There are two kinds of travesties that can happen in the Best Picture category: the ordinary travesty, and the epochal travesty. Tonight, for the first time in 20 years, we’ve witnessed an epochal travesty.
The ordinary travesty happens many years at the Oscars; it happens when a mediocre or outright bad movie wins Best Picture over a bunch of better movies. It happened when Argo won the 2012 Oscars, when The Artist won the 2011 Oscars, when The King’s Speech won the 2010 Oscars. The Best Picture category was scattered with great movies those years—Django Unchained, Zero Dark Thirty, The Tree of Life, The Kids Are All Right, The Social Network, Toy Story 3. Many, many film lovers will agree that it sure would’ve been terrific if some of those movies were Best Picture winners instead of what actually won.
And then there’s the epochal travesty. That’s what is risked when, against all odds, a true masterpiece, a movie for the ages, somehow battles its way through the mediocrity and the politicking and the bullshit and lands a Best Picture nomination. These years, the academy has the chance to reward actual brilliance—to make not just a good choice but the right choice. About half the time this happens, the academy, to its credit, nails it—It Happened One Night, Gone With the Wind, Casablanca, The Apartment, Lawrence of Arabia, The Godfather, Annie Hall, Terms of Endearment, The Silence of the Lambs, Schindler’s List, Titanic, and 12 Years a Slave all won Best Picture, and history will smile upon those choices.
But sometimes the academy blows it. That’s the epochal travesty. It was an epochal travesty when Citizen Kane lost in 1941. When The Graduate lost in 1967. Cries and Whispers, High Noon, Goodfellas, Pulp Fiction. In one truly awful stretch in the late ’70s and early ’80s, the academy blew it four years in a row, as Apocalypse Now, Raging Bull, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and E.T. all somehow lost Best Picture.
And the academy blew it tonight, when Boyhood lost. This one’s an epochal Oscar travesty. This one hurts.
By nominating Boyhood, the academy gave itself the chance to recognize a movie that is not just good but revolutionary—a film that reconsiders, in surprising and rewarding ways, the medium’s relationship with time, with storytelling, and with its audience. It’s both a singular work—no one but Richard Linklater could have made it—and a universal one, reflecting the elemental formative experiences of nearly every viewer, even those who don’t, on the surface, have a lot in common with Mason or Samantha or Olivia or Mason Sr. It’s the crowning work of a crucial American filmmaker and a profound statement about the lives we live. But the academy gave Best Picture to a movie about an actor’s identity crisis—a movie about, in Mark Harris’ perfect turn of phrase, “someone who hopes to create something as good as Boyhood.”
That’s not to say Birdman is a bad movie. Indeed, in many ways, Birdman represents the kind of movie I wish the academy would reward more often—adventurous, risk-taking, foolhardy, darkly comedic. Those kinds of movies get ignored by the academy far too often, and there would be many years I’d consider a Best Picture statue for Birdman a promising development for the future of moviemaking.
But the thing about an epochal travesty is it doesn’t matter if the movie that wins is good or bad. An American in Paris is a darn good movie. But it beat out a straight-up masterpiece in A Streetcar Named Desire. I really love One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but that year the academy could’ve given Best Picture to an indelible work of American art, Nashville, or an immortal work of American pop, Jaws. (Sometimes, of course, epochal travesties are also just plain dumb, as with the previous one, Pulp Fiction’s loss to Forrest Gump.)
Birdman is a terrific movie. Boyhood is a masterpiece, and its loss feels different from an ordinary Oscar loss. It feels like a missed opportunity for the Oscars to seize their relevance, to control their relationship to posterity. It feels like a loss we’ll be smarting about for a long time. Ten, 20, 50 years from now, we’ll look back, and slap our heads and say, How did they let this happen?
Also in Slate:
- Neil Patrick Harris was shockingly unfunny hosting the Oscars. What happened?
- In Praise of Julianne Moore, Our Smartest, Bravest, Most Self-Effacingly Brilliant Actress
- Meryl and J.Lo Nearly Fell Out of Their Chairs for Patricia Arquette’s Feminist Oscar Speech
- The Oscars Musical Performance That Left Everyone in Tears—Even Chris Pine