I hadn’t expected Birdman to win best picture. Seriously, I thought American Sniper had a chance, plus the films about Stephen Hawking, Alan Turing, Martin Luther King. I thought Boyhood might win, partly because of its original idea: the filming of a child’s coming of age, shot intermittently over the actual period of growth for the child–12 years. The other reason had to do with heroism, the type of heroism assigned to parents contending with everyday realities, stressors, over time. The film seems to appeal to a mass audience looking for itself on the big screen; a validation of all that’s difficult in life. And this seems to me a prerequisite quality for widely accepted, as in successful popular art.
Not so much, according to the academy voters, much to my surprise. Of the best picture nominees, Birdman wasn’t the only film without a chance of winning as far as I was concerned. The others were Whiplash (my favorite film of the year, actually), and The Grand Budapest Hotel, which should have won all awards were a strict aesthetic criteria being applied. Prior to the ceremony, about which I had only passing interest, I did not fashion a particular reason for my prejudice, but afterwards observed the ground rules I’d summarily applied. Of all the films nominated, it occurred to me that none of my three non-contenders presented with conventional heroic themes. Grand Budapest Hotel is essentially a comedy and thus didn’t stand a chance of winning best picture. The protagonist of Whiplash appears potentially heroic at the outset of the story. Miles Teller’s manic drummer boy seems quiet and sweet, but soon betrays an obsessive, narcissistic edge which ultimately renders him the equal of his brutal teacher. We cheer for the Andrew Neiman character, but the drama is his own and no one else’s. Meaning, what he does he does for himself. The same is more or less true of Riggan Thomson, the protagonist of Birdman, who adapts a play for the Broadway stage, bravely invests all his money in the production; has left the comfy cash-cow of Hollywood, splitting from the gravy train of a bizarre superhero character. It all sounds winning, if eccentric, but as I watched Michael Keaton and director Inarritu collecting their award, I wondered what fans of the other films were thinking. After all, if your favorite film of the year was about America’s most celebrated civil rights leader, or the greatest scientific mind of his generation, or the man who supposedly cracked a Nazi code and won WWII, or if, more topically, your film recognized the plight of the embattled American soldier overseas fighting terrorism, then you might have looked upon Riggan Thomson and thought, so what.
I felt quietly refreshed, for as a film buff, I peruse the history of Oscar winners over the decades and observe that conventional hero figures usually win the day. But they’re often missing from my list of favorites, because I prefer unlikely heroes, or even protagonists who don’t even seem that way, because most of us don’t. This is why Bryan Tecco, my protagonist of The Situation, had to be a drug dealer and a slob. He had to seem self-absorbed, even callous. Because he goes about his life as most do–trying to get by–his gift to society is what the oligarchs of capitalism intend. It is preordained but stumbled upon, like Bryan’s near drowning at the outset of the novel. It is an accident.