Hollywood continued its long running romance with movies about movies in Sunday’s Oscar telecast. “Birdman, or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance,” a surreal comic fantasy about a former action film star trying to re-ignite his career on Broadway, was named the year’s best picture, with awards also going to director Alejandro González Iñárritu, the film’s screenwriters and its cinematographer.
“Birdman’s” triumph followed the recent best-picture wins by “The Artist,” a silent comedy about the early days of the film industry, and “Argo,” which saluted a fake science-fiction epic as the escape route for Americans held prisoner in Teheran’s U.S. embassy.
“Two Mexicans in a row? That’s suspicious, eh?” joked Iñárritu, referring to last year’s best-director win by countryman Alfonso Cuarón for “Gravity.”
More seriously, Iñárritu said he prays his country finds “a government we deserve” and that emigrants to the United States “can be treated with the same dignity and the respect of the ones who came before and [built] this incredible immigrant nation.”
The Oscars are a very special sort of popularity contest. Winning the most prestigious prize in world cinema almost never goes to the general public’s favorite films. The statuettes go to those that earn the artistic respect of the aging and highly conventional 6,000-odd members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Where else can you get Lady Gaga doing a lengthy arrangement of half-century-old standards from “The Sound of Music”?
“Tonight we honor Hollywood’s best and whitest — I mean brightest,” host Neil Patrick Harris said Sunday as the 87th annual Academy Awards opened at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles.
It brought uncomfortable laughs in acknowledgement that all of this year’s acting nominees were white, a ratio that led some to push for a boycott of the broadcast.
The best actor award went to Eddie Redmayne in “The Theory of Everything,” dramatizing the extraordinary life of Stephen Hawking from his charmingly awkward youth to his fame as a theoretical physicist despite a physical disability.
“This Oscar belongs to all the people around the world battling ALS,” Redmayne declared.
Like Daniel Day-Lewis’s work in “My Left Foot” and Colin Firth’s as the stuttering-troubled leader in “The King’s Speech,” Redmayne’s role continues the tradition of British actors winning the best actor prize for true characters wrestling with illness.
Julianne Moore, who played a Columbia University linguistics professor with early-onset Alzheimer’s in “Still Alice,” echoed Redmayne’s gesture with her own dedication of the award to those whose humanity has been diminished by the illness, and to the film’s directors, Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, who were unable to attend because of Glatzer’s debilitating ALS.
Moore got help in preparing for the role from a Minnesota woman, Sandy Oltz, with early onset Alzheimer's.
The actress has been nominated five times, but this was her first Oscar.
“I read an article that said that winning an Oscar could lead to living five years longer,” Moore said. “If that’s true, I’d really like to thank the academy because my husband is younger than me.”
The first award of the night went to J.K. Simmons, a 60-year-old character actor playing a demanding musical teacher in “Whiplash.”
Accepting his first Oscar to sustained applause, Simmons thanked his wife rather than divine providence or industry peers. The film, featuring symphonically complex scenes of jazz music elevated to heart-pounding drama, also won prizes for sound mixing and film editing.
Patricia Arquette electrified the crowd with a call for wage equity for women as she accepted the supporting actress Oscar for "Boyhood."
Arquette played literally the role of a lifetime, as a mother following her son’s childhood from age 7 to 18. Richard Linklater’s groundbreaking family drama was filmed over 12 years, beginning in 2002. The film had six nominations but won only one award.
Breaking with convention
“Birdman” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel” — both films made with stunning dramatic creativity and technical finesse — topped the list of nominees with nine apiece. Each represented a multi-layered comedic style often ignored by the Academy, while avoiding the rules of conventional moviemaking.
Iñárritu’s “Birdman” married realism and madness with lengthy nonstop takes in a Broadway fantasy that earned Michael Keaton the first Oscar nomination of his 36-year film career. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s Oscar was his second, following his award for 2014’s “Gravity.” Iñárritu won his twin first Oscars both as best director and a co-writer of the original screenplay.
Wes Anderson’s “Budapest” combined humor and fantasy in droll graphic designs creating the fictional state of Zubrowka. It earned Oscars for production design, costuming and makeup that turned Tilda Swinton into an ancient dowager, while composer Alexandre Desplat won for the film’s original score of pseudo-European folk music, beating his other nomination for “The Imitation Game.”
The latter film — a biography of Alan Turing, the math genius and social misfit who led England’s anti-Nazi codebreakers during World War II — had eight nomination but won only for Graham Moore’s adapted screenplay.
A prize for Poland
The Academy named “Ida” by Poland’s Paweł Pawlikowski as the best foreign language film. Although nine Polish films had been nominated for the prize earlier, none had won an Oscar. Accepting the award for his first Oscar nomination, the director said, “Fantastic — life is full of surprises.” The period drama follows a young novitiate nun in the early 1960s as she discovers she was born to a Jewish family that hid her from the Nazis during World War II.
Laura Poitras’ muckraking “Citizenfour,” interviewing Edward Snowden after his release of classified information about U.S. domestic surveillance, won as best documentary.
Following its win at the Golden Globes, “Glory,” by John Legend and Common, captured the award for best song for the largely ignored “Selma.”
Only six of this year’s eight best-picture nominees were among the top 100 films in last year’s ticket sales. But high-earning movies were not utterly ignored.
The hit “American Sniper” won for sound editing. Another popular favorite, Christopher Nolan’s galaxy-spanning science fiction adventure “Interstellar,” took the prize for best visual effects. Disney’s youth-oriented, Marvel-derived superhero feature “Big Hero 6” won as best animated feature.