One hesitates to use the word “egoless” with regard to Hollywood but one of the pleasures turned up by this year’s awards season has been watching the director Richard Linklater’s Capraesque path to and from the winner’s podium. His film “Boyhood”, shot over a 12-year period in the life of its teenage hero, played by the newcomer Ellar Coltrane (above), has been the unlikely frontrunner to win the Best Picture Oscar since October. Unlikely because nothing about Linklater’s gently indolent films—from his debut, “Slacker”, to “Dazed and Confused” to the “Before Sunrise” trilogy—exactly shouted “Oscar”. They don’t shout much of anything at all, offering up small-scale epiphanies and stoner pensées in a spirit of patient pointillism not a million miles away from the films of Eric Rohmer.
Linklater himself has the matte, low-key affect of someone who comes to fix your fridge and stays to unblock your sink and then—since he’s here—rehang your pictures. Wherever James Cameron comes from in the moviemaking universe, Linklater hails from the opposite corner. There’s absolutely zero danger of him proclaiming himself “king of the world” if—as looks increasingly likely—he makes his way to the stage of the Kodak theatre to pick up Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director next month. Instead he is likely to do what he did at the Golden Globes last weekend: get up on stage and pump everyone’s hand, as if he’s at the biggest job interview of his life, and then deliver a speech almost entirely lacking in the false humility with which the egomaniacal traditionally adorn themselves on such occasions. He will be faltering, awkward, not quite up to the occasion, maybe even a little disappointing. That is how an honest man shows up on Oscar night.
Today’s nominations—including nine each for Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “Birdman” and Wes Anderson's “The Grand Budapest Hotel”, eight for Morten Tyldum’s “The Imitation Game”, and six for Clint Eastwood's “American Sniper” and Linklater’s “Boyhood”—confirm a field that has been mapped out by the Oscar commentariat for many months. “It’s still a wide open race!” declares Awards Daily’s Sasha Stone, but in truth the locust-swarm of online commentary has done much to bleed the Oscars of genuine surprise. Most people knew “12 Years a Slave” was going to win last year when it was unveiled at the festivals the previous September. “Argo”, the winner in 2013, was called by Roger Ebert as early as July. For many months now, consultants have been positioning “Boyhood” as David in a David-versus-Goliath battle, the Oscars’ pre-eminent narrative—although in truth Linklater’s ineffably gentle film has been more of a David in search of a Goliath for it to be the underdog. For all its ellipses, “The Imitation Game” couldn’t massage enough triumph from the tale of Alan Turing. “Interstellar” failed to connect with the Academy, outside its obvious technical prowess. Despite an obvious Oscar gene pool (“Chariots of Fire” meets “Bridge over the River Kwai”), Angelina Jolie’s “Unbroken” failed to impress the critics, becoming this year’s “Invictus”.
All of the acting races also have clear, long-ensconced, hard-to-dislodge favourites. Everyone decided Best Actress was Julianne Moore’s, for her performance as a victim of early-onset Alzheimer’s in “Still Alice”, before the film had even opened. That the film turned out to be weak is no matter: so is the Best Actress field, and Moore is one of those actresses, perennially nominated, who are “owed”. Best Actor boasts a much stronger field, featuring two Brits doing geniuses—Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing in “The Imitation Game” and Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything”—who may end up cancelling one another out. Steve Carell’s mesmerising, cobra-like turn in “Foxcatcher” is more the kind of thing that wins Best Supporting than Best Actor, leaving the field open to Michael Keaton, whose self-deconstruction in “Birdman”, in which he plays an aging actor trying to live down his superhero past, comes with its own prefab Oscar narrative. You don’t just win for a performance—you also have to perform the role of Oscar winner—and Keaton gave a magnificent speech at the Globes on Sunday, hitting all the right notes but spritzed with his distinctive, errant electricity.
Same with Best Supporting. The favourite to win Best Supporting Actor is J.K. Simmons, whose sadistic music instructor in Damien Chazelle’s “Whiplash” both demonstrated range—you’ll probably remember him best as the kindly father figure in “Juno”—and capped a 60-year-career in movies and television. Best Supporting Actress has a little more give in it: Emma Stone dazzled as Keaton’s morose but feisty daughter in “Birdman”, fresh from rehab and ripping into her vain father, but the fates seem more closely aligned with Patricia Arquette’s struggling single mom in “Boyhood”, not just for her performance, but the fact that, given Linklater’s unique method of filming, she had to age onscreen—actually age, over a period of 12 years, not just apply make-up. And therein you have the curious potency of “Boyhood” when it comes to the Academy, a body drawn to rewarding art but distrusting artifice, wanting, above all, for the magic to be real.
The Oscars Kodak Theatre, Los Angeles, February 22nd. For the races that are harder to call—notably Best Original Screenplay, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Foreign Film and Best Score—check back here on February 21st, when Tom Shone will give full predictions for all 24 categories