Oscar night: it’s finally here! Or did it happen yesterday?
The Film Independent Spirit Awards, which pay tribute to American movies with production budgets of $20 million or lower, are held in a billowing tent in Santa Monica the Saturday afternoon before the big show. This year, it was basically the Oscars a day early. Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) took Best Film, Boyhood’s Richard Linklater got Best Director, Michael Keaton won Best Actor for Birdman and the three inevitables — Julianne Moore, J.K. Simmons and Patricia Arquette — earned Best Actress, Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress, respectively, for Still Alice, Boyhood and Whiplash. (My predictions for this year’s Oscar winners are here.) The Spirits also confirmed Oscar’s ignoring of the racial litmus test Selma. Nominated for five awards, the Martin Luther King Jr. bio-pic won none.
Yes, the actual Oscar for Best Actor could go to Eddie Redmayne; his The Theory of Everything was ineligible for the Spirits because it’s a Limey import. Birdman and Boyhood could swap statuettes, with Linklater winning Best Picture and Alejandro G. Iñárritu taking Best Director. (Or either film could cop both big prizes.) But — as occurred last year, when all four of the Spirit’s acting awards plus Best Picture went to the eventual Oscar winners — this was a laid-back dress rehearsal (casual dress) for tonight’s starchier, fancy-dress event. The show is shorter, the acceptance speeches less predictable. Pawel Pawlikowski, who directed the winning foreign film Ida, spoke warmly of the other finalists, then pertly added, “Thank you, my competitors, for losing this time.”
The Spirits haven’t gone Hollywood. It’s the Motion Picture Academy that’s gone indie, by virtually limiting its Best Picture nominees to art-house entries. Of the eight films nominated for the top Oscar tonight, only American Sniper cost more than $20 million to produce or earned more than $85 million at North American theaters. The rest are U.S. and British niche items — the very films the industry marginalizes the rest of the year.
And the losers? They’re the popular movies that fund the industry and often bring it distinction. To name six ambitious hits from 2014: Gone Girl, Interstellar, The LEGO Movie, Into the Woods, Noah and Unbroken. Their total haul in the Oscars’ top categories was two: nominees for Best Actress (Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl) and Best Supporting Actress (Meryl Streep in Into the Woods), and neither has an atheist’s prayer of winning.
This disconnect hasn’t always applied in the five years since the Academy, in 2009, expanded its roster of Best Picture nominees from five to as many as 10. In 2010, five of the 10 finalists (Black Swan, Inception, The King’s Speech, Toy Story 3 and True Grit) earned more than $100 million at the domestic box office — the standard threshold for a popular hit— and The Social Network wasn’t far behind at $97 million. Two years ago, six of the nine (Argo, Django Unchained, Les Misérables, Life of Pi, Lincoln and Silver Linings Playbook) reached $100 million, with Zero Dark Thirty at $96 million. Even last year, when indie films were the big winners in big categories, four of the nine Best Picture shortlisters (American Hustle, Captain Phillips, Gravity and The Wolf of Wall Street) reached nine figures at the North American box office.
Not so this year, when little is big, and less is Moore. The biggest challenge for the inevitable Best Actress winner — and for Simmons, Arquette and possibly Keaton, if he triumphs over Redmayne — will be to save their best acceptance speech for the sixth or seventh televised awards show where they’ve had to say thanks. Home viewers will shrug at awards given to movies endlessly promoted in the ramp-up hoopla but which they haven’t seen.
And the members of the Academy, most of whom work on medium- to high-budget pictures — the kind that employ artists and artisans by the hundreds — will again have voted against the macro-movies they make and for the micro-films they maybe wished they did. The inescapable takeaway from Oscar night: The industry wishes it were indie. To put it bluntly: Hollywood hates itself.
Perhaps that’s putting it too bluntly — but one thing is certain. Many of those swells in tuxedos you’ll see tonight at the Dolby Theatre in L.A.: they’d rather be in a tent in Santa Monica.