Even before the detection of Lou Gehrig’s disease while studying cosmology at Cambridge, Eddie Redmayne (pictured) makes us acutely conscious of Stephen Hawking’s body in “The Theory of Everything”. He inhabits it the same way small boys operate remote-controlled toys—with a mixture of offhandedness and feral concentration. His gangly frame is there to do his bidding, if he thinks about it at all. Shambling, shy and slouched of posture, hands shoved in pockets, he peers out from behind an unruly mop of hair, enunciating his words in a soft tumble, his mouth caught up in a crooked Cheshire-cat grin, as if faintly abashed by his own brilliance. Just how much of himself Redmayne brings to the role was evident from his graceful turns on the podium at the Screen Actors Guild awards (SAGs) and, last night, the BAFTAs, where he picked up Best Actor.
Finally we may have a race. That’ll teach me for complaining about how becalmed the Oscars were looking this year. The Oscar could still go to Michael Keaton—the Academy has a habit of looking after its veterans—but Redmayne has been charming on the campaign trail, and the role of Hawking is catnip to the actors who gave him the SAG and who make up the largest voting bloc of the Academy: he spends the latter half of the movie communicating emotion solely through his eyes. Together with a Julianne Moore win for “Still Alice”, an Oscar for Redmayne would make a clean sweep of the top acting awards for degenerative neurological diseases.
The other big upset of the last few weeks has been the running flush of guild awards for “Birdman”—the Darryl F. Zanuck award for Best Film from the Directors’ Guild of America, then the SAG ensemble award, then top honours at the Producers Guild on Saturday—making it the new front-runner for Best Picture at the Oscars. The last film to sweep the guilds and then fail to win Best Picture was “Apollo 13”, which got pipped to the final post by “Braveheart”. “Boyhood”, needless to say, is no “Braveheart”, but its BAFTA win last night only underlines how close the race is. Another way of putting it: the Academy doesn’t much like its choices this year. Every year, it seems, it faces a bigger scramble to find and groom a suitable candidate for Best Picture. This isn't just about picking the best movie. The Oscars are about self-representation—they are about Hollywood waking up the next morning and liking what it sees in the mirror—and this year, of the eight Best Picture nominees, only one (“American Sniper”) was wholly financed with studio money. The rest were either indies (“Boyhood”, “Whiplash”), financed abroad (“The Imitation Game”, “The Theory of Everything”) or else picked up by one of the studio’s speciality wings, acting merely as distributors (“Selma”).
Essentially, none of these films represents the industry. The studios are all in the summer-blockbuster business now—there can only be a handful of Academy members whose pockets are not lined with the dollars of summer franchises, even if this fact is the one they most want to forget on Oscar night. “Boyhood” delivers a certain amount of absolution: what could be less superheroic than a 12-year commitment to a child’s development in which the greatest special effect is provided by time itself? Then again, how the hearts of the “steak-eaters”—that slightly derogatory term for the Academy’s influential bloc of red-blooded craftsmen, set builders and effects guys and so on—yearn for the days when the big-spectacle pictures were also rousing humanist epics like “Braveheart” or “Saving Private Ryan”. They'd rather not go fishing at Sundance for gentle, mild-mannered pictures about single moms and the sensitive young boys they raise, hence the wobbliness of “Boyhood” as we enter the final straight.
“Birdman” offers voters blockbuster absolution in its purest form, giving Academy voters the chance to be seen voting for art over commerce, actors over superheroes, the human spirit over spandex. It’s the ultimate un-blockbuster. At the same time, “Birdman” is no more typical steak-eaters fare than is “Boyhood”. It's a salty-mouthed black comedy taking on Hollywood’s superhero complex, dark and cynical and Godardian and constructed from a series of virtuouso single takes. But many of those guys will vote for Clint Eastwood anyway, turning “American Sniper” into the biggest third-party spoiler of the evening. It’s going to be a bumpy night.
The Oscars Kodak Theatre, Los Angeles, February 22nd. Check back here on February 21st, when Tom Shone will give full predictions for all 24 categories.