the back of the next British 10 Pound bank note. Benedict Cumberbatch has also lent his voice to the campaign, writing, “Alan Turing was not only prosecuted, but quite arguably persuaded to end his own life early, by a society who called him a criminal for simply seeking out the love he deserved, as all human beings do. 60 years later, that same government claimed to ‘forgive’ him by pardoning him. I find this deplorable, because Turing’s actions did not warrant forgiveness — theirs did — and the 49,000 other prosecuted men deserve the same.”
 

Selma has one of the most obvious, “Why should this film win?” answers, but the cast and director Ava DuVernay decided to make it as blatant as possible. On the Sunday before Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the cast traveled to Selma and joined a civil rights march. The film was also screened at the White House. “President Obama’s introduction of SELMA in the presidential screening room, the quality time he and the First Lady took with us before and after, the stories he shared with my editor and cinematographer…it was just beyond exquisite,” DuVernay posted on Instagram.

The Grand Budapest Hotel will be re-released to give those who missed it when it came out in March a second chance to see it on the big screen.

Mark Schultz, the man who inspired Foxcatcher and went on a Twitter rant about how much he hated director Bennett Miller, recently changed his tune: “Foxcatcher is a miracle. I’m sorry I said I hated it. I love it. I love my interpretation and will ignore the haters. I’m never getting mad,” he said.

 
Spotlight on Oscar trivia
Entertainment Weekly came out this week with their Oscars viewing guide, featuring “40 pages of bold predictions, surprises and more.” Their predictions weren’t bold (Boyhood, Keaton, Moore, Simmons and Arquette) but they listed fun facts for each nominee that were pretty interesting:
  • Since 1990, 22 war films have been nominated for Best Picture and 6 (27%) have won. The most popular war was WWII (with 13 nominees), but the French Revolution took home one nom, likely for a musical about hearing people sing.
  • Wes Anderson wanted to film The Grand Budapest Hotel in an actual hotel, but after months of research, he couldn’t find one that would be suitable. So his team built the Grand Budapest inside a defunct German department store.
  • Morten Tyldum is the first Norwegian to be nominated for Best Director. Only two Norwegian films have won an Academy Award: Thor Heyerdahl’s documentary feature Kon-Tiki in 1951 and Torill Kove’s animated short The Danish Poet in 2007. (Let’s briefly talk about how the first guy’s name is Thor and the second guy said, “Screw Norway, I’m going to make an animated short about Denmark.”)
  • In the history of the Oscars, 18 Best Actress nominations were for foreign-language roles. There have been two winners — Sophia Loren for Two Women in 1960 and Marion Cotillard for La Vie en Rose in 2007. French is the most popular language, as 8 of the 18 were roles were in French, most recently including Emmanuelle Riva for 2012’s Amour.
  • If he wins, Michael Keaton will be the third Keaton with an Oscar (after Buster and Diane). He’ll also be the third Batman actor to win an Oscar, joining George Clooney and Christian Bale. (EW doesn’t mention it, but the new Batman, Ben Affleck, also has an Oscar.)
  • 52% of Best Actor wins are by first-time nominees. All of this year’s Best Actor nominees have never received a nomination before except for Bradley Cooper, who has gone three for three in the last three years.
  • If he wins, Benedict Cumberbatch will become the fifth Best Actor nominee in history to score an Oscar for playing a gay man.
  • Meryl Streep has been nominated for 53% of the years since 1979.
  • Streep is the first actress to be recognized for playing a witch in the traditional cauldrons-and-cackling sense, though at least two have ridden the supernatural wave to Oscar gold (Julie Andrews for Mary Poppins and Whoopi Goldberg for Ghost).
  • Mark Ruffalo is the third Avengers cast member to have two nominations, as Robert Downey Jr. and Jeremy Renner both have a pair.
 

Spotlight on Norbit
The year is 2007. Eddie Murphy has won the Critics’ Choice, Golden Globe and SAG awards for Best Supporting Actor for his work in Dreamgirls. His next film was less fortunate. Norbit, released Feb. 9, earned a Rotten Tomatoes score of 9% and was considered “a cruel, crass, stereotype-filled comedy that’s more depressing than funny.” In the film, Murphy plays many characters, including “an overweight and mean spirited girl named Rasputia Latimore.” With ubiquitous advertisements for Norbit, Murphy lost any of the respect he gained for Dreamgirls and ultimately lost the Oscar to Little Miss Sunshine’s Alan Arkin.
 
The Hollywood Reporter took a look at the acting frontrunners and examined what could be their Norbits. Patricia Arquette is in CSI: Cyber. J.K. Simmons is in Farmers commercials. Eddie Redmayne is playing a villain in Jupiter Ascending. Julianne Moore is playing a “malevolent witch” in Seventh Son. As none of them are playing overweight, gender-bending, critically panned roles, my guess is that they’re going to be alright.
 
Other news
  • Fake baby: American Sniper has earned north of $200 million and is on track to be one of the highest-grossing films of 2014 and potentially the No. 1 war film of all time. But what has people really talking is the obviously fake baby used in one of the scenes with Bradley Cooper. (I have seen the movie, and I can assure you it is hysterical.) According to American Sniper screenwriter/executive producer Jason Hall, this is how the shooting went: “Real baby #1 showed up with a fever. Real baby #2 was no show. (Clint voice) Gimme the doll, kid.”
  • Into the Woods: At this year’s Artios Awards, which honor casting, Meryl Streep, Christine Baranski and Tracey Ullman showed up to honor director Rob Marshall with an Into the Woods musical parody.
  • Humor: Conan O’Brien poked fun at the lack of Oscar diversity this year. “The Northeast right now is being hit with a major snowstorm,” he said. “Forecasters say people have not seen a white-out like this since last week’s Oscar nominations.”
  • Foreign language intrigue Part I: The Polish Anti-Defamation League is criticizing Polish film Ida for “failing to acknowledge the German occupation of Poland.” Based on personal experience, Poland does not like to think it is at all responsible for the horrors of WWII and likes to pretend that it was always really nice to Jews. According to the article, “the league has started a petition, so far signed by about 36,000 people, asking for the producers to provide contextualizing information at the beginning of the film to make it clear that Poland was under German occupation from 1939 to 1945, and that although hiding Jews was punishable by death, many Poles did so.”
  • Foreign language intrigue Part II: Russians are not happy about their Oscar nominee Leviathan. The country’s minister of culture, Vladimir Medinsky, spoke out against the film. “However much the authors made the characters swear and swig liters of vodka, they are not Russians…There is not a single positive character…What does [the director] love? Golden statuettes and red carpets, that’s pretty clear.”
  • Santa Barbara Film Fest: The SBIFF announced that Whiplash’s Damien Chazelle, Boyhood’s Richard Linklater, Foxcatcher’s Bennett Miller, Citizenfour’s Laura Poitras and The Imitation Game’s Morten Tyldum “will become the Santa Barbara International Film Festival’s first-ever recipients of the fest’s newly-created Outstanding Directors of the Year Award.” Before you get excited, realize that the Santa Barbara Film Fest has given awards to everyone this season. Winners include: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Michael Keaton, Steve Carell, Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette, Jennifer Aniston, Jenny Slate, Logan Lerman, Ellar Coltrane, Chadwick Boseman, Rosamund Pike, J.K. Simmons and David Oyelowo.
  • Eddie and Emma: Eddie Redmayne is having all the fun. Last week, he interviewed Jennifer Lawrence. This week, he and Emma Stone hung out and were interviewed by the New York Times. Apparently Emma Stone made a PowerPoint presentation for her parents when she was 14 asking them to let her move to LA.
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