According to Hollywood cognoscenti, this year’s Best Picture Oscar on Sunday may come down to Birdman or Boyhood, which couldn’t be more appropriate. Not in a long time has an Oscar race — and two pictures — so clearly defined the state of the American film industry and the tensions that rend it when it gets outside its commercial comfort zone. Think of the contest as head versus heart, or as art versus artlessness.
Critic Richard Schickel once said Hollywood made movies for two reasons: to appease teenagers who fill the industry’s coffers, and to win prizes, which fills the industry’s ego. Only on the rarest of occasions does a film do both.
What Schickel didn’t say is that not all prizewinners are created equal and that you can reward different impulses. It matters what film the industry rewards because the choice is a reflection on both the academy and the filmmaker. The Oscar may be Hollywood’s best opportunity to project its best image to the world. You don’t want to blow it.
That’s where the divisions arise. Though we generally think of Hollywood as the source of middle-brow entertainment, it doesn’t necessarily want to think of itself that way — or have you think of it that way, either. At least not at Oscar time. In fact, there is a growing contingent of folks in Hollywood who seem to pride themselves on being brainy. They want to make films that have something profound to say about the human condition, that are grown up — that provoke the mind, not just the emotions.
In the good old days, this meant movies about social issues. Make a film about race relations or the Holocaust, and you were almost sure to get yourself a nomination, if not the big prize itself. But there was a kind of simplicity in that — Selma may have suffered for it — and Hollywood is moving past this. Today, the intellectual contingent thinks of movies as high-art, and views high art as being complex and demanding, not just or even socially engaged.
Michael Keaton as Riggan in ‘Birdman.’
This year, the intellectuals’ picture is Birdman, about a tormented onetime movie action hero seeking redemption in a Broadway drama, that no one would claim is exactly a pulse-racing entertainment. So why do they love it? Critic Mark Harris makes a convincing case in Grantland that the reason Hollywood is so smitten by Birdman is that, like recent Best Picture predecessors The Artist and Argo, it is a film about film — that flatters the industry on its importance or self-importance. This is a movie about moviemakers.
Maybe so. But it is not only a movie about the movie industry. It is a movie about the industry’s pretensions to art — a kind of intellectual Mobius strip of a movie in which the characters dismiss Hollywood’s comic-book movies in favor of “serious work.” Though it seems oblivious to its own pretentiousness, Birdman is, if nothing else, a very serious movie that treats our ordinary movie-going pleasures as if they were a disease. Indeed, it is a chronicle of how to conquer that disease.
There is, however, another contingent in Hollywood, a large group of folks who are more interested in displaying their emotions. Their movie is Boyhood, which follows 12 years in the life of a youngster in Texas. It functions as the anti-Birdman. No, Boyhood doesn’t plug into teenage movie conventions. There is no comic-book superhero, much less the three-act structure considered essential for commercial movies. In fact, it had a hard time finding a distributor.
But Boyhood is definitely a film of the heart, not the head. It is so devoid of pretentions that it almost seems as if it is about nothing. Its virtue, critics have attested, is that it unspools like real life — full of tiny moments rather than big ones.
Ellar Coltrane (Mason), and Ethan Hawke (Mason Sr.) in ‘Boyhood.’
By no means is it the sort of film that Birdman reviles. But it is not the sort of film that Birdman’s protagonist, Riggan Thomson, would be likely to make to prove his artistic bona fides, either. It is not a big-issue, high-art movie.
So there it is — Hollywood’s two new primal tendencies squaring off: the brainiacs against the big hearts, those trumpeting their capacity to think against those trumpeting their capacity to feel.
You could call this a matter of two different aesthetics, except that it isn’t just about two divergent approaches to art, or even life. It is also about two divergent approaches to personal image — which counts a great deal in Hollywood. If Birdman wins, it could signal the victory of a new group that wants to show the world that the movie industry is much smarter than its detractors give it credit for — one that can even see its own shortcomings. If Boyhood wins, it will be a victory for some of those traditionalists who think of art as an emotional enterprise and want to show the world that they are much more emotionally connected than they are given credit for.
In either case, Hollywood is saying that it knows the difference between the movies it makes to get rich and the movies it makes to bet proud.
That’s the big question for Oscar handicappers: Does Hollywood want to be seen as arty or as artless? Which of these the industry chooses will not only tell us the winner — unless The Grand Budapest Hotel manages to sneak in — but it will tell us, whither Hollywood.
* Neal Gabler is the author of "An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood" and “Life: The Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality.” He’s working on a biography of Senator Ted Kennedy.
The opinion expressed is his.