REVIEW: 87th Academy Awards Show Proves More Moving than its Winners

87th Academy Awards

Common and John Legend perform Oscar winning song “Glory”

Last night should have felt terrible, at least for me. I saw the filmmakers behind two of my favorite nominees, Boyhood and The Grand Budapest Hotel, go home empty-handed while Alejandro G. Innaritu took home three wins. I suspect Innaritu will continue to bolster himself in the Oscar season for similarly audacious works, but worry that Wes Anderson and Richard Linklater, more sensitively acquired tastes, may have seen their chances for recognition vanish. I saw perhaps the least deserving nominees win in Animated Feature, Adapted Screenplay and Original Song (though I think “Glory” slightly better than “Grateful”). And, naturally, my hopes that my favorite horse in the Best Picture race would surprise with a win again dissipated.

And yet I quickly found myself nestling into a politely neutral position on the evening, thanks to a number of surprising factors. It helps that I was spending time with friends at an elegant Oscar party that had, amongst other confections, Mendls’ Courtesan au Chocolat. What I hope made it a nourishing a night for everyone, though, is the brisk, non-indulgent pace of the show and the many surprising moments made possible not by performance set-pieces, but by the winners’ time in the spotlight.

Julianne Moore, OscarsWe saw the groundwork being laid out early, as Pawel Pawlikowski took the stage for Best Foreign Language Film, my heart soaring for him and how Ida has, one hopes, helped him out of a tough period in his life. As he approached the end of his speech and the music started rushing him off-stage, I was in shock because I knew he was scrambling to thank his late wife. The control room figures that out all too late, and that embarrassment lingers. Alone, it might have just been a slight hiccup in the evening, but paired with a similar incident, with one of Documentary Short winner Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1‘s directors speaking up about her son’s suicide and demanding we find the space to talk about it in our own lives, it became a warning signal for them not to interfere with what would prove to be a night of politically and emotionally charged moments.

It’s those moments, often, that took the distaste off some of the more questionable wins. Graham Moore gave credibility to his Imitation Game screenplay win by giving a speech that was better than the entire film. Eddie Redmayne and Julianne Moore used their wins as a chance to talk about the illness’ they helped depict, with Moore doing double-duty for Alzheimers and ALS, because she’s such a wonderful over-achiever. And Patricia Arquette used her Supporting Actress speech as a chance to demand equal pay and treatment for women, something she also subtly depicted in Boyhood. I mean, she did kind of ruin it backstage by backsliding on other issues, implying that women’s rights are more important right now that LGBT and black rights. If the night proved anything, it’s that no one issue is most important.

Evidently the issue that everyone walked into the night with was disparity of racial treatment, and while the ending credits song “Glory” was the least commendable thing about Selma, it allowed John Legend and Common to speak up for an issue that needs to be increasingly established in the public conversation. It was night where so many people took the opportunity to speak up for important issues, though, as Nick Davis noted on twitter:

Their time on stage in front of millions of viewers is an opportunity, and for it to work we have to actually act on it. Moreover, we have to find room to act on all of them. That’s what a diverse awards show show should engender.

87th Academy AwardsFor Neil Patrick Harris’ part, he did it a brisk, amusing job of holding up a slightly subversive atmosphere, mostly with a stream of very amusing bad jokes. Not all the jokes landed, but his affable charm kept things bristling along nicely. Most hosts tend to make jabs at the Academy’s failures, but I think it was especially piercing this year for how visible those failures were. The weight of a nomination has rarely meant more, and occasional glances to David Oyelowo, Jennifer Aniston and The LEGO Movie embellish that. It felt like a night made to further an ideological shift, and it was perhaps the first time the questionable attempt to appeal to a younger demographic felt earned.

The show’s production values were also fairly exemplary. That wasn’t so noticeable in the mellow “Lost Stars”, “I’m Not Gonna Miss You” and “Grateful” numbers. It was the film’s grand, lively opening number, “Glory”‘s undeniably powerhouse presentation, and most especially the ecstatic, manic presentation of “Everything is Awesome!!!” that kept the pulse racing. The Sound of Music tribute, too, was a lovely way of slowing things down, even if it was an inopportune moment in the show.

87th Academy AwardsBut, meriting that I had a very good time throughout the evening, it was still an awards show, and the wins weren’t always the most liberating. Sometimes they very much were, like with Alexandre Desplat finally winning for one of his more exceptional, bouncy and energetic scores, and not for the typical inspirational drudgery of Imitation Game. The documentary win for Citizenfour feels pretty incredible, and is a testament to how solid voters’ morals are in comparison to those of their government officials. And yeah, it give me joy to see Julianne Moore finally win, her commendation being long belabored in spite putting out incredible work for the past 20 years.

