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‘Birdman’ soars to Oscar heights on best picture win

By Reuters - Feb 23,2015 - Last updated at Feb 23,2015

LOS ANGELES — The dark comedy “Birdman” held up a mirror to Hollywood and its struggling actors and in return received the film industry’s highest recognition on Sunday, the Academy Award for best picture.

Director Alejandro G. Inarritu’s story of a washed-up, former superhero actor attempting an improbable comeback on Broadway won four Oscars in its nine nominations, including best director, the second consecutive win in that category for a Mexican filmmaker.

Acclaimed for looking like one continuous shot through a Broadway theatre and mixing reality with fantasy, the movie, Inarritu said, came from learning to be fearless in filmmaking.

“Fear is the condom of life. It doesn’t allow you to enjoy things,” Inarritu said backstage at the 87th Academy Awards.

The reward for the Fox Searchlight satire hews to an Academy tradition of awarding films that honour the entertainment industry, such as “Argo” and “The Artist” in recent years.

Britain’s Eddie Redmayne won best actor with his painstaking portrayal of physicist Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything”, robbing “Birdman” lead and former superhero actor Michael Keaton of a big comeback moment.

Each of the eight best picture nominees went home with at least one award, but it was a disappointing night for “Boyhood”, Richard Linklater’s unprecedented 12-year endeavour to depict the simple story of a boy growing up, using the same actors. It won one Oscar out of its six nods.

Wes Anderson’s colourful caper, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” proved popular among the 6,100 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences who vote for the Oscars, winning four awards on its nine nominations.

“Whiplash”, the independent film about an aspiring jazz drummer and his tough mentor from young director Damien Chazelle, won three Oscars.

The only box office blockbuster among the eight, the Iraq war drama “American Sniper” from director Clint Eastwood, also fell short with one win.

Love him or hate him, Neil Patrick Harris proved to be one of the hardest-working hosts in Oscar history on Sunday night, singing, dancing and even sprinting in his underpants onto the stage of Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre.

But the 41-year-old Broadway and television talent who came to prominence as the child star of “Doogie Howser, M. D.”, also confronted a major elephant in the room, opening the show with a fleeting but pointed jab at the homogenous field of Oscar nominees.

It was a night in which the controversy over the lack of diversity among this year’s nominees was front and centre. First-time host Harris opened the telecast with a quip: “Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest, sorry brightest.”

The opening joke was a reference to the criticism Oscar voters faced this year for failing to nominate a single performer of colour in any of the acting categories for the first time in many years, including the critically acclaimed star of the civil rights drama, “Selma”, David Oyelowo.

But the race theme resonated in a more serious way too, when Common and John Legend got a standing ovation and made many in the audience cry with their performance of “Glory” from the 1960s civil rights drama “Selma”.

It won best song, delivering the sole victory to “Selma”, the film at the centre of the diversity debate sparked by the exclusion of actors of colour from the four acting categories. The nominations prompted a backlash on Twitter with the hashtag “#OscarsSoWhite.

“’Selma’ is now, because the struggle for justice is right now,” said Legend in the aftermath of recent racially charged protests in America.

 

Actresses Moore, Arquette prevail

 

All four acting award winners celebrated their first Oscars.

Redmayne, who won critical acclaim for his depiction of the various stages of disability endured by Hawking, who suffers from the motor neuron disease known as ALS.

“I am fully aware that I am a lucky, lucky man,” Redmayne said. “This Oscar belongs to all of those people around the world battling ALS.”

Five-time nominee Julianne Moore won best actress, also for her portrayal of an illness, as a middle-aged woman suffering Alzheimer’s in “Still Alice”.

“I read an article that said that winning an Oscar could lead to living five years longer,” said the 54-year-old Moore. “If that’s true, I’d really like to thank the Academy because my husband is younger than me.”

Patricia Arquette won best supporting actress for her role as a struggling single mother in “Boyhood” and made an appeal for equal pay and rights for women in America in her acceptance speech.

