Success of ‘Birdman’ signals Inarritu’s arrival as film royalty

"Birdman" director Alejandro G. Inarritu
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

The filmmaker Alejandro G. Inarritu was at a creative crossroads several years ago when he decided to make “Birdman,” a story of a man on a similar journey.

On Sunday, Inarritu reached the Hollywood promised land when his film proved the big winner at the Academy Awards. “Birdman”--a visually inventive look at a washed-up movie actor seeking redemption on the Broadway stage--took best picture, director, cinematography and original screenplay prizes at the Dolby Theatre ceremony.

The honors capped Inarritu’s odyssey from arthouse outsider to film-world royalty, and also struck a national blow of sorts. Like last year’s director winner Alfonso Cuaron and repeat cinematography victor Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki, Inarritu was born south of the border.


“I want to dedicate this award for my fellow Mexicans, the ones who live in Mexico,” Inarritu said after his film won best picture. “I pray that we can find and build a government that we deserve.”

Of Mexican immigrants in the U.S., he added, “I pray that they can be treated with the same dignity and respect as the ones who came before and built this incredible immigrant nation.”

FULL COVERAGE: Oscars 2015

Presided over by Neil Patrick Harris and often possessing a political charge, the 87th Oscars saw Academy voters spread the love. Each of the seven movies that lost best picture received at least one award, led by Wes Anderson’s offbeat “The Grand Budapest Hotel’s” four wins, all in technical categories. Damien Chazelle’s music-school drama “Whiplash,” meanwhile, scored three statuettes, including supporting actor for J.K. Simmons as a hard-driving teacher and the prestigious editing prize, an upset over “Boyhood.”

Indeed, the Richard Linklater coming-of-age drama that was a front-runner for much of the season came away with only one prize, for Patricia Arquette’s supporting actress role as a quietly strong mother. Shot over 12 years, the movie was a smash emerging from last year’s Sundance Film Festival and won many critics prizes at the end of 2014, but recently lost momentum.

The night moved along with few surprises until about halfway through, when “Big Hero 6” staged an upset over favorite “How To Train Your Dragon 2” in the animated feature category, proving the durability of movies from Disney-Pixar. The win was the studio’s seventh in the last eight years.


Acting categories largely followed pundits’ forecasts. Actress honors went to Julianne Moore for her role as an Alzheimer’s-afflicted patient in “Still Alice,” a widely predicted result, as was Simmons and Arquette. The lead actor prize for Eddie Redmayne as physicist Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything” was also an expected turn.

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Like other recent best picture winners such as “The Artist,” “Birdman” both focuses on show business personalities and also exists in a stylized world far from the modern political arena.

But while the more topical films were largely shut out of the podium — Clint Eastwood’s Iraq war smash “American Sniper” and Ava DuVernay’s Civil Rights tale “Selma” landed only one award apiece — social issues dominated the evening.

The musicians Common and John Legend, receiving that “Selma” prize for the original song “Glory,” made the most of their moment.

“This bridge was once a landmark of a divided nation, but now it’s a symbol for change,” Common said of the famed Edmund Pettus crossing in Selma, Ala., which is the film’s emotional center. “The sprit of this bridge connects the kid from the South Side of Chicago dreaming of a better life to those in France standing up for their freedom of expression to the people in Hong Kong protesting for democracy.”


Legend added, “‘Selma’ is now because the struggle for justice is right now,” invoking the fact that “there are more black men under correctional control today than were under slavery in 1850.”

Meanwhile, speaking after her Edward Snowden film “Citizenfour” won the prize for documentary, director Laura Poitras noted that Snowden and the movie sought to “expose a threat [not only] to our privacy but to our democracy itself,” as she was flanked by investigative reporter and film subject Glenn Greenwald, as well as Snowden girlfriend Lindsay Mills.

And Arquette, who had shown few political stripes in her numerous acceptance speeches this season, noted the importance of “ecological sanitation [in] the developing world” before finishing with a flourish.

“To every woman who gave birth to every taxpayer and citizen of this nation, we have fought for everybody else’s equal rights,” she said. “It’s our time to have wage equality once and for all and equal rights for women in the United States of America.” The speech prompted a rousing response from the audience, including Meryl Streep, who was seen nearly jumping from her seat pointing in spirited agreement.

Other issues came forward as Moore nodded to her film’s co-director Richard Glatzer, suffering from ALS, while Eddie Redmayne said he was accepting his trophy on behalf of ALS and the Hawking family.

But the podium primarily belonged to “Birdman.”

Shot largely in a Broadway theater over about 25 days in the spring of 2013, the film captured voters’ imagination for its technical achievements. Lubezki devised ways to hide equipment so the camera could spin in a 360-degree manner, while Inarritu disguised cuts to give the impression of one continuous take


The latter factor, which had the effect of playing down the film’s need for editing, helped make “Birdman” the first movie since “Ordinary People” 34 years ago to win best picture without receiving a nomination in the editing category.

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The Oscars were a validation for Inarritu, who emerged strongly on the art-house scene 15 years ago with his foreign-language “Amores Perros” but faltered in recent years. In 2010 he debuted the dour misfire “Biutiful,” which he said was part of what drove him to a state of despair — and, ultimately, to create “Birdman.”

Harris, whose hosting was more wobbly and less well-received than past turns at the helm of the Tony and Emmy awards, offered little in the way of magnetic moments that Ellen DeGeneres’ star-filled selfie or pizza-ordering did at the 2014 ceremony.

Instead, Harris trotted out a number of puns — Snowden couldn’t be there “for some treason” — as well as a bit in which he spoofed “Birdman” and ended up on stage in his underwear.

He also had a long-running gag in which he said he had locked his predictions in a secure box, a conceit that allowed him to open that box at show’s end with some of the ceremony’s highlights--reminiscent of his instant-recap rap at the Tonys several years ago, though with a less enthusiastic reaction in the room.


Harris did get laughs for some of his lines, such as when he said that Benedict Cumberbatch is “not only the most awesome name in show business, it’s also the sound you get when you ask John Travolta to pronounce ‘Ben Affleck.” It was one of several moments that curiously looked back to mock Travolta’s mispronunciation of Idina Menzel’s name last year (including a bit with the personalities themselves).

In contrast to award-show tradition, Harris’ Oscars also spotlighted snubbed performers. “Cake” star Jennifer Aniston and “Selma” actor David Oyelowo, both favorites omitted from the Oscar shortlist, presented together.

And the telecast included several apparent attempts to showcase diversity after Oscar voters were criticized on that score at the time of nominations. There were a number of unexpected presenters seemingly meant to address these issues, including a turn from rival-network star Terrence Howard, while Harris also walked over to Oyelowo and did a segment from the actor’s seat.

“Oh sure, now you like him,” Harris quipped to the room when the crowd applauded upon seeing the Martin Luther King performer stand up.

Inarritu’s presence also brought an injection of color to the proceedings, a subject he addressed playfully.

“I’m the worst English-speaking guy here,” he said as he took the stage after the best picture win. “Maybe next year the government will inflict some immigration rules for the academy.”


Then, alluding to Cuaron, he quipped, “Two Mexicans in a row — that’s suspicious, I guess.”

Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT

Times staff writer Oliver Gettell contributed to this report.