(By the end of this post, I will have issued a defence of the Academy, and suggested that 12 Years A Slave should not have won Best Picture in 2014. Gird yourselves.)
What’s a major social event without the inevitable backlash? The outrage du jour is over the big Oscar night had by the film Birdman, which took home the Academy Awards for best picture, best directing, best cinematography and best original screenplay. “The Academy’s failure to recognize Boyhood is their worst mistake in 20 years,” complained Slate within minutes of the Best Picture going to Birdman, animating bubbling social-media fury over the film’s big win and indicating that Slate seems to have forgotten the eye-roll it was giving the Internet-fuelled rage machine when it released its mocking Year of Outrage in December.
Okay. So some people liked Birdman less than Boyhood. That’s an argument totally worth having. But even if you predicted the Academy would give the Best Picture award to Boyhood instead of Birdman—and this author was someone who did, relentlessly, ever since the Golden Globes—no one should be truly surprised that it won.
Here’s why: The Academy is making up for last year’s mistake. That’s nothing new; the Oscars are often a belated recognition of a lifetime’s achievements. Look no further than Julianne Moore finally becoming an Oscar winner, despite finer performances in her past; see also Martin Scorsese winning best director for The Departed, and not for any of his epochal classics. If you can’t get behind the reality that the Academy is like a basketball referee—blowing the whistle only to regret it and giving a make-up call later—then you should get out of the pool.
The mistake I refer to is last year’s Best Picture award, which went to 12 Years A Slave and not to Gravity. It baffled me at the time, and I stand by this bafflement: Gravity, if we recall, was a thinly plotted movie that, when viewed with the technology of our time, from 3-D glasses and massive IMAX cinemas, left you literally breathless. It was an immersive, stunning, amusement-park experience that was profoundly memorable if you saw it at an IMAX theatre, and not much to write home about if you watched it, say, on your laptop at home, or on DVD. In other words, Gravity was a true, full-hearted reminder of why people go to the cineplex, the very principle that the Oscars are designed to fete most of all; every year, there’s even a presentation to that effect.
Some may take umbrage at the suggestion that 12 Years A Slave should not have won Best Picture—that’s certainly true, given the rank bias in the Academy corps:94 per cent of its voters are white, 76 per cent are men, and are an average age of 63, according to The Atlantic—the same percentage of people who somehow didn’t recognize director Ava DuVernay or leading man David Oyelowo, despite their incredible work on the excellent Selma. 12 Years A Slave’s 2014 victory was a well-earned coup, but it sticks in the craw of the Academy’s typical self-narrative. But if 12 Years was merely a very strong movie with an important message, Gravity was the decade’s ultimate expression of the magic of film and all its possibilities. Birdman‘s win, then, was simply the Academy deciding it did, after all, want to celebrate what’s good and great and thrilling about acting and filmmaking—only a year after the best, less overt expression of that was snubbed. Anyone who is surprised by that hasn’t been watching the Oscars long enough.
And then, let’s take critics’ longstanding call for more Oscars diversity to its logical conclusion: that we want more in our winners. Great. So why are we so critical of the still-excellent movie directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, one of the more crystalline voices in American cinema, a director who just happens to be of Mexican descent? Of greater note, of course, should be Sean Penn’s needless crack about Iñárritu when he announced Birdman as the Best Picture (“Who gave this son of a bitch his green card?”); even if they were friends, having worked together on the film 21 Grams together, it was a deeply sour remark. Of a deeply white clutch of Best Picture nominees—other than Selma, whose loss seemed written in the stars—why are we so furious that the second-most diverse one ended up winning?
A wiser person once said that anyone watching an awards show expecting to get their way should watch children’s programming instead. That’s especially true of the Oscars: Where else do you more often find lists that feature critics picking who will win, but with the caveat of who they think should actually win? But what an incredible thing that even those who got their way, at least in the matter of diversity, ended up dissatisfied. Truly, these are the days of wanton outrage.