The day the Academy Award nominations were announced last month, the oddsmakers weren’t really considering any film besides Boyhood as capable of winning Best Picture. Offshore gambling site Sportsbook.ag had Richard Linklater’s loving ode to a particular brand of Texas childhood listed as such an overwhelming favorite that you’d have to bet $100 to win $5 back. For Linklater himself, fresh off a win for Best Director at the Golden Globes, the most favorable betting odds you’d find if you wanted to put $100 on him taking the same award at the Oscars would have netted you only $4 back.
Betting lines fluctuate in sports based on a variety of factors, but—to put it mildly—it’s very rare for odds that started at minus two thousand to shift before the event to the point where that $100 bet garners $150. In other words, there’s a very real chance that Boyhood is going to flop at the Oscars, a prospect that seemed all but impossible following the Golden Globes and Oscar nominations announcement in January.
In place of Boyhood, Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman is now the odds-on favorite (your $100 bet will win you only $40 there). So what happened to Linklater and Boyhood? The New York Times has a take:
Mr. Linklater’s deceptively simple, 12-years-in-the-making valentine to growing up may have charmed critics, but it left an array of Academy members cold. A few Oscar voters were saying they didn’t get why “Boyhood” was generating such a fuss. Among some industry filmmakers, the sense was “give me 12 years, and I’d show you what I could do with a feature film” (never mind that Mr. Linklater was the one who actually did it) — or, take away those 12 years, and Mr. Linklater’s story line felt a little thin. There was also talk of grumblings among the “below-the-line” folks, the under-the-radar toilers whose names clog the credit reel if not the red carpet: directors of photography, gaffers, best boys and the like, people who tend to appreciate technically complicated films and craft.
One Academy voter told the [New York Times blog Carpet]Bagger that all the critical accolades bestowed on “Boyhood,” along with its early front-runner status—a perilous place to be in an Oscar race—left expectations too high. “It makes you unfairly expect a transcendent experience, which is so rare,” said the voter, who requested anonymity because the Academy forbids members to endorse or speak about a film publicly. “But it’s an extraordinary achievement nonetheless.”
The relative transcendence of the experience of watching Boyhood is in the eye of the beholder. Writing at The Atlantic, Imran Siddiquee argued that Boyhood was simply a reflection of a very particular kind of childhood and not one that people of color (or people who live in diverse communities) might recognize as their own. That criticism is well-placed, but the notion that Boyhood’s conceptual achievements are diminished because Linklater doesn’t move the camera enough or the film’s depiction of a relatively ordinary life lacks the pizzazz of a frenetic film like Birdman.
Iñárritu’s film is an impressive achievement, to be sure—on a technical level, it exhibits a wizardry rarely seen, where the camera literally never stops moving—but the real appeal to Oscar voters is that it reflects the world in which they live: its primary villain is a critic who is mean to people who make mainstream entertainment, its protagonist is a man who dreams of being recognized for the artistry of his work and not just its commercial appeal, its plot pays tribute to the appeal of superhero action blockbuster films while simultaneously relegating it to low-art—an Oscar-like perspective if ever there was one (check out the fight in Best Visual Effects between Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy, and X-Men: Days Of Future Past for how the Academy feels about superhero movies).
In other words, Birdman is a movie built for Oscars, especially if there’s a backlash arising against Boyhood because it took Linklater twelve years to make that, when if Iñárritu had spent twelve years making a movie, it would have been a sprawling epic.
Those aren’t the only movies nominated for Best Picture, of course, but they’re the only two whose chances of winning aren’t so slim that your $100 bet wouldn’t win you $3,000 (where American Sniper currently sits), $5,000 (The Grand Budapest Hotel), or $20,000 (Selma).
It’s unlikely, regardless of what happens in the Best Picture and Best Director categories, that Boyhood gets shut out entirely. The film is nominated for Best Supporting Actor (Ethan Hawke), Best Supporting Actress (Patricia Arquette), Best Screenplay, and Best Film Editing. Hawke’s odds of winning sit around sixty to one right now, and fellow Texan Wes Anderson is the odds-on favorite to win the Oscar for Best Screenplay for his Grand Budapest Hotel. No bookie we can find is crazy enough to offer odds on the Film Editing award, but Patricia Arquette—for whom $100 will net you a whopping $1.67—is essentially a shoe-in for Best Supporting Actress.
In some ways, it’d be hard to consider an Academy Awards ceremony in which the word Boyhood was uttered by a presenter announcing a winner only once as anything other than a disappointment for Linklater. He’s helped reimagine the possibilities of film for 25 years, creating some of the most interesting and influential work of any filmmaker alive, and Boyhood is his most essential signature film.
At the same time, part of the appeal of Richard Linklater is that he has always made his movies the way he makes them—with little money, and often little fanfare, deep in the heart of Texas. He kicked off the independent film revolution with Slacker, in 1991, and pioneered new forms of computer animation with Waking Life, in 2001, and started experimenting with the application of real-time as a storytelling element with the Before Sunrise trilogy, which started in 1995. Yet he didn’t get nominated for his first Oscar until the Best Adapted Screenplay nod he received in 2004 for Before Sunrise. He didn’t get his second nomination in that category until Before Midnight, in 2013. And he wasn’t nominated for any other Oscars in any other categories until this year, with Boyhood.
In other words, Linklater’s been one of our most innovative and interesting filmmakers for decades without much Oscar notice, and he’ll continue to be that even if the Academy continues to dismiss his work. Win or lose on Sunday, Linklater is still a titan of Texas film, and if Hollywood refuses to recognize it, well, what else is new?
(Photo of Linklater and daughter Lorelei at the Golden Globes, in January, by Matt Sayles/Invision/AP)