Just two days ago, most Oscarologists predicted “Boyhood” and “Birdman” star Michael Keaton will skate to easy Oscar wins for Best Picture and Actor next month, but – hold your horses, Derbyites! – the SAG and PGA Awards just tripped up the frontrunners.
Now that Eddie Redmayne (“The Theory of Everything“) won the Screen Actors’ Guild Award, perhaps he should be considered the new Oscar leader? After all, 17 of the past 20 SAG champs in that race went on to snag the equivalent Oscar, including the last 10 in a row. Redmayne’s victory was a shockeroo considering all Gold Derby Experts (except me — ha!) predicted a Keaton victory, which seemed logical considering he portrayed an actor in a film being voted on by actors. Obviously, SAG members love “Birdman” – they gave it their prize for Best Ensemble – but they embraced Redmayne instead. Why?
I believe award races, especially peer-group ones like the guilds and Oscars, are all about hugs as we witness the showbiz industry honoring its own. Redmayne is more huggable as an ALS victim. Voters are suckers for handicap roles, of course, and they adore actors who portray real-life people. Eight out of the last 10 Oscar winners for Best Actor played roles based on real people. And voters really, really love it when stars portray notable people as Redmayne does by disappearing into the wheelchair of Stephen Hawking. It’s a lot like Meryl Streep winning an Oscar as Maggie Thatcher and Helen Mirren channeling Queen Elizabeth II. You get extra points if you’re a famous person who convinces us that you’re another famous person.
But, watch out: Keaton could rally at the Oscars if “Birdman” takes down “Boyhood” as Best Picture, as now suddenly seems possible following its double guild triumphs. On Saturday night, “Birdman” won the Producers’ Guild of America’s trophy, which has correctly predicted Oscar’s Best Pictures for the last 7 years in a row. In addition, it won SAG’s ensemble award, which often matches the academy’s Best Picture (9 out of 16 years) and even tattles on upsets to come (“Argo,” “Crash” and “Shakespeare in Love”).
There seems to be a mysterious link between Oscar’s Best Picture and the acting categories – like Lupita Nyongo prevailing for “12 Years a Slave,” Jean Dujardin for “The Artist” and Colin Firth in “The King’s Speech.” There are exceptions (“Argo,” “Slumdog Millionaire,” “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King”), but if that link is real and remains strong, it can pull Keaton along for a win in the event of “Birdman” soaring on Oscar night. Redmayne would be smart to root for “Boyhood” because its acting victory will occur outside his category as Patricia Arquette takes Best Supporting Actress.
“Birdman” has huge advantages at the Oscars. The Best Picture victor usually has the most nominations and “Birdman” now leads with 9 – tied with “Grand Budapest Hotel.” It’s helmed by an esteemed auteur, Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu, who can win the Directors’ Guild of America Award on Feb. 7. Yes, Richard Linklater (“Boyhood”) is currently favored there, but no serious pundit feels much confidence in that forecast at this crazy point in the derby.
However, “Birdman” isn’t up for editing at the Academy Awards and that could signal its doom. Every Oscar Best Picture dating back to “Ordinary People” (1981) has been nominated in that category.
But now every serious Oscarologist is worried and privately wonders: Is “Birdman” the new “King’s Speech”?
Yes, “Boyhood” swept the early film critics’ awards and the Golden Globes and it seems poised to pounce on the Oscars next, but that’s how “The Social Network” looked back in 2010. Then “The King’s Speech” suddenly vanquished that usurper and reigned supreme at the guild awards (PGA, SAG, DGA) before ruling the Oscars next. Sometimes there is an odd-but-fascinating disconnect between the laurels doled out by film journalists and the folks who make movies every day. The latter group seems to like movies that are more sentimental, less cynical.
That is what makes the current derby so baffling. “Boyhood” is the blatantly sentimental film, not “Birdman,” and “Birdman” is the more cynical, artsy flick. In fact, we must wonder: Is “Birdman” too weird to win? Oscar voters have never picked a movie so quirky.
But maybe none of these ancient “Oscar rules” matter anymore. Back in the old days, you could easily predict Best Picture by going with the epic, especially if it had the most nominations and the longest running time. Voters easily confused Big Picture with Best Picture.
Not anymore. Now little films like “No Country for Old Men” and Crash” can prevail. Best Pictures no longer need to be hits earning $100 million or more (“The Hurt Locker” was a box office bomb) or be filled with A-List stars. No U.S. moviegoers recognized the actors in “Slumdog Millionaire” or “The Artist.”
Looking ahead, we still have to see what happens next at DGA (Feb. 7) and BAFTA (Feb. 8). If “Birdman” wins one or both, it’s safe to take a flyer on it. If not, all tea leaves are scattered, all pundits are screwed and we are facing the most mysterious Oscar race in eons.
Ah, suspense! That is what Hollywood is all about. And we haven’t even discussed the possibility of that sneaky “American Sniper” Bradley Cooper taking out both Redmayne and Keaton. It could happen. “Sniper” is coming on strong in this final derby stretch and, with two contenders out front instead of one, Cooper needs fewer voters to eliminate both and nail his Oscar target.