Oscars ‘Stay Weird’ As ‘Birdman’ Flies Highest

On a night that made history for the way it distributed awards, the movie that should have been too offbeat for Oscar voters wasn’t

Getty Images

The key phrase from the 87th Academy Awards may have been uttered by “The Imitation Game” screenwriter Graham Moore, when he encouraged kids who felt that they didn’t belong to “stay weird.”

His moving speech didn’t have anything to do with the main business of Oscar night, but it certainly served as a good slogan to sum up what the Academy did at the end of a wild and, yes, weird awards season.

The winning movie, Alejandro G. Iñarritú’s “ Birdman,” was one that should have been too offbeat for the famously conservative Oscar voters, a wildly subjective black comedy that aimed to put viewers inside the head of a desperate actor careening between hard reality and freaky fantasy.


And it marked the second consecutive Best Picture win for Fox Searchlight, which last year helped a dramatic film, “12 Years a Slave,” beat a bold, daring movie from a Mexican director, Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity.” This year, Searchlight had the bold movie from the Mexican director, and this year that movie beat the drama that was its chief rival, Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood.”

Not only does that give Searchlight back-to-back wins, but the company now has three Best Picture winner in seven years, after “Slave” and 2008’s “Slumdog Millionaire” (which was released by a previous regime). The last time a company went back-to-back was The Weinstein Company with “The King’s Speech” and “The Artist” in 2011 and 2012, and the last time a distributor had three winners in that short a span was 1996-2002, when Miramax (then run by Harvey Weinstein) won for “The English Patient,” “Shakespeare in Love” and “Chicago” in a span of six years.

How did it happen? Although “Birdman” won rave reviews out of the Venice Film Festival, it didn’t seem like the typical Oscar movie. Shot to look as if it were happening in one uninterrupted take and set to a pounding, all-percussion score, the film was an arty, strange concoction.

But it had two things on its side, which Searchlight used to its advantage all awards season.

For one thing, the film felt genuinely fresh and new. Some might have dismissed Iñarritú’s approach as a gimmick, but the passion and invention was eye-catching in a way that nothing else in the race was, which helped grab the support from numerous below-the-line branches of the Academy.

And the film was also about show business, as were recent winners “The Artist” and “Argo.” For actors, two hours spent inside the head of one of their own was perhaps irresistible, and the jabs at critics and producers were delicious.

If you worked in another part of the movie business and thought actors were all spoiled egomaniacs — well, “Birdman” was on your side, too.

Searchlight waited out the end-of-the-year stretch, when “Boyhood” won one critics’ award after another — knowing that what counted was not what the critics thought, but what the Hollywood guilds thought.

And when “Birdman” won the Producers Guild Award on Jan. 24, followed quickly by the Screen Actors Guild ensemble award, the Directors Guild Award and numerous other guilds, it suddenly had the momentum it needed to coast home on Oscar night.

So even though “Birdman” only won two awards during the first three hours of the show, one was the key award for Original Screenplay. And when Best Director followed in short order, the outcome of the final award was hardly in doubt.

If the big winner was weird, though, the Oscars themselves were fairly predictable. The biggest surprise may have come in the Best Animated Feature category, which was presumed to be going to “How to Train Your Dragon 2” but went instead to Disney’s “Big Hero 6.” After winning the first Oscar ever handed out in the category back in 2002 for “Shrek,” DreamWorks Animation has gone empty-handed, despite “Dragon” sweeping the Annie Awards and winning the Golden Globe for animation.

“The Theory of Everything” star Eddie Redmayne, meanwhile, won a fairly tight race with “Birdman’s” Michael Keaton to win Best Actor, a victory notable for the fact that it gave every one of the eight Best Picture nominees at least one Oscar.

In the 18 years during which the Academy has had more than five nominees in the category (1931 through 1943, and 2009 to now), this is the first time every nominated film has won an award.

Meanwhile, everybody in the building knew that Julianne Moore would win Best Actress for “Still Alice,” and that the supporting awards would go to J.K. Simmons for “Whiplash” and Patricia Arquette for “Boyhood.” Most even knew what kind of speeches they would deliver. (Moore would pay tribute to director Richard Glatzer, who has ALS; Simmons would mention his “above average children”; Arquette would read a heartfelt speech from a piece of paper.)

Given that, it counts as a pleasant surprise that Simmons dispensed with thanking the cast and crew of “Whiplash” in a phrase (“everyone involved in the making of ‘Whiplash’”) and offered an unabashed salute to his family, including a sweet admission that his children might actually be well above average. And it was more than pleasant when Arquette used her time onstage not to talk about her pride at being a fourth-generation actor, but to lobby for equal pay for women — a declaration that brought Meryl Streep and Jennifer Lopez to their feet.

In the end, these Oscars were far less about what first-time host Neil Patrick Harris did, and far more about a series of moving speeches from Arquette, Moore, Common and John Legend, and others. And they were about the bold, weird movie that flew the highest.