BEHIND THE BALLOTS
An Oscar Voter Tells All: ‘American Sniper’ Sucks and ‘Selma’ Was Robbed
Julianne Moore is great at Academy lunches, while Birdman director Alejandro González Inarritu can be a pain to work with. An illuminating chat with an Oscar voter.
It’s another dark, heady year for Oscar films, with some of the prime contenders including an epic ode to minutiae (Boyhood), a levitating satire about narcissistic actors (Birdman), and two biopics about troubled geniuses played by British people (The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything). And who is better equipped to tell us who is going to win—or at least who deserves to win—than an Oscar voter? Well, I’ve found one, and she happens to know quite a lot about creating, campaigning, winning, and commenting. She was also willing to think through the various reasons why Selma—the civil rights saga that has a 99 percent approval rating on rottentomatoes.com—only nabbed two nominations. Here’s our illuminating chat:
Hello, Oscar voter. Why the diminished love for Selma, which was snubbed for its directing, writing, acting, cinematography, editing, and costumes?
I have to admit I’m slightly baffled. It would have helped if it came out sooner, both theater wise and screening wise, but as a voter, I received the movie a couple of weeks ago, so I had time to see it. The exclusion of [director] Ava DuVernay I do not get. There are a couple of things that are confusing—like how can they not nominate The Lego Movie? What is going on?
Well, at least Lego and Selma are both up for Best Song, lol! And Selma got a Best Picture nod, which seems strange considering the lack of Academy adoration for its various elements. Did the controversy over the film’s portrayal of President Johnson have anything to do with the dis?
Given the age of the Academy members, perhaps. But that’s such a case of making a mountain out of a molehill. Ava having Gay Talese come forward was a good approach to it. She was so astute in her response to how she handled it, but the ballot had virtually been cast by then.
I remember how, once Kathryn Bigelow was on the defensive about Zero Dark Thirty, it seemed its Oscar hopes had dried up (though it did win for Sound Editing, blah blah blah).
I think it’s the most likely explanation out there. And it’s a somewhat late entry into the race.
Will you vote for Selma for Best Picture?
If I was really gonna be honest, I think in that field, yes. I think Birdman is a wonderful film. I think I’m slightly prejudiced because several people I know have had such a difficult time personally with [director/co-writer] Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu that when things are close, I’d err against him. He has a reputation for being terrible to work with. Directors have to be demanding and controlling and narcissistic—all the successful ones are—but there’s a degree! The real truth is I thought Selma is a wonderful movie and she did an extraordinary job. And as a woman, that sways me a little.
Do you think it has even a snowball’s chance of winning? And I don’t mean Best Song.
It’s a longer shot. Without Ava being nominated, it really hurt her.
What do you think will emerge triumphant, Boyhood or Birdman?
In my book, Birdman. I don’t get Boyhood as a movie. I don’t understand how it was nominated for screenplay. That was one of the weakest things about it, in my opinion.
This one’s fun because it is a real neck and neck. But I do have a feeling it’s gonna be Michael Keaton for Birdman in a really close race. Probably Eddie Redmayne (Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything) will come in second. I’ll vote for Keaton. I think the film was psychologically complex. It was an actor’s dream. Edward Norton stole the show in a lot of ways, but when you see Keaton—the modulation of what he did, the scene where he talks about his background and ends it with “Gotcha,” the befuddlement, the “I’m on the verge of a nervous breakdown” energy, the “I‘ve got voices in my head” but not going too far with that, the driven quality of that, was incredible. But the level the movie really works on is a father-daughter story. That’s the beating heart of the beast. And what the two of them [Keaton and Emma Stone] did was exquisite.
Would you factor in the Matthew McConaughey-like trajectory of an actor who revitalized his career by attaining credibility?
Yes. Who doesn’t love a comeback story?
Is Julianne Moore a slam dunk for playing a woman with early onset Alzheimer’s in Still Alice?
I feel we can all go to the bathroom during that. I haven’t seen it yet—I will—but I still think she’s a slam dunk by the subject matter and the competition. Also factor in her incredible body of work, plus she’s completely charming. She’s great at the Academy lunches.
