The case for and against ‘Birdman’

Swooping in out of seemingly nowhere, we have Alejandro González Iñárritu‘s divisive Birdman; our new frontrunner, and the next film under The Jam Report’s microscope. That bird was always waiting in the wings, just threatening to steal the race, and it appears to have made its move at just the right time. However, let’s not count our Birdmen before they’ve hatched, and frontrunners can still be shot down at the very last second.

Why it could win Best Picture:

The last frontrunner takes it. No film likes to be the so-called “early frontrunner’. They generally fall over at some point during the race, and very rarely get back up. In recent times, films like Lincoln, Atonement, and Babel have taken early awards, only to then see another film change the tide and steal it away from them in the final stretch. For the longest time, it didn’t seem like Boyhood was going to suffer a similar fate, but when Birdman took PGA, DGA and SAG (in the space of two weeks, no less), we had a new frontrunner. We’re mere days away, and it doesn’t seem like that status is going to change, and obviously generally speaking, the last frontrunner ends up taking it. Why? Because a lot of voters a fickle, and desperately want to be on the winning team i.e. vote for the film that ends up taking Best Picture. They can brag at the industry after-parties about how they were right, how they were always going to vote for that film, and rub it in the faces of anyone that dared to go another route. It’s sad, but true. If the general impression around town is that Birdman is “going to win”, it will collect the votes of these group-mentality/sheep voters.

It’s about the industry. We’ve seen a strange trend developing over the last few years at the Academy Awards, where films about the film industry itself are consistently cleaning up. The industry can’t seem to avoid giving itself a great big pat on the back. Argo, The Artist, Hugo. Clearly Oscar voters like to see themselves on-screen, and like to award films that shine a light on what it’s like to work in the industry. Birdman is such a film. The largest section of the Academy voters are the actors, and here we have a film starring big name actors playing actors talking about acting. Talk about a no-brainer for which film an actor should vote for. It’s why it was a shoe-in at the SAG Awards. The film also takes a big swipe at entertainment critics and how they’re all severe sufferers of tall poppy syndrome i.e. ultimately just looking for any opportunity to cut an actor or production down. They all can say they don’t read reviews, but we know they do, so a film that takes such a stance is always going to be well received by industry folk.

History is behind it. Winning major precursor awards like PGA, DGA and SAG are sure-fire ways to take out the Oscar for Best Picture. As we know, Birdman surprised everyone by taking all three. Fun fact – no film has won those three prizes and not gone on to win Best Picture since Apollo 13 in 1996. That’s a huge piece precedent to change, and it seems incredibly unlikely to happen here. Birdman is also following the path of fellow late-charger The King’s Speech back in 2011. In that year, it was all about The Social Network, until, just like this year, another film came along and took PGA, DGA and SAG. From that point, The King’s Speech was unstoppable, and it’s likely Birdman is too. Rules are sometimes broken at the Academy Awards, but they’re sticklers for tradition, and that bodes well for Birdman.

Why it won’t win Best Picture:

History is against it. As much as history is on Birdman‘s side, it’s also just as much against it. In what was considered a fairly large snub, the film wasn’t given a nomination for Editing. Why is this such a big deal? Well, no film has won Best Picture without an Editing nomination since 1981’s Ordinary People. That’s a 34 year tradition that’s not in Birdman‘s favour. Adding to that, Birdman failed to win Best Comedy/Musical at the Golden Globes, losing to The Grand Budapest Hotel. No film has lost that Golden Globe category and still gone on to win Best Picture since Annie Hall in 1977. That’s a 38 year tradition also not in Birdman‘s favour. In recent years, the film that takes Best Picture also brings along an acting trophy for the ride. If Eddie Redmayne wins over Michael Keaton, as many are predicting, that’s another blow to the film’s overall chances. Rules are sometimes broken at the Academy Awards, but they’re sticklers for tradition, and that doesn’t bode well for Birdman.

BAFTA snub. It’s not uncommon for a film that does well at the Academy Awards not to fair so well at BAFTA. The Brits can tend to vote for their own, so if there’s a big British film in the running, that can generally be far more likely to take out an awards ceremony voted on by its fellow countrymen. Many assumed that would be The Theory of Everything or The Imitation Game this year. Amazingly, Boyhood trumped them all, taking Picture, Director and Supporting Actress. Birdman walked away with the consolation prize of Cinematography, and nothing else. While it can be noted that voting for BAFTA was well before the tide turned in Birdman‘s favour, the ceremony is the last major award before Oscar voting ends. For Boyhood to take all the glory and headlines at BAFTA could be enough to remind people why they used to vote for it, and suddenly Birdman is heading for a loss.

The preferential ballot. Yesterday I noted how the preferential ballot will work in Boyhood‘s favour, but on the flip-side of that is how it will work against an extremely divisive film like Birdman. By divisive, I propose that it seems the general opinion of this film is either extreme love or extreme hate. In a situation as black and white as this, you can presume those who love it will have it at #1 or #2, and those that hate it could have down dead last on their ballot. In the preferential voting system that the Academy uses for Best Picture, that could spell disaster for the film’s Best Picture chances. It will get a huge chunk of top votes. No one can debate that. However, if it fails to capture secondary votes and instead gets a large number of low votes, it won’t be enough to claim the big prize. Birdman will have to overcome this enormous obsticle to take down the universally beloved Boyhood.

Can the Academy break tradition and finally award a quirky arthouse film like Birdman? Are we going to see rules broken once again and precedents be shattered along the way? Am I selecting Birdman as my final prediction for Best Picture? Find out when I reveal my final Oscar predictions this Sunday February 22.

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