J. K. Simmons, after decades as a character actor, won the best supporting actor as a monstrous music teacher in “Whiplash”.

For the biggest televised event outside the sports world, the Academy aimed to attract young viewers who may not care much about the films but who could tune in for the musical acts.

A bridge between the young and old, pop diva Lady Gaga received a standing ovation for her medley of tunes from “The Sound of Music” before introducing that film’s star, Julie Andrews.

Harris got laughs with his brave appearance in white underwear, a spoof of Keaton’s opening scene in “Birdman”. But some of his jokes fell flat and his debut got mixed reviews.

Ratings for the ABC telecast might also suffer because the show ran past midnight on the US East Coast.

Poland’s “Ida” clinched best foreign-language film, and director Pawel Pawlikowski pushed the 45-second acceptance speech boundary to thank “my Polish friends who are in front of the TV, the crew who were in the trenches with us and who are totally drunk now, and you were fantastic”.

Best documentary went to “Citizenfour”, director Laura Poitras’ feature about National Security Agency whistle-blower Edward Snowden, the former government contractor who detailed the secret mass surveillance programmes.

“The subject of ‘Citizenfour,’ Edward Snowden, could not be here for some treason,” joked Harris.

 

Unflattering reviews

 

Early reviews of the live ABC telecast, which ran about 40 minutes beyond its three-hour schedule, were generally unflattering of the show. And Harris drew largely harsh critiques from viewers chiming in on social media.

Variety credited Harris with getting the show off to a buoyant opening but faulted bad writing for what it described as a subsequent breakdown in the telecast.

“Too much clunky scripted material flummoxed even Harris’ impish, good-natured charms,” Variety’s Brian Lowry wrote.

The New York Times’ Alessandra Stanley called Harris’ performance “bland”, while offering tepid kudos for his zaniest stunt of the evening.

In a comic homage to a memorable scene from best-picture Oscar winner “Birdman”, Harris was followed on camera running from backstage onto the show’s main stage, dressed only in his white underpants, black shoes and socks, to introduce presenters of the sound-mixing award.

Time magazine’s early online review said Harris seemed off his game, despite having “been pre-sold as an expert live host”.

Harris was perhaps at his best showing off his chops as a song-and-dance man in the night’s opening musical number — a salute to movie magic that also marked a conscious effort to connect with tech-savvy younger television viewers.

“Check out the glamour, and glitter/people tweeting on the Twitter/and no one’s drunk and bitter yet/because no one has lost,” sang Harris, the star of the hit CBS sitcom “How I Met Your Mother”, who previously has won three Emmys for hosting Broadway’s Tony Awards.

Another overt bid to reach younger viewers came in a musical performance of the pop duo Tegan and Sara teaming up with former “Saturday Night Live” star Andy Samberg and the Lonely Island trio for a rendering of the kids’ favourite “Everything Is Awesome”, from “The Lego Movie”.

Turning one of last year’s great Oscar faux pas into one of this year’s more comical interludes, John Travolta returned to the stage as a presenter with singer Idina Menzel, whose name he mangled at the 86th Oscars show.

He went out of his way to pronounce her name correctly this time, then rather sheepishly stood aside to leave Menzel the task of pronouncing the names of the best original song nominees. The winners, Legend and Common, neatly brought the evening’s political and comic moments full circle.

 

Animation

 

Disney Animation’s “Big Hero 6”, a comic book-inspired tale of a teen science genius who befriends a huggable robot and forms a superhero team, won the Academy Award for best animated feature film.

“This has been an amazing year for animated films and we are privileged to be in your company,” said co-director Don Hall.

He was the second winner of the night to make a point of thanking his parents, after best supporting actor J. K. Simmons made a passionate speech urging people to call their parents and thank them.

“One upon a time there was a freckle-faced little boy who told his mom and his dad he was going to work at Walt Disney Animation and they did something amazing. They supported him,” Hall said.

“Big Hero 6”, released in November last year, was Disney’s first animated film foray into the Marvel comics universe, fusing Japanese influences into American pop culture.

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