Why ‘Whiplash,’ not ‘Boyhood’ will win the Oscar for Best Film Editing

It is a myth to which many Oscar aficionados subscribe that the Academy Award for film editing usually signals a coming win for that same film for best picture. In fact, the two awards have been paired less than 50% of the time over the last four decades and I believe this is one of those years when the awards will be split.

Veteran Oscars pundit Jack Mathews bets on ‘Birdman’ (podcast)

First of all, the likely Best Picture winner, based on its domination of guild awards, is “Birdman,” which is not even nominated for editing. The members of the editing branch of the Academy realized that the visual success of “Birdman” is mostly due to its cinematography, which allowed director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu to shoot long, uninterrupted scenes to create a real-time sense of his story. It will probably win for that.

The odds-on favorite for the film editing award, at least among Gold Derby’s panel of experts and its poll of Top Users, is “Boyhood.” Its editor, Sandra Adair, is picked to win by 17 of the 20 experts and by all but one of the Top 24 Users. That ratio will surely change now that “Birdman” has added the DGA award for directing to its previous Best Picture wins from the producers and actors guilds. “Birdman” and “Boyhood” are going head-to-head for the original screenplay awards from the Writers Guild, which will be announced Sunday.

My feeling about the film-editing category is that the likely winner is the film where editing is most apparent to its success. When I saw the stunning opening scene of “Chicago” a decade ago, I knew it would be hard to beat for editing and, in fact, it won. Same for “All That Jazz” and its indelible opening scene 35 years ago.

The movie that stands out most for its editing among this year’s nominees is the low-budget jazz drama “Whiplash,” which just won the race at BAFTA. Unless you believe, as most lay moviegoers no doubt do, that young actor Miles Teller is laying down all those Buddy Rich licks on the drums in his character’s climactic solo, look again. Teller does have a music background and even played drums in a rock band as a teenager, but it took two months of drum instruction for him to play well enough to fool the cameras as jazz protégé Andrew Neiman and it took two full days of filming to produce the footage that Cross edited into a seamless nine-minute solo of Duke Ellington’s “Caravan.”

Whiplash” writer-director Damien Chazelle told the film magazine “The Dissolve” that Teller’s own drum playing accounted for about 40% of what is heard on the soundtrack. That’s shocking. Teller is right there on the screen, slamming the sticks in perfect sync with the sounds we hear. But according to Chazelle, some of that is him and some of that is somebody else. There were doubles in a few scenes, both from shots above and behind Teller, and in close-ups of his hands. In the editing room, Cross had all of it to cobble together and he did a masterful job in turning illusion into reality. Academy members are savvy enough to know an actor cannot play an instrument like that by himself.

Adair could win for “Boyhood.” It does seem like a formidable challenge taking 24 weeks of film shot over 12 years and collapsing it into a movie less than three hours long. But the film is still more illusion than reality. If you are looking for the seams where its actors age year-by-year, you’ll find them. “Boyhood” is a magnificent logistical achievement in film making, but in the end, it will be remembered as a novelty and not a break-through.

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