What gives me pause about the Academy’s choices? For one, the aforementioned absence of Richard Linklater and Wes Anderson from the winners, though you could say that the many craft wins for Grand Budapest Hotel are as much of a testament to the craft Anderson enables as any. Linklater deserved more acknowledgment for the incredible act of devotion that Boyhood involved, something Patricia Arquette was rewarded for, but wouldn’t have been possible without him. The way the Academy dispersed the winners meant that every film nominated for Best Picture took home something, and yet it felt sour for such principal players to be passed over to give Alejandro G. Innaritu another trophy. And then another.

Alejandro G. Innaritu, OscarsI suppose the only other win I’m kind of ornery about is Big Hero 6 for Animated Feature, by a significant margin the least rousing of the nominees. It felt like they were again striving to honor a Pixar film, even with no Pixar film present. To this moment, the only wins to diverge significantly from the mainstream Pixar model are Spirited Away in 2003 and, arguably, Wallace and Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit in 2006. Happy Feet, Rango, Frozen and Big Hero 6 all fulfill the same family-friendly emotions, though you could arguably say that Happy Feet and Rango diverge from the mold in semi-distinct ways. But hey, this is the cost you pay for not nominating The LEGO Movie.

The Oscar is still largely a predictable machine, and by the end of the season its ability to please and surprise is often lessened, if not totally diluted. And yet this year saw Craig Zadan and Neil Meron finally construct a show that’s as functional and breezy as they could possibly make. They’ve got to go, making room for less tired, repetitive and cheap producers, but they could’ve had a worse note to go out on – not that they’re the reason this show worked half as well as it did. Even if you can only expect as much from the Academy as your average comic book franchise, they sometimes luck out in surprising ways, as the acceptance speeches speak to. Not wholly satisfying ways, but enough to make the season feel somewhat worthwhile and not totally embittered.

87th Academy AwardsA few spare notes:

  • When Terrence Howard said “the next movie… is truly incredible”, who else immediately thought Selma and was surprised/disappointed to see him talk about The Imitation Game?
  • I really dug the craft category slide, but it speaks volumes that Maleificent was the only costume design slide without an actual costume. And that Guardians of the Galaxy was the only makeup slide not to change at all because of its color monotone.
  • The Indie Spirit Awards did the Birdman/Whiplash crossover better. An easy joke I expected them to make, but the indie beat of Fred Armisen and Kristen Bell’s riff had more spark and enthusiasm.
  • Was creeped the hell out by John Travolta’s weird face touching of Idina Menzel – haven’t you done enough, John? – but I’m happy Neil Patrick Harris cut off that awkward moment at the pass before the end.
  • “Who gave this son-of-a-bitch his green card?” – The Gunman star Sean Penn – yeah, that’s how we’re playing this – gets his Kanye West moment, but worst? The joke or jab question had me genuinely uncertain at that moment.
  • My final Oscar tally was 16/24 correct (as per usual), which was still enough at my Oscar party to win me a VIP pass for the local Monadnock International Film Festival. We’re winners in passable mediocrity, Birdman and I.

Full list of winners (correct predictions in green; incorrect in red):

  • Best Picture: Birdman (predicted Boyhood)
  • Best Director: Alejandro G. Innaritu, Birdman (predicted Richard Linklater, Boyhood)
  • Best Actor: Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything (predicted Bradley Cooper, American Sniper)
  • Best Actress: Julianne Moore, Still Alice
  • Best Supporting Actor: J.K. Simmons, Whiplash
  • Best Supporting Actress: Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
  • Best Original Screenplay: Birdman (predicted The Grand Budapest Hotel)
  • Best Adapted Screenplay: The Imitation Game (predicted Whiplash)
  • Best Animated Feature: Big Hero 6 (predicted How to Train Your Dragon 2)
  • Best Foreign Language Film: Ida
  • Best Documentary Feature: Citizenfour
  • Best Animated Short: Feast (predicted The Bigger Picture)
  • Best Live-Action Short: The Phone Call
  • Best Documentary Short Subject: Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1 (predicted Joanna)
  • Best Original Score: The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • Best Original Song: “Glory” from Selma
  • Best Sound Editing: American Sniper
  • Best Sound Mixing: Whiplash
  • Best Film Editing: Whiplash
  • Best Production Design: The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • Best Costume Design: The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • Best Makeup & Hairstyling: The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • Best Cinematography: Birdman
  • Best Visual Effects: Interstellar (predicted Dawn of the Planet of the Apes)

How did you feel about the awards telecast? Any winners you’re happy or upset about?

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