The trifecta of major wins enjoyed by "Birdman" in recent weeks--from producers, actors and directors guilds--would seem to ensure the inevitability of the Alejandro G. Inarritu film as the best picture winner over the early-season frontrunner, Richard Linklater's "Boyhood." A win for "Boyhood" over "Birdman" with even one of those groups might have offered some hope to the coming-of-age drama, lending it a base of support with Oscar voters.
But with the corresponding branches in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences tallying some 2200 members—about one-third of the entire academy—a best picture win for "Birdman" would seem like a very high probability. It's simply too hard to erode that kind of critical mass.
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In fact, you have to return all the way to 1996 to find the last time a film scored the guild hat trick and still lost Oscar best picture. That year, Ron Howard's "Apollo 13" notched wins from producers, actors and directors guilds. But when the big day rolled around, it was Mel Gibson's "Braveheart" that nabbed the top prize.
That example is clearly an anomaly (the seven instances since in which a movie won the guild hat trick it also went on to win best picture). But it's a potentially instructive anomaly. What virtues did "Braveheart" and its campaign possess--or what assets did "Apollo 13" lack--that led the Academy to engage in a bit of guild nullification?
And, more to the point, does "Boyhood" have "Braveheart" characteristics--or does "Birdman" have "Apollo" weaknesses--that would enable that outcome to be repeated? Let's break it down.
The "Braveheart" strengths. One of the film's biggest virtues was that it was a war epic, traditionally a surefire Academy pleaser, even by the relatively modern period of the 1990's. ("Schindler's List" had won two years before, "The English Patient" would win the following year, and even the 1995 winner, "Forrest Gump," was sprawling in scope and dealt heavily with the Vietnam War.) Unless contending with drunk stepfathers is a form of military engagement, "Boyhood" lacks that virtue. It is, however, an epic of a sort, spanning 12 years and covering a wide range of relationships and behaviors. So it has a touch of the "Braveheart."
Then there's the Gibson factor. It's hard to overestimate how much goodwill Gibson had back then. He was a box office star at the top of his game--the "Lethal Weapon" franchise was still going strong--and he was an actor making the transition to directing, rendering him a popular choice among the large constituency of actor Oscar voters, who like to choose one of their own. (Howard of course was a former actor too, but his full-time performing days were a lot further behind him.)
Linklater has neither of these attributes—he's neither an actor nor a box-office star (though purists will fondly recall his winning turns in early work like "Slacker"). He is, like Gibson, a personality who some feel has been undervalued by Oscar voters and a person who some might feel his time has come for a big win. So again, a touch (if only that) of the "Braveheart." (This man-overdue factor should help Linklater in another race, against Inarritu for director, a subject for another post. Incidentally, the writers' guild has been omitted from this analysis because a) there are two prizes, making a win much easier and b) the rules are so restrictive that many contenders are disqualified; in fact this year "Birdman" fell into that category.)
The "Apollo" weaknesses. What brought down "Apollo 13?" Oscar scholars and armchair Academyists remain divided on the question.
There was certainly Oscar fatigue factor when it came to "Apollo," since it came bundled with Tom Hanks, a then-perennial at the ceremony who had won best actor the previous two years. And Howard was still eyed warily by some Academy Awards voters after making his name as a director over the previous decade with commercial movies like "Parenthood," "Cocoon" and "Backdraft." "Birdman," needless to say, doesn't come with any of this baggage.
And then there's the technical aspects. Howard made sure to re-create space travel as accurately as possible but traditional below-the-line skills like makeup and costumes paled when compared to "Braveheart." That meant that when it came time for these below-the-line members to vote—and two-thirds of the academy indeed aren't actors, producers or directors--they chose "Braveheart" over "Apollo."
Does a similar constituency exist for "Boyhood"? Surely the 12-year shooting period has earned it some admirers among some technical branches. But it appears as if the edge would go to "Birdman" in this case--it was a film that showcased the skills, often flashily, in a variety of below-the-line departments (that was underscored on Sunday when "Birdman's" Emmanuel "Chivo" Lubezki took the prize from the cinematography guild). That means "Birdman" could actually pick up votes among these voters rather than lose them, as "Apollo" did.
"Boyhood" campaigners underscore its top film win at the BAFTA's, a group with comparatively few members in the academy that nonetheless, Linklaterites point out, has prefigured Oscar's best picture winner six years running.
"Boyhood" supporters also point out that it's been a quarter-century since a movie ("Ordinary People") won without an editing nomination--"Birdman" indeed lacks one--though this may be a slightly misleading metric given that "Birdman," as a film designed to look as if it was shot in just a few takes, actively avoids courting favor for its editing.
Maybe most critical—and the factor "Boyhood" voters cling to most—is that the voting system was changed after all those post-"Braveheart" years in which no film could overcome the guild trifecta. In 2010, the expansion of best picture beyond five nominees meant that AMPAS members would no longer be casting an up and down vote but instead rank films, which are then counted in a complicated tabulation known as preferential voting. The method privileges a film that amasses many second and third place votes but comparatively few first-place votes over movies that score the inverse. In short, it's better to be liked by a lot than loved by a few.
Whether that system benefits "Boyhood" or "Birdman" is up for debate. Linklater supporters. at least, argue that they hold a potentially result-changing advantage because "Birdman" is the more polarizing movie, while "Boyhood" is the movie that's more broadly liked. Ask "Birdman" supporters, though, and they'll say that assumption is simply not true.
In any event, the new system has done nothing to undermine the power of the guild trifecta. Even in the preferential-voting era, the two movies that swept top prizes at the actor, director and producer guilds--"The King's Speech" in 2011 and "Argo" in 2013--also went on to win best picture.
It may, then, come down to a different playbook--the Linklater team will have to pull a Gibson and "Braveheart" the competition. "Boyhood" took 12 years to produce. To land the film world's top honor it will need to repeat a feat that hasn't been achieved in much longer.