‘Boyhood’ Will Have to Fight for the Win and 5 Other Lessons From Oscar Nominations

Oscar voters downsized the Best Picture category, and the kind of movies they nominated

“Boyhood” has a fight on its hands if it wants to retain its shaky position as this year’s Academy Awards frontrunner.

Thursday morning’s Oscar nominations found Richard Linklater‘s film, the year’s presumed leader, with six nominations to nine for “Birdman” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and eight for “The Imitation Game” and “American Sniper” in a busy field with lots of other favorites now in play.

“Boyhood” got nominated in all the right categories, though, which means it could still be in good position for the stretch run. But if the Oscar race has been a bit confused this year, the nominations did not provide much more clarity — and they certainly didn’t provide much ammunition for ABC and the Academy to sell the show to moviegoers, who simply haven’t seen most of these movies.

In a year when presumed major contenders like “Interstellar” and “Unbroken” were roundly snubbed, a mix of indie and British period dramas won the admiration of the Academy — and in a year that was deemed subpar in the cinemas, the voters downsized the Best Picture category from nine to eight nominees for the first time in the four years of variable category size.

They downsized it commercially, too. Little films with little grosses — “Whiplash,” “Birdman” — leading the pack and blockbusters relegated to the craft categories.

Other mixed messages from the voters include Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper” landing eight nominations, including a surprise best actor nod for Bradley Cooper — but Eastwood was ignored in the best director race in favor of Bennett Miller, whose “Foxcatcher” was not one of the eight picture nominees.

A director nod without a corresponding picture nod has never happened since the Academy expanded the latter category in 2009.

So now we have an unusual field of nominees to represent an unusual year. Conventional wisdom says that the movies that were nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted or Original Screenplay and Best Film Editing (a typically reliable indicator of a film that has what it takes to win) are the ones in the best position.

That means “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” “The Imitation Game” and “Boyhood” are the leaders, though anything is possible. Here are some other lessons from nominations morning:

Yes, “Selma” was in trouble all along – but maybe not as much trouble as some people thought.

From the time Ava DuVernay’s drama about Martin Luther King, Jr. had a sneak preview at November’s AFI Fest, it looked like an Academy movie and felt like an Academy movie – but when one guild after another failed to nominate it, the film’s stock fell as attacks on its portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson rose.

But now “Selma” can stand with “The Tree of Life,” “Amour” and “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” as only the fourth movie to be nominated for Best Picture after failing to gain any nominations from the Producers Guild, Writers Guild (for which it was ineligible), Directors Guild and Screen Actors Guild.

The trouble is that its only other nomination comes in the Best Original Song category, a terribly paltry haul for a film that once seemed to be a possible winner. With director DuVernay and actor David Oyelowo on the outside looking in, things don’t look good for its chances of winning. (Unless you’re talking about song, where it’s probably the frontrunner.)

Occasionally a movie really can be too dark and too creepy for the Academy.

For much of the season, it appeared to many Oscar-watchers that the Best Actor race had a locked-in quintet: Eddie Redmayne for “The Theory of Everything,” Michael Keaton for “Birdman,” Benedict Cumberbatch for “The Imitation Game,” Steve Carell for “Foxcatcher” and David Oyelowo for “Selma.” So while lots of people talked about how they loved Jake Gyllenhaal’s fierce, haunted performance in the dark “Nightcrawler,” it hardly seemed possible that he could break into the category.

But Team Gyllenhaal kept at it, capitalizing on the enormous buzz that kept growing as the movie’s screeners went out. By nominations week, what had seemed like a crazy longshot had turned into a likelihood — and poor Steve Carell, with his fake nose and his career makeover, went from being the talk of Cannes to the lesser of the two really creepy characters competing for voters’ affections.

“Nightcrawler,” meanwhile, kept racking up guild nominations, until it too seemed like a serious Best Picture contender. But for the first time since they went to a variable number of nominations, that Oscar category stopped with eight nominees, not nine, and “Nightcrawler” wasn’t one of the eight.

And Carell got his nomination, too. Gyllenhaal didn’t.

No, the delicious prospect of a career makeover for a former America’s Sweetheart sometimes needs a more robust vehicle than a tiny, under-the-radar movie, even if you’ve got savvy campaigners and a boatload of celebrity on your side.

Remember when Sandra Bullock shocked lots of skeptics, persuaded voters that she was a serious actress and rode “The Blind Side” all the way to a Best Actress win five years ago? Jennifer Aniston was trying to do something similar this year, though her vehicle was not a major-studio hit that got its own Best Picture nomination, but a low-budget indie, “Cake,” that drew mixed reviews at best.

Aniston’s campaign grew over the fall, with the actress charming voters (and press) at countless soirees; when the initial reaction was mixed to “Big Eyes,” the movie for which Amy Adams was thought likely to land a nomination, the Aniston camp went into overdrive, and Oscar pundits everywhere (including this one) conceded that she was likely to win a nomination.

But voters didn’t agree — and Aniston lost out not to Adams but to Marion Cotillard for the French-language film “Two Days, One Night,” which didn’t even make the foreign-language shortlist. Cotillard’s performance richly deserved attention, so the nomination isn’t a complete surprise — but the fact that enough voters saw the film to vote for her might be.

Steve James must have done something really bad to somebody important in the Academy.

The acclaimed documentary director was famously snubbed when his 1994 film “Hoop Dreams,” which was considered a lock to win Best Documentary and a potential Best Picture nominee, wasn’t even nominated. He was snubbed again when “The Interrupters” didn’t even make the Oscar shortlist in 2011.

But this year, James had what seemed to be a sure bet for a nomination: “Life Itself,” his affectionate but incisive film about the late film critic Roger Ebert. It seemed likely to lose to “Citizenfour,” but at least James was finally going to get his nomination – a fact that Ebert, one of those who cried the loudest when “Hoop Dreams” was snubbed, would have loved.

Instead, “Life Itself” wasn’t nominated, and the Steve James snub now stands at 21 years and counting.

The Oscar producers have their work cut out for them.  

As the Samuel Goldwyn Theater was emptying after nominations were announced on Thursday morning, one member of the Oscar show production team came over to me and pointed at the list of nominees in my hand. “Add up the grosses of all those Best Picture nominees,” the staffer said, shaking his head. “Nobody has seen these movies.”

And that, you can be sure, is weighing on the minds of producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan. Oscar ratings are often largely dependent in viewers’ rooting interest in the movies; they’re biggest when “Titanic,” “The Lord of the Rings” and “Avatar” are competing for the top prize.

This year, they’ve got a roster of small movies, with “American Sniper” likely to be the biggest grosser come Oscar week. Two years ago, the Best Picture lineup contained six $100 million movies and one more over $90 million; this year, no such luck.

It doesn’t speak to the quality of the movies or the wisdom of Academy voters, but it means that Meron, Zadan and the Academy had better figure out how to get people to watch, and figure it out fast.