BIRDMAN - Oscar Movie Review Special
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is perhaps one of bleakest and most intriguing black comedies I have ever seen. It starts with Michael Keaton levitating in mid-air in his Broadway theater dressing room. It takes awhile to catch on that this ability to levitate is part of the psychosis going on in his head. Keaton, the star of Birdman, is most adept at playing psychotics. In fact, I met him a number of years ago on the set of Pacific Heights, a film in which he portrays a manically mental character who will stop at nothing - including murder - in order to steal real estate holdings. In person, Keaton is the nicest guy you could ever want to meet. In Birdman, Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, a schizophrenic Broadway actor who is at the mercy of a voice in his head, which is himself as “Birdman,, a superhero he once played on film.
I can see why Birdman has been nominated for all the big awards this season including the Best Picture Oscar. Keaton is up for Best Actor, Ed Norton as Best Supporting Actor, and, Emma Stone for Best Supporting Actress. Overall, Birdman, co-written, produced, and directed by Mexican filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu, is a brilliantly directed and written cinematic effort filled with brilliant performances by the cast.
Birdman is not just an actor’s movie, though Broadway is the backdrop, as the universal theme seems to be the need of all humans to be loved and accepted, and the folly of fulfilling that need in the wrong places.
When I sat contemplating Birdman and what I wanted to say about it, my first thought was, "What is my favorite Michael Keaton role? When he comes to mind, what is the first thing I think of?" The obvious answer to me, and perhaps others: Batman! I am sure you know by now where I am going with this: Batman, Birdman...not a coincidental happening here! Keaton has had a long and successful acting career, but still, he will always be Batman. It’s like Clark Gable. He will always be Rhett Butler despite everything else he played. In fact, some have gone so far to suggest that Birdman is actually Michael Keaton’s Batman 3. It certainly could be, but I can’t say for sure. Keaton’s persona in this film is a washed-up actor driven to the point of madness by his obsession with his career, or lack of it. He is haunted and hounded by Birdman all though the picture. His conjuring of Birdman in his mind is also accompanied by hallucinated telekinetic powers, levitation, and flying. Riggan Thomson’s last-ditch effort to resurrect his all but dead acting career is a staged adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love." Thomson wears three hats in this project in that he wrote the script, directs, and stars in it. Wearing more than one hat in an artistic endeavor can drive anyone to distraction.
One of the truly amazing things about Birdman is the performance of Edward Norton as uber-obsessive “method” and popular Broadway actor, Mike Shiner. I can only imagine that he had an absolute ball doing this role. I like Norton’s work; he always seems to find and play the truth of his characters. I know that sounds like pretentious prattle, but I don’t really know how else to say it. In 1998, I met Edward Norton during the filming of Fight Club. I was hired as a body double for Meatloaf. Actually, I was Meatloaf’s butt crack of all things. I had to lean over and hug Norton for the shot, whilst a wardrobe person stepped behind me and pulled my trousers down ever so slightly. My interaction with Edward Norton was most pleasant and I found him most affable. This experience gave me very thin, if dubious, bragging rights of being able to say I worked with Edward Norton!
Another performance I loved in Birdman was that of Scottish actress Lindsay Duncan, who plays jaded and hateful New York Times theater critic, Tabitha Dickinson. Duncan’s performance is spot-on. In two scenes she is sitting at a bar writing when she is pounced upon once by Norton’s character, and in another scene by Keaton’s character wherein he asks her why she would “kill” his play without even the benefit of having seen it. In answer to his query, she says, “Because I hate you and everyone you represent. Entitled, selfish, spoiled children. Blissfully untrained, unversed, and unprepared to even attempt real art. Handing each other awards for cartoons and pornography…Well, this is the theater, and you don’t get to come in here and pretend you can write, direct, and act in your own propaganda piece without coming through me first. So break a leg!” Keaton’s character replies with, “What has to happen in a person’s life for them to become a critic anyway?” I don’t know an actor alive who wouldn’t kill for a delicious scene like that one!
I must also make mention of the rock solid performances turned in by Emma Stone, who plays Sam Thomson, Riggan’s daughter and production assistant, and also Zach Galifianakis as Jake, Thomson’s close friend and manic lawyer who is the driving force keeping the production on track.
I liked Birdman, especially viewing it through actor’s eyes. I have a hunch it will do very well at the Oscars. Anyhow, that’s the way I see it.