Patricia Arquette and Ellar Coltrane in a scene from the film,”Boyhood.” Arquette is nominated for an Oscar for best supporting actress for her role in the film, which has eight nominations, including best picture. AP/IFC Films photo.
The best picture race in the 87th Academy Awards, we are told, has come down to two movies: Boyhood, Richard Linklater’s 12-year-project to tell the story of adolescence through a cast all aging together through the course of the movie, and Birdman, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s meditation on celebrity, art and relevance focused on a one-time blockbuster actor trying to gain “legitimacy” on the Broadway stage.
Both of these are brilliant movies in their own ways.
In Boyhood, Linklater — a favorite director of my generation for movies such as SubUrbia (1996), Dazed and Confused (1993), School of Rock (2003) and the Before … romantic-comedy trilogy with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy — has pulled off an astonishing feat, crafting a movie over the course of 12 years with the same cast and beautifully natural progression of story and time. (It is a recurring theme with Linklater, also seen in a different way in the Before trilogy.)
It is easy to get caught up in the gimmick of Boyhood, looking for the points where we jump a year, usually in the hairstyles of leading man Mason (Ellar Coltrane) and his mom Olivia (Patricia Arquette). But in the course of two hours and 45 minutes, we get drawn into this life, and this astonishingly natural film. It starts to hit you that major, dramatic turning points you expect to happen don’t, like when Mason’s girlfriend shows him a picture on her phone while he’s driving, shortly after his dad (Ethan Hawke) has lectured him about distracted driving, and he doesn’t get in a huge wreck when he looks up. There are warning signs that do come to fruition, like when Olivia’s second husband’s drinking turns him abusive and violent. But the outcome is simply the domestic drama of a woman regaining her family and trying to put her life back together. The drama was in living, not in the dramatic moments.
This really hits home watching Mason’s high school graduation party, as millionaire movie stars like Hawke and Arquette portrayed regular folks celebrating one of life’s important passages in a simple middle-class, single-parent home. Shooting 12 years may have been the gimmick, but coming up with something incredibly real was the result.
Birdman, on the other hand, only has a tangential tie to reality. Riggan Thompson is a former star of a superhero film franchise played by Michael Keaton, the former real-life star of a superhero franchise: Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992). Riggan is haunted by his superhero alter ego and seems to possess superhuman powers to mentally command objects to move and, later, fly. Or does he?
While he goes through the career-validating task of trying to mount a Broadway production of his adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story, which he also directs and acts in, he is criticized by the Birdman who he imagines talks to him, and he doesn’t get much more validation from co-stars, critics or even his own daughter, brilliantly played by Emma Stone. At one point tells him, “You’re doing this because you’re scared to death, like the rest of us, that you don’t matter. And you know what? You’re right. You don’t. It’s not important. You’re not important. Get used to it.”
It’s a pretty fierce, brutally honest scene, particularly for a character who has depended on his sense of importance for validation. And if you contemplate issues of art and its relevance, the impact of culture, it is quite interesting. It is also an engrossing story of what will ultimately happen to Riggan, who becomes increasingly unhinged as the movie goes along. It is little surprise it’s resonated with Hollywood talent, who have honored the movie at recent fetes such as the Screen Actors Guild Awards and Producer’s Guild.
And it stands a good chance of taking home the Oscar for best picture, though just a month ago, Boyhood was considered the frontrunner.
Here’s what will doom Boyhood: It’s way too normal for Hollywood mythmakers.
One thing that exemplified this for me was a Hollywood Reporter “Brutally Honest Ballot” by an anonymous female voter who said she would give Arquette best supporting actress in part because she didn’t have any cosmetic surgery done in the 12 years she made the film, aging from 33 to 45.
“Patricia Arquette probably was sorry she agreed to let them film her age over 12 years,” the member of the Academy’s public relations branch said, adding later, “It’s a bravery reward. It says, ‘You’re braver than me. You didn’t touch your face for 12 years. Way to freakin’ go!'”
Honey, that’s how most of us go. We age. We are wrinklier and lumpier than we were a dozen years ago. Only in cosmetically fixated culture like Hollywood would aging into your 40s without getting “work” done qualify as an act of bravery.
And that’s why I think Birdman will beat Boyhood. Academy voters probably won’t get Boyhood the way a lot of viewers did. But exploring the cultural legacy of your work portraying a superhero? Right in the Academy’s wheelhouse. And it has a showy brilliance with the extended shots, blends of fantasy and reality and explosive performances, particularly from Edward Norton. It’s also something else the Academy loves: A movie about movies, as evidenced by recent best picture wins for Argo and The Artist.
Boyhood’s brilliance is much more subtle, but no less astonishing. It broke so many rules and blazed so many trails, all while staying rooted in its Texas locale. Watching that journey in just under three hours exemplified how, in a few incredibly short years, the core history of lives are written. I can think of few other movies that brought me such an awareness of myself and my loved ones.
That’s why it should win, but it won’t. Will win: Birdman.
While I’m at it, a quick trip through other categories:
Best Actor: In the only truly competitive acting category, we have another tight race between Michael Keaton’s tortured movie star in Birdman and Eddie Redmayne as young Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything. As much as the Academy likes movies about movies, it likes actors playing historic characters and characters with disabilities even more. Will win: Eddie Redmayne.
Best Actress: Julianne Moore is a five-time nominee Oscar is dying to send home with some gold. It will this year for her performance in Still Alice as a brilliant woman slipping into early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Will win: Julianne Moore.
Best Supporting Actor: J.K. Simmons scary drum teacher in Whiplash breaks him out of anonymous character actor land and into the Oscar-winning actor club.
Best Supporting Actress: No, this is not for avoiding plastic surgery for 12 years. Geeze. It’s for being the heart of a 12-year project and playing a mom a lot of us recognize. Will win: Patricia Arquette.
Best Director: I’m seeing more sentimental than practical fingers pointing toward Linklater. Iñárritu is getting a lot of love for brilliance. But I just get the feeling (and hope) voters will honor a director with the brilliance to pursue a crazy plan, and the talent to pull it off beautifully. Will win: Richard Linklater.