How Oscar Front-runner Birdman Suddenly Soared

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Photo: Maya Robinson and Photo by Fox Searchlight and Janet Mayer/Splash News/Corbis

On the night of January 24, just as the Producers Guild of America was beginning its annual awards ceremony in Los Angeles, I was at the Sundance Film Festival, having a conversation with a high-ranking member of Team Boyhood. "Do you think we'll pull it off tonight?" he asked me. Up to that point, the Richard Linklater film had dominated awards season, raking in the lion's share of critics' prizes and a Golden Globe for Best Drama to boot.

I told him that I thought he had little to worry about, but the man still seemed uneasy. The PGA's top prize is seen as the season's most certain Oscar bellwether — indeed, the last seven PGA winners went on to claim Best Picture — and because the Guild shares so many members with the Academy (as well as a preferential voting system), it can either coronate the presumed front-runner or send Oscar publicists scrambling. The latter is exactly what happened four years ago, when The Social Network cruised through awards season at high altitude until the PGA swerved presciently for eventual Best Picture winner The King's Speech, a worst-case scenario that was foremost on this Boyhood partisan's mind.

"I'm still nervous about The Imitation Game and American Sniper," he confessed to me. Certainly, there was buzz on both: Imitation Game had Harvey Weinstein's backing, a terrific box-office tally, and the support of the Academy's more conventional voters, while American Sniper had stunned the industry with record-breaking returns while managing six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actor. Both of those movies were currently in wide release and could enjoy late-breaking momentum, while Boyhood had the tricky task of sustaining its support from an early summer bow. Still, I said, "I don't think you need to sweat either of them."

I was right … and oh so wrong. The big PGA winner turned out to be Alejandro González Iñárritu's dizzy art-and-commerce farce Birdman, a title that neither he nor I had mentioned during our conversation. Indeed, while Birdman had performed respectably during awards season — it did lead the Oscar nomination field with nine nods, after all — most awards-season pundits had pretty much written off its chances until that startling PGA win, which was followed up in short order as Birdman took home the top prizes from both the Screen Actors Guild and Directors Guild. Suddenly, Birdman had managed a three-for-three rout of the major guilds, a hat trick that tends to guarantee an eventual Best Picture win.

So how did Birdman do it?

That's the funny thing: Birdman didn't have to do much of anything. If American Sniper had surged with the guilds, I could spin you a narrative about heartland fervor and its older-skewing appeal; had The Imitation Game taken PGA, we could talk plenty about Weinstein's slow-and-steady campaign. Birdman is sort of an anomaly, though: The box office was just okay and tapered off early, its early awards-season wins were infrequent, and both of its main creatives — Iñárritu and star Michael Keaton — were mostly absent from industry Q&As and Oscar-related soirees over the past few months as they shot new projects. Improbably, this very ostentatious movie spent most of awards season flying under the radar. The votes for it don't validate a canny campaign strategy or suggest some effectively executed turnaround; the votes for it are simply because more people liked it than the other movies.

Simple, I know … so why did so many of us fail to realize that until the PGA weighed in? Because while many Oscar voters love Birdman, it's also the film with the most vocal detractors. I've been talking to voters all season and few of them have anything bad to say about more innocuous contenders like Boyhood, The Imitation Game, and The Theory of Everything, but they'll unload on Birdman with guns blazing if they "didn't get it." That wild difference of opinion for Birdman led me to discount the film as too polarizing, but in an awards season where voters have found nearly all the contenders to be wan, the passion for Birdman turned out to be an advantage, not a debit. It helps, of course, that Birdman is also about the very people — actors, directors, and producers — who vote in these guilds, and who make up the bulk of the Academy.

Is Boyhood dead in the water, then? Not quite: Just yesterday, the movie won the top prize at the BAFTA Awards, determined by a British voting body that shares many members with the Academy and has correctly predicted the last six Best Picture winners. It's also possible that the Oscars could engineer another split between Best Director and Best Picture — as they have the past two years — that would give Iñárritu the Best Director trophy while still rewarding Boyhood with top honors. Indeed, those splits tend to favor the director with the most startling technical achievement, and Iñárritu's "one-take" approach to Birdman certainly qualifies.

But at the very least, even as the acting races calcify, this all suggests that we've got a real competition for Best Picture after an awards season where Boyhood seemed to become the frontrunner merely by default. It's fitting that like its protagonist, pundits underrated Birdman; the movie was always capable of more, and as Oscar night approaches, we'll see if it can add one last, significant feather to its cap.