About Last Night

It happens every Oscar night: The winner in one of the acting categories professes undying love and admiration for his or her nominated colleagues, usually with some reference to the “incredible journey” (or something similar) that they’ve all been through. This year it fell to Julianne Moore when she accepted her award for Still Alice, and while a gracious gesture, it also underscored the nature of the race this late in the game. All involved have basically been shadowing one  another in an endless stream of interviews, promotional tours and oher representational duties for months now, giving ample time to get to know each other, and to get a little dismayed of the entire process. You have to campaign for an Oscar, or else you don’t even get nominated.

This iron law illustrates that Hollywood, and the Academy, loves to be treated to narratives of its own importance. It doesn’t matter if its cynical and scathing, so long as in some sense it confirms the industry’s belief in itself, either by accepting some gentle mockery, or through a more traditional, hagiographic approach. Birdman, the satirical comedy/drama from newly minted Oscar winner Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, belongs firmly in the former camp, but in an act of satisfied self-flagellation it was showered with prizes near the end of a night that ended on a disappointing, if not downright depressing note for supporters of its main rival for Best Director and Best Picture, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. That is, people like me.

If I shall try to be diplomatic, my disappointment stems more from the mostly unrecognized strengths of Boyhood than any deep-seated disdain for Birdman. It’s fine, I guess. But over time I have come to realize that the type of satire that Birdman offers generally leaves me cold. Inarritu’s film is the work of a cinematic virtuoso (aided by DP Emmanuel Lubezki), but I never connected with its somewhat insular view of Hollywood power play. I had huge problems with the final scene, and since I often like my movies with a little touch of humanist sincerity, I was frustrated by Birdman‘s commitment to turning every scene into comedy. There are promising opportunities for a more existential examination of the anger, insecurity and eagerness for recognition that drives Michael Keaton’s (extratextually rich) character, as in the scene where he talks to a manifest version of his signature role, but it’s repeatedly squandered. Finally seeing it for the first time just a few weeks ago, I felt that Robert Altman’s neo classical Hollywood satire, The Player (1992), struggled with some of the same pitfalls of self-congratulatory insincerity. Often something is missing for me. Call it warmth, or characters with a genuine wish to improve themselves. I didn’t find it in Birdman. Unlike the perspective in Boyhood, which expanded my understanding of what it means to be a person in the world, Birdman seems to have been made specifically for the particular masochistic subset of people that are the makers and takers in Hollywood.

It must be said that, however much the evening ended on a sour note, I found several awards that made me happy. I haven’t seen Still Alice, but I was nevertheless deeply moved and glad for Julianne Moore, who had deserved several other Oscars in previous years. Since few critics seemsto have raved about Alice, it could be a good place to start with the dilemma of great performances in “bad” movies. In my opinion both Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything) and Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game) are much better their movies would suggest. In cases like these, I try, to the best of my ability, to isolate the performanes from the movies they appear in. Still, while it didn’t hurt my appreciation of Redmayne’s performance, and a sense of satisfaction he when bested Michael Keaton in the Actor category, I had to remind myself of it at every turn. An older example of the same phenomenon is Meryl Streep in the otherwise deeply flawed Iron Lady, or Kate Winslet winning for her performance in The Reader.

Elsewhere, Patricia Arquette, for so long an underappeciated character actress, finally got some recognition, and the Academy helped shine a massive spotlight on Damien Chazelle’s pulse-pounding Whiplash, a drama about artistic ambition done with more precision and infinitely less self-satisfaction than Birdman. JK Simmons’s performance highlighted the importance of timing in dramatic roles, and I was ecstatic when it nabbed the prize for sound editing.

The screenplay categories were a disappointment. While it was not my favorite in either category, Birdman to me is better directed than it is written, and I would have liked to see Original Screenplay go to Boyhood, or secondarily to The Grand Budapest Hotel. Even in a weak year for Adapted Screenplay, I don’t think The Imitation Game deserved to win. Its shameless adjustment of factual events to the dramaturgical needs of the movie is one thing, but mostly I found it to be too reliant on exposition. In the end I agree with the Pop Culture Happy Hour crew that The Imitation Game‘s gravest flaw is that it couldn’t make up its mind about what story it wanted to tell. Here you have a tech revolutionary, a rational winner of wars and a man brutally abused by a system of intolerance and homophobia, but the script never convincingly told any of these stories.

I’m tired, and the wounds from last night are still raw, but I to have remind myself once again not to take this show too seriously. I instinctively agree with Dan Kois over on Slate that the Boyhood snub is a generational travesty in Oscar history, but I am confident it that will do little damage to that movie’s long-term gravitas. I’ve recovered from disappointment before. Just excuse me for a couple of minutes, while I memorialize Boyhood‘s near-successful quest for gold by playing this song for the umpteenth time.

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