A review of the Oscars: 'Birdman' soars, jokes fall flat

A critical look at the 87th Academy Awards

The Spectrum

The most painfully awkward and drawn out joke of the Oscars on Sunday night was Neil Patrick Harris’ predictions. His rundown of the night’s highs and lows, written in a way some people might have mistaken for comedy were the running theme throughout the 87th Academy Awards. But even the host’s oddly placed clairvoyance act provided more surprise and suspense than the results of this year’s winners.

At first Neil Patrick Harris seemed like the perfect choice to host the Oscars this year – and every year. He is funny, charming and relatable enough to simultaneously seem like a Hollywood insider and outsider, a movie star who watches movies. Plus he can sing and dance? It seemed like this was the stage he was born to perform on.

It definitely was – for the first five minutes or so.

Despite his genuine showmanship ability, it seemed like everything Harris did after his opening song and dance number fell flat. Maybe it was the writers or the ceremony’s nearly four-hour run length, but the show just seemed to crawl through the night.

The best and very first joke of the night was razor sharp in its humor and social commentary – it called attention to the Academy’s lack of diversity.

But many were hoping this would be a night to celebrate the diversity among the nominees. The kind of diversity Boyhood’s Patricia Arquette called for in her acceptance speech and the kind of equality The Imitation Game’s screenwriter Graham Moore called for in his moving moment on stage.

Speaking of diversity, most of the talk in the build up to Sunday revolved around Selma and its lack of nominations. The Best Picture nominee’s only other nomination was for Best Original Song. Maybe that’s why it felt so appropriate and satisfying when Selma stole the show midway through the telecast.

Not only did Common and John Legend win an Oscar for the film’s anthem Glory, their performance brought the house down. It was a powerful and heartfelt moment that brought the audience to its feet and David Oyelowo and Chris Pine to tears. While the jokes and gags might not have been memorable, these moments will be remembered for their power and their raw intensity.

I have never watched the Oscars for the broadcast. I, like Neil Patrick Harris, am chiefly concerned with how close to reality my predictions came. I am concerned with whether the right films and performances were recognized. I have spent endless time obsessed over which actor or director or film should be deemed the best.

After the months of anticipation, dozens of great films and almost four-hour telecast there wasn’t one winner that came as a surprise (except maybe for the win for Big Hero 6 in Best Animated Feature, but really the surprise in that category came a month ago with the exclusion of The LEGO Movie).

With all of the Guild Awards that occur prior to the Oscars, no winner should really come as a surprise to anyone who pays attention. The wins for Birdman, Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything), Julianne Moore (Still Alice), J.K. Simmons (Whiplash), and Patricia Arquette (Boyhood) seemed more like coronations months in the making, not hard earned victories that came down to the wire.

The biggest surprise of this year might have been the Academy more or less got it right across the board. Boyhood supporters will likely argue that Birdman is so concerned with the movie business that its win seems like a giant pat on the back from Hollywood to itself: a Hollywood award given to a movie about Hollywood.

They’re not totally wrong – in three of the last four years, the Academy has awarded Best Picture to a movie that was concerned with the movie industry in some way.

These kinds of self-congratulatory measures are dangerous in the long run, and are a trend to keep an eye on going forward. Birdman was the first major Oscar contender I saw during this awards season and with every subsequent film I saw its case for Best Picture only got stronger.

Birdman had more great performances than any other film this year. The script was tight and highly relevant to the industry at large; the direction and camera work were some of the most beautiful and dazzling I’ve seen in a long time, maybe ever.

While it would have been nice to see Richard Linklater’s 12-year odyssey be honored in a major way, the night and the year belonged to Birdman.

Ultimately the Oscars were a mixed bag, as the mood vacillated between heart warming, powerful moments and moments of cringe worthy awkwardness. Many people will continue to complain over the length of the show, the performances that were snubbed (really, Redmayne over Keaton and Cooper?), the awkward jokes and the problems that persist every year with the Academy Awards and the movie industry as a whole.

More likely than not, we’ll all be sitting on the couch at this time next year, hoping against hope that the movies we want to win can emerge victorious, even when we know the end result is inevitable.

I can’t wait.

email: arts@ubspectrum.com