The Oscars matter insofar as without them, fewer people would have seen or at least have the privilege to consciously ignore small, human-sized movies like Boyhood, Whiplash and Still Alice. Or so the thinking goes; a world where works of art are not pitted against each other in competition, where the long months of campaigning and op-ed defaming makes each final victory feel more than a little pyrrhic, could very well be more egalitarian and receptive to intimate, intrinsic artistry — but that is not the world in which we live.
For better or worse, Sunday’s 87th Academy Awards reflected the conflicted state of things in America today, with every forward-pushing acceptance speech tempered by a nostalgic spectacle or tone-deaf joke. There was, as per usual, no lack of self-congratulation.
Birdman fits the Best Picture profile, given the film’s insular regard for itself, which aligns perfectly with the Academy’s. Along with other recent winners The Artist and Argo, it offered Hollywood the chance to stop, light a smoke and think, “Aren’t we great?” The ceremony’s low points belabored this self-love, stretching the broadcast’s runtime to the longest in eight years, while the brightest moments shined past any one film or celebrity to illuminate, as only an awards show can, a myriad of political issues.
The low points, I am sorry to say, almost always involved the affable, seemingly perfect host, Neil Patrick Harris. He started strong with a song and dance number that ran through movie history and brought Into the Woods star Anna Kendrick on stage for harmonies. A cynical Jack Black jumped on stage to rant, in his own singsongy way, about the omnipresence of superheroes, “formulaic scripts” and, reaching for his smartphone, “screens in our jeans” in movie culture today, to much applause.
Without such an irascible counterpoint for the rest of the show, Harris struck a tone at once overly chipper and flippant. For the whole show, Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer had to go along with a gag where Harris locked his “predictions” in a box that, when revealed, proved how the whole show is predictable, scripted or just ill suited to three-hour joke set-ups. His banter punned on Reese Witherspoon’s name or the furry ball dress of Dana Perry, just after the Best Documentary Short Subject winner opened up about her son’s suicide. His Birdman/Whiplash parody, where he took the stage in tighty whities to Miles Teller’s accompaniment on drums, displayed his most obvious assets without hiding, at least to awards season addicts like me, that Fred Armisen and Kristen Bell made the same joke at the Independent Spirit Awards the night before.
What this show never fails to deliver are the moments of unscripted awkward that, against all the micromanaged rehearsals leading up to it, scramble the evening’s gloss. I should disclose that the so-called disasters, like John Travolta’s garbling of Idina Menzel as “Adele Dazeem” last year, are my favorite parts of any live broadcast — anyone who follows up how embarrassing Travolta was with the decree that “he should never be up there again!” is no fun. Thankfully the show’s producers are fun, and reunited Menzel with Travolta, who after being introduced as “Glom Gazingo” petted the Frozen singer’s cheek as if he were Romeo.
It was the creepiest, most GIF-ready snippet of the night, though equally weird was when Terrence Howard took the stage to introduce Whiplash, The Imitation Game and Selma. Midway through, he paused to say, “Our next film … is amazing. I’m blown away myself right now,” before reading the synopsis not to Selma, but The Imitation Game. Drunk off emotion or some other drug, Howard could barely convey his enthusiasm for the other injustice-themed also-ran in the Best Picture race and not the good one. It felt like anything could have happened during his minute on stage; Imagine if Travolta just wandered, out of focus, in the background.
While Tegan & Sara, The Lonely Island, Questlove, Mark Mothersbaugh and Will Arnett hit peak goofiness during The LEGO Movie’s “Everything Is Awesome,” it was John Legend and Common’s performance of “Glory,” from Selma, that provided the moral center for the night. With lyrics evoking both the march to Montgomery and the Ferguson protests and a grand backdrop of Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, “Glory” struck a chord with the audience, bringing star David Oyelowo and Chris Pine to tears. It’s easy to be cynical about such emotional displays at awards shows, but the way Legend brought Dolby Theatre and viewing parties across America to silence during his final solo cut through all the noise to contemplate the seemingly irreconcilable divide that exists in our country, the Academy most certainly included, to this day. Lady Gaga’s Sound of Music medley, though impressive, felt too sweetly nostalgic after such a conscious musical statement
When “Glory” rightly won Best Original Song after, Common and Legend were one of many to unashamedly marry thank-yous with impassioned political statements. Common pleaded for equality and freedom of expression via mention of the Charlie Hebdo and Hong Kong protests, while Legend stressed the disproportionate amount of incarcerated black men in prison. Best Documentary winner Laura Poitras, with her Edward Snowden-starring Citizenfour, urged awareness of the surveillance state, while Patricia Arquette, who won Best Supporting Actress for Boyhood, stumped for gender equality as Meryl Streep, flanked by a cheering Jennifer Lopez, pointed and hollered in approval. Graham Moore, Best Adapted Screenplay winner for The Imitation Game, seized everyone’s breath as he confessed to attempting suicide 18 years ago. He followed this harrowing anecdote with the hope that his presence on stage will inspire those younger than him, who feel like they do not belong, to “stay weird” and “stay different.” It was a powerful speech.
The thing about Graham Moore winning, though, is that he wrote an awful script. “Sometimes it is the people who no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine,” is a line The Imitation Game trailer holds dear and the movie itself repeats, out of the conviction that historical characters speak as if composing their memoirs. Share that quote on the Dolby stage, however, and it naturally, indisputably belongs. The Oscars so rarely award real art because they, themselves, are not art, and they don’t need to be. The most memorable moments are inspirational, rousing and morally good. Great movies are rarely any of those things, and never all three at once, but “the movies,” the mystique of Hollywood that the Academy and theater chains sell, is, always.
It is that feeling of uplift, if oh so fleeting, that jettisons Eddie Redmayne’s light track record and The Theory of Everything’s deadness from my mind when he took the stage for Best Actor. His youth, his recent marriage and his humility made for an infectiously adorable speech, which filled the room I watched from with high-pitched “Awww”s. Julianne Moore deserved Best Actress not just for her work in Still Alice but for her unparalleled career, yet her speech was what we wanted to hear for its focus on love, family and community. The work itself has no hold on the rapture of the Oscar moment — before all the lights and cameras, only gratitude, conviction and a manageable dose of human weakness thrive.
Birdman’s second-half sweep — in Best Cinematography, Original Screenplay, Directing and Picture — introduced the manic, musky humor of the film into the speeches, which did not vibe well with the prevailing Oscar ethos. I have already expressed my unfavorable opinion of the winning film, which I think is little more than clever. Boyhood and The Grand Budapest Hotel were the rare masterpieces to actually make it into Best Picture consideration, which makes their loss more painful, since cinephiles more often than not revere their favorites in closet-sized shrines, without much notice from the outer, louder world.
But Alejandro González Iñárritu, Birdman’s director, said something that resonated with me during his acceptance speech, which went as follows: “Ego loves competition, because for someone to win, someone has to lose. But the paradox is true art, true individual expression, as all the work of these incredible fellow filmmakers, can’t be compared, can’t be labeled, can’t be defeated, because they exist, and our work will be judged, as always, by time.” I can’t say I think his film, with its Justin Bieber references and inexplicable gender politics, will survive that ultimate test, but I thank him for taming that ego this awards season has fed so well, for just a moment, to remind us of the absurdity of this whole artless enterprise.
This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun.