The Oscar nominations were announced on Thursday, and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman tied for the most nominations of the year.
I had not seen it prior to the nomination announcement, so I was quite shocked. It seemed unusual for a film like Birdman, which has been disguised as a simple parody, to be thrown the number of nominations that usually go to a film like The Last Emperor. And slapstick actor Michael Keaton was nominated for Best Actor? That almost seemed like a parody in itself. I had to see what the fuss was about.
Turns out, most of them are deserved. Birdman is a wonderful film. It’s a sort of 8 1/2 for the comic book film era. And despite my worries of stunt casting, everyone is perfect for their role.
Michael Keaton has always, for me, been an underrated actor. His opening monologue in Beetlejuice is among the closest times anyone has come to equaling Groucho Marx. His Bruce Wayne/Batman (which Birdman pays tribute to) is superior to Christian Bale’s. Keaton understood the duality of the role and played Bruce Wayne as separate from Batman.
Now, in Birdman, he plays the role only he could play. Riggan is an actor who once played the comic book superhero Birdman for three films. (He declined to do the fourth.) Birdman was a character who could fly and had telekinetic powers. Of course, his star has long faded and some of his sanity has with it. Riggan still hears Birdman’s gravely voice mocking him and at times seems to imagine that he has the same powers.
He’s also trying to win a comeback by directing and starring in a stage adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story. He’s also trying to put up with prima donna costar Mike (Edward Norton) and reconnect with his daughter Sam (Emma Stone) who just left rehab.
Keaton has said that this character is entirely unlike him, which is what makes the performance work. Keaton naturally inhabits Riggan to the point where Keaton’s natural charm and humor is gone. It’s been replaced by complete hatred for himself and a delusional ego that makes him think he can fly.
But it’s not just Keaton. Every actor seems to be firing on all cylinders. Norton plays a parody of himself. Mike is a spoiled brat that is impossible to work with. When he actually attempts to have sex with an actress on stage (despite her repeated objections) he claims his erection is artistic. He even fights with Riggan, who gave him the opportunity in the first place.
But my favorite performance besides Keaton’s was Naomi Watts. She’s an aging actress who is still wondering if she will hit the big time on Broadway. One monologue has her breaking into tears as she recounts her dreams of stardom. It’s a wonderful performance – so of course AMPAS ignored it. But that’s another article. Emma Stone also does wonderfully as Riggan’s daughter, talking about how he’s no longer relevant as an actor.
I’d also like to talk about the editing – it’s amazing. I normally don’t get into that sort of discussion, but Birdman’s technical achievements merit it. The film is put together in a single continuous take like Russian Ark. We seamlessly go around the theater and the characters as they move and rehearse their upcoming work. We also see the people in Times Square gawking at Riggan (one scene finds himself walking around in his underwear after he is locked out of the theater) and the successful shows like Phantom of the Opera (the poster actually serves as a bit of foreshadowing) taunting the actors.
Why was it shot this way? Perhaps it was to create the opposite effect of the quick cuts that are present in every superhero blockbuster. But it also makes Riggan’s world look very small. No matter how much he tries to expand his world with his art, it’s going to be contained in that theater. Even when he “flies” over the cars, it’s over a certain radius around the theater. Riggan is trapped in his world.
I think this film is going to become more relevant for actors as time goes on. These days, there are no stars. People go for the characters they play and not the actors themselves. It must be very frustrating for them to see their stardom evaporate so quickly when they decide to challenge themselves. Birdman is the first film to acknowledge this trend. It serves as a warning for people like Robert Downey Jr.
It’s amazing that AMPAS recognized a film like this. It’s very unique, with an important focus on the world’s new love for genre pictures. All of the actors are at the top of their game and are not afraid to make fun of themselves. And the editing is incredible. Birdman would have been on my top ten of the year list if I had seen it in time. I hope more people are driven to check it out.