Oscars 2015: Red carpet laid for battle of Boyhood and Birdman

Neil Patrick Harris expected to bring technological savvy and old-school showbiz oomph

 

The red carpet has been laid out. The bleachers are erected. The Los Angeles police have already deployed a bomb-defusing robot on a suspicious (but ultimately benign) vehicle.

In the small hours of Monday morning (Irish time), after a seemingly endless awards season, the 87th Academy Awards ceremony will kick off at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles.

Many of the races seem done and dusted. But few pundits have been able to convincingly separate the two front-runners for best picture: Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) and Richard Linklater’s Boyhood.

A few years ago, it looked as if the annual telecast, once a ratings behemoth, was in a state of decline. But the rise of social networking – which can turn the most inconsequential ruction into an event – has helped the show recover dramatically with viewers.

Last year, Ellen DeGeneres, tweeting a now-famous selfie of the starry front row, exploited the new media brilliantly and propelled viewing figures to a dazzling 45 million.

As recently as 2011, when Anne Hathaway and James Franco made a notorious hash of hosting duties, the figures were down to 38 million.

This year’s host, Neil Patrick Harris, seen as a clued-in personality, is expected to bring a winning combination of technological savvy and old-school showbiz oomph.

Presenters such as Scarlett Johansson, Gwyneth Paltrow and Dakota Johnson have already rehearsed their soft-soap introductions.

Most domestic film enthusiasts will be fast asleep before the ceremony begins. But epic coverage of arrivals on the red carpet – now as long as some awards ceremonies – will allow those who keep decent hours a taste of live glamour.

Julianne Moore, seen as certain to win best actress for her turn as woman with Alzheimer’s disease in Still, Alice, has already worn down several sets of heel at satellite events.

“It’s so fun. It’s so fun to see all the pretty dresses,” she told The Irish Times. “And keep in mind these are huge entertainments. I was talking to a woman in the airport and she said to be, ‘I love to watch the Oscars, it’s so fun, and the dresses are beautiful, and people are funny and it’s a great show and great entertainment.’”

Oscars 2015: Donald Clarke

Has Ms Moore, who failed to convert four previous nominations, allowed herself to get complacent?

“Oh good lord, no.”

JK Simmons, who plays a savage music teacher in Whiplash, and Patricia Arquette, mother to the adolescent protagonist of Boyhood, should be easy winners in, respectively, the best supporting actor and best supporting actress categories.

But Eddie Redmayne, who plays Profr Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, and Michael Keaton, incandescent as a washed-up actor in Birdman, look to be tied in the race for best actor.

At one stage, Boyhood, which follows the same young actor over 12 years of shooting, looked close to unbeatable for best picture. Recent victories for Birdman with bodies such as the Producers Guild of America and the Directors Guild of America have narrowed the gap to a barely detectable chink.

As ever, dirt has been kicked up around the nominees.

Liberal voices have criticised Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper, featuring Bradley Cooper as Navy Seal marksman Chris Kyle, for a perceived jingoistic tone and, on the eve of Oscar weekend, Maya Elbaum, the widow of Kyle’s colleague Marc Lee, emerged to accuse the film of portraying her late husband as a “reluctant warrior”.

Mutterings about the portrayal of Lyndon Johnson as obstructive to the US civil rights struggle in Ava DuVernay’s Selma were soon drowned out by dismayed gasps when the much-fancied film received only two nominations.

Some say The Imitation Game, the story of Alan Turing’s attempts to break the Nazi Enigma Code, downplays the hero’s homosexuality. And so on.

Such predictable squabbling (often stoked by rival campaigns) rarely affects the voting and, sure enough, by mid-week, the parties had started in earnest.

On Thursday, popular Byrne-shocking atheist Stephen Fry was at Bad Robot, JJ Abrams’s headquarters, to see Carrie Fisher celebrated at the annual Oscar Wilde: Honouring the Irish in Film bash.

Hosted by the US-Ireland Alliance, the party also welcomed chat-master Stephen Colbert, musician Sharon Corr and actor Melissa McCarthy.

On Friday, various female luminaries gathered at Hyde Sunset Kitchen + Cocktails on Sunset Boulevard for the pre-Oscar Women in Film cocktail party. Cathy Schulman, the president of the Los Angeles branch, was cautiously optimistic about rising representation for women at the Oscars.

“On a list of nominees that’s over 200 people big, the fact that there are 44 women is both good and bad,” she said. “Why are there only 44? But if we don’t scream and yell and say, ‘We 44 are here this year!’ then there won’t be 88 next year.” Meryl Streep, Rosamund Pike and Laura Dern were among the nominees who attended.

On Saturday afternoon, on the beach at Santa Monica, a huge array of stars flocked in for the delightfully casual Independent Spirit Awards, traditionally the last major hooley before the main event.

Birdman’s victory over Boyhood at that event seemed to position the Academy Awards a little closer to the Iñárritu film.

Irish hopes rest on two impressive and eccentric projects. Tomm Moore’s Song of the Sea, produced by Kilkenny’s Cartoon Saloon, is up against big beasts such as How to Train Your Dragon 2 and Big Hero Six in the best animated feature race. But the pre-match favourite The Lego Movie failed to get nominated. “We’re going to have a go at the win,” Tomm told The Irish Times.

“There have been a few years where there’s been a small animation in there without any hope of winning. But maybe this year. Who knows? It’s as good a line-up as you can get to have a chance at a win.” Michael Lennox’s enchanting Boogaloo and Graham, in which two Belfast lads learn the facts of life from chickens in the 1970s, competes in the best live-action short category.

It’s nearly over. Or is it? As the coverage of the triumphant premiere of John Crowley’s Brooklyn at Sundance confirmed, chatter has already begun about the 2016 event.

In truth, it never ends.