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When Hollywood Pats Itself on the Beak

Birdman was a deserving Oscar winner, sure. But it also plays into Academy voters' favorite subject: themselves.
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Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, famous for his role as the eponymous Birdman. (Photo: Fox Searchlight)

Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, famous for his role as the eponymous Birdman. (Photo: Fox Searchlight)

Last night in Los Angeles, Hollywood’s elite gathered at the Dolby Theatre for the 87th annual Academy Awards. (Host Neil Patrick Harris deemed the crowd Hollywood’s “best and whitest.”) Over the last couple of weeks, as Oscar predictions streamed in from every corner of the Internet, Best Picture and Best Director were perhaps the most contested categories—both of which, the consensus indicated, was a battle between two films and their directors: Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, a coming-of-age tale filmed over the course of 12 years, and Birdman, director Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s account of an aging actor and his attempt to achieve late-career legitimacy. There was a strong argument for each, but many felt that Linklater's unprecedented story structure merited a win. Oscar voters didn't agree; Iñárritu took home both statues.*

If you were paying close attention, Birdman’s near-sweep shouldn’t actually be much of a surprise at all.

While this came as a shock to some—it’s going to, by definition, be at least another decade before we ever see another film like Boyhood, and chances are we won’t—if you were paying close attention, Birdman’s near-sweep shouldn’t actually be much of a surprise at all.

To understand why, let’s first look at Oscar voters. A first-of-its-kind 2012 study by the Los Angeles Times revealed that the Academy, comprised of working and retired Hollywood professionals, is nearly 94 percent Caucasian and 77 percent male. And they’re old: The median age, the study showed, is 62, and only 14 percent of the membership is younger than 50. Plus, half of them aren’t working anymore: Only 50 percent of the Academy’s voting actors have appeared on screen in the last two years. As you break down specific branches, the statistics become even more troublesome—the writer’s branch, for example, is 98 percent white. The point is that the group of people deciding who wins the Oscars is primarily old, white, and male.

Birdman, as it turns out, is about an old, white male—who also happens to be a (fictional) Hollywood actor. After cashing in on a superhero franchise, the protagonist—played by former Batman Michael Keaton—is trying to reconcile his career by directing and staring in a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. So, Oscar voters likely identified with the main character. But as research indicates, Birdman’s setting also played a major role in its success last night.

Voters likely respected someone, albeit a fictional someone, who said no to another superhero movie, and instead took a more “honorable” route.

This time last year, we wrote about an analysis of Oscar nominations done by sociologists at the University of California-Los Angeles. Using data gathered from the Internet Movie Database (IMDb), the researchers looked at over 3,000 films that opened between 1985 and 2009 and constructed an algorithm that was able to determine a film’s “Oscar appeal.” They outlined six main factors that help predict whether a film is Oscar quality or not. Number two on that list—the whole of which bears looking at, as it really does surmise nearly every Oscar-winning film in recent memory—states that the best story lines involve "political intrigue, disabilities, war crimes, and show business."

As we’ve seen in the past, Oscar voters really do love films about themselves—that is, about show business. (The independent film Shakespeare in Love bested both Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan and Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line for the Best Picture statue in 1999; Chicago did the same in 2002, beating both The Pianist and Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York.) This came to fruition last night, as Keaton’s character, Riggan Thomson, is a former superhero franchise star who is trying to reclaim his place in Hollywood. And if being about the entertainment industry in general wasn’t enough, Birdman comments on a current dilemma that Hollywood has found itself in: a preoccupation—a reliance even—on franchises, specifically comic book franchises. If we were to extrapolate, we could connect the dots and see that perhaps Academy members were living vicariously through Thomson. Voters likely respected someone, albeit a fictional someone, who said no to another superhero movie, and instead took a more “honorable” route.

Mark Harris, an author and columnist who writes extensively about the Academy Awards, predicted this scenario playing out last week when he penned his predictions for Grantland:

Birdman [has] built and built, storming through the guild awards and turning into a consensus choice for an increasingly inward-looking Academy... Birdman is about an artist fed up with exactly the kind of movies Academy voters are fed up with.... Individually, Academy votes are a matter of taste, idiosyncrasy, and eccentricity, but collectively, they often feel like a referendum on the state of the industry itself.

Harris goes on to note that the last four Best Picture winners were also reflective of an “inward-looking” Academy:

What are our roots (The Artist)? Can studios still make fun, mass movies with impeccable craft and some meat on their bones (Argo)? Where are we now on race (12 Years a Slave)? Can’t we do more than comic-book blockbusters? (I think you know where I’m going.)

This is all to say that Birdman was teed up for Oscar voters—predominately old, white men who like films about show business. Of course, the movie's phenomenal performances and Oscar-worthy camera work gave its wins legitimacy. But more than anything, Birdman is a film of its moment—something a movie that was 12 years in the making can never be.

*UPDATE — February 23, 2015: An earlier version of this article said that the Dolby Theatre is located in downtown Los Angeles, when it is in fact located in the Hollywood district.