HUGE upset at the Golden Globe Awards tonight, as the relatively small indie film “Boyhood”, written and directed by Richard Linklater and starring, among others, Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, won Best Motion Picture. It beat out “Selma” – the true story of the civil rights marches in Alabama led by Dr. King, “The Theory of Everything” – the true story of Stephen Hawking’s younger years, “The Imitation Game” – the true story of Alan Turing and his team who broke the Nazi Enigma code, and “Foxcatcher” – the true story of Dupont heir John DuPont and his relationship with Olympic wrestlers Mark and Dave Schultz.
Except for “Foxcatcher” I enjoyed all the nominated films, but what a relief to have a winning film NOT based on a true story! Seriously, I was beginning to doubt the ability of any untrue story to win ever again. (Ok, I’m exaggerating. A look back over the winners of the past few years shows that about every 3rd year or so a film not based on a true story wins. But still. This year “Boyhood” was the only nominated film whose screenplay sprung completely from the imagination of the writer.)
While I enjoy a good true story, and in some cases these films are great ways to learn a bit about history, most of them will never make my all time favorite theater experience list. That list is dominated by films that take me to worlds that don’t exist, introduce me to people I wind up loving or hating but about whom I never have to think “was he/she really like that?”
Films should be the ultimate expression of creativity; writing, photography, performance, art & design – all of it is necessary to make a film. Films made about real people or true events are by their nature somewhat limited creatively. The story is already set, the art & design must mimic the given reality as closely as possible and the performance is judged by comparison to the actual person.
The people in “Boyhood” might remind us of real people – maybe even ourselves – but that’s the other thing that a great fictional story can do; make us see ourselves in the people on the screen. I am never going to see myself in Stephen Hawking or Alan Turing. I admire both of those men and their achievements; I felt gutted when watching the scenes where Hawking received his ALS diagnosis and when Turing was arrested for being homosexual. But it’s a different kind of emotion than in a well told fictional story where I’m gutted by a tragedy or lost love.
The third reason I’m thrilled about the “Boyhood” win is that this film in no way fits the Hollywood prescription for a successful film. It was shot over a period of 12 years with the same cast. So the boy who was seven when the film started was really 19 when it ended. 12 weeks over 12 years. Ethan Hawke (who I happen to adore so this is no criticism of mine) was the biggest name in the film. Ethan is known for doing small projects that are somewhat offbeat and quirky and most studios wouldn’t consider him money in the bank. Patricia Arquette (who wonderfully also won a Globe tonight!) comes from a family whose picture is probably next to the words “weird and unpredictable” in the Hollywood handbook. The star of the film was Ellar Coltrane. Never heard of him? You are not alone.
Creativity that doesn’t follow a certain pattern can often be squashed before it ever has a chance to flourish. Choruses of “that will never work” or “it just isn’t done” can become overpowering and deadly. “Boyhood” is proof that it can work, and it is done.
It can even win Best Picture at the Golden Globes.