You don’t schmooze, you lose. Meanwhile, you loved Edward Norton in Birdman, but can he really beat Whiplash’s J.K. Simmons for Supporting Actor? Simmons is winning every trophy under the sun.
I think it’s going to be hard to stop the juggernaut of J.K. Simmons, but I’m voting for Norton. I think J.K. is a wonderful actor, but I’m in the minority. I didn’t get Whiplash. I like Miles Teller and I thought J.K. was incredible, but I stayed outside the movie. It has all the earmarks of something I’d normally like, but I didn’t get into it.
Was it too psychologically brutal for you?
No! I love all that dark and devious stuff. But I feel like I’ve seen a million drill sergeant movies, and I’ve been pulled into other ones more. Sometimes your mood that day can throw you off, and I respect all the respect it’s gotten and it’s not like I think it’s a terrible movie, but it didn’t lift me off the page. I felt there’s more going on with Norton’s character—more layers, more subtlety. It pops off the page.
I agree. I was surprised when Norton started being the runner up. I guess J.K. is getting the Louis Gossett, Jr. award.
Yeah. You’re playing largely one note in that film.
I guess people are thrilled to see that the man who does the voice of the yellow M&M is actually a really good actor. OK, Supporting Actress?
With Keira Knightley [The Imitation Game], you can throw that one away. Like, “Why? Really?”
The wife of the gay guy!
It was the most boring performance ever, and she’s good, but oh, my lord. Emma Stone is amazing to me, what she keeps coming up with. That‘s a category I’m still head scratching about because I know Meryl Streep was great in Into the Woods, but it’s a little bit of a stunt performance, so I don’t go there, but between Emma and Patricia Arquette [Boyhood], to be honest, I might go with Emma. If I want to say what performance is living with me and staying with me, it’s Emma. But Patricia has got it locked up.
Naomi Watts was great in Birdman too. If only her part was bigger, she’d have gotten a nomination.
“We share a vagina” is such a great line—and she delivered it well.
Citizenfour. I thought that was an extraordinary, disturbing cautionary tale.
I haven’t seen any of them yet, but I will.
Getting back to racial issues and the Academy: Let’s not forget that last year, 12 Years a Slave won Best Picture (though that hardly makes up for years of omissions). Do you think they’re racist?
No. I like to think it’s all pure and it’s an organization of one’s peers, but marketing and all that stuff finally does have an impact and Selma didn’t get the campaign and backing it quite needed with that group of people in a timely way.
Can anyone really fault Ava DuVernay for tweaking the movie rather than getting it in for various deadlines?
No. Exactly. But then there was the controversy. If you took away the controversy, you’d be in a different position, but it was too late to recover from that. As for the timing, I got my screener with plenty of time. And it isn’t like there aren’t precedents for holiday releases. You’ve got a black woman and a black film and you’re pitching it to a liberal organization—if anyone should be open to it, it’s that body. 12 Years a Slave was an extraordinary accomplishment and a shot out of the dark. If you were going to split hairs, that is a better movie, but the last thing I want to come off as is, “We’ve got two black movies, so let’s marginalize them and accommodate one.” Selma is really a strong film, especially in a weak year.
Well, Clint Eastwood snuck in late with American Sniper and it’s gotten lots of Oscar love (if not a nomination for his directing).
I’ve got to revisit Sniper because I wasn’t getting through it. That was a head-scratcher for me. I was feeling like this stuff was formulaic. I was having a hard time caring about the history or the characters. It felt very conventional. I couldn’t even get past the flashback stuff!
Will Best Director be Richard Linklater for Boyhood?
Oh, my God. I don’t want to begrudge Linklater this accomplishment, but do I think he’s the best one in the bunch? No.
So you’ll vote for Inarritu, even though he’s a horrible person?
I gotta. It’s a beautiful film. It’s the one that will hold up as a classic. I am so happy Boyhood is doing what it’s doing, but it’s not going to be a movie for the ages.
Wow, you’re a really tough audience—and that’s exactly what the Oscar pool needs. Thanks for your insights.