Academy breaks norm in Oscar race decision

Alejandro G. Inarritu accepts the award for best director for "Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)'', in the press room of the 87th Academy Awards on Sunday, Feb. 22, 2015, at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood. (Ian West/PA Wire/TNS)

The 87th Academy Awards brought some locks and some tight finishes, but the night’s final prize remained a veritable toss-up until the end.

“American Sniper” and “Selma” had outside shots at striking gold, but Best Picture was only a real possibility for “Birdman” and “Boyhood.”

The latter was the better film and deserved to win, but it fell victim to the ebbs and flows of the traditionally tumultuous Oscar season.

“Boyhood” was a critical darling since its debut at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival and seemed to be following in the footsteps of other Sundance successes like “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Beasts of the Southern Wild” to an Oscar nomination.

But as the season wore on and one critics group after another hailed it as the best film of 2014, it began to earn frontrunner status.

Once a film earns the “frontrunner” moniker — no matter how great of a film it is — pundits and even the same critics who loved it before start to peck away at it.

That’s why momentum and popularity at the right time are so important for a film during an awards-season run.

That momentum shifted to “Birdman” when the respective guilds started to give their annual awards.

The star-studded cast of “Birdman” was always expected to get the Screen Actors Guild’s top prize, Best Ensemble.

Then its director, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, also won the top Directors Guild Award, which was “Boyhood” helmer Richard Linklater’s to lose.

But “Birdman” got its biggest boost of the season and went from frontrunner to near-lock for Best Picture when it won the top Producers Guild Award.

The PGA uses the same preferential balloting system to decide its winner as the Academy does.

The guilds are also illuminating to the Best Picture landscape because there is a large member crossover among the guilds and the Academy.

Not to mention the only film to win the SAG, the DGA and the PGA and go on to lose Best Picture was “Apollo 13” nearly 20 years ago.

So it looked set that “Birdman” would hit pay dirt on Oscar Sunday, that is until the British Academy of Film and Television Awards put a roadblock in front of its victory parade.

The BAFTAs have gone in the same direction with their Best Picture selection as the Oscars the last six years, and this year they went with “Boyhood” for Best Film as well as Richard Linklater for Best Director.

And so the toss-up was set. And prognosticators picked one or the other based purely on which precursor they prescribe to — the guilds or BAFTA.

I thought “Birdman” was a love-it-or-hate-it film, which usually falls short on Oscar night because of the balloting system.

It seemed to me that despite the late love that came “Birdman”’s way, “Boyhood” still had the best shot at Best Picture because of its widespread admiration across all branches.

But any extraordinary anger that’s spewed at the Academy over its Best Picture selection is superfluous.

No matter which film the Academy would have chosen Sunday, it would have been a refreshing diversion from their usual cookie-cutter path.

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