So, the first Best Picture nominee I’ve seen thus far: Birdman.
I was predisposed to like this, because of Michael Keaton. He’s from Pittsburgh (a suburb near my dad’s hometown, actually), and he did sit next to my mom in church one time (so I’m, what, two degrees from Michael Keaton?). And Mr. Mom is one of my favorite movies, ever.
But the concept of this film was sort of evading me until I saw it.
Birdman is the story of actor Riggan Thompson (Keaton), who was the face of a (apparently?) very successful action movie franchise called Birdman. But since the end of the movies, his career has petered out, and he wants to revive it and bring some gravitas to it by directing, writing, and starring in a Broadway play based on a Raymond Chandler novel. When the movie begins, the play is just about to go into previews, and things are sort of falling apart. His ex-wife is in town, he’s having problems with his fresh-out-of-rehab daughter (Emma Stone), there’s no money, and one of the other actors (Edward Norton) is making his life very difficult with his constant “improvements” to the play (including changing lines, trashing the set during a preview performance, and attempting to have sex with his wife (Naomi Watts) onstage before the play’s climax [while the characters are supposed to be ‘in bed’ with each other, they’re not supposed to, um…well, you know]).
The play was shot on location at the St. James Theater, which is right across from the Majestic, where Phantom has been playing for 25+ years, so I enjoyed all the exterior shots. I also enjoyed the inside look at a Broadway theater, because I’m a theater nerd like that. The movie itself has great cinematography–the much-lauded “one shot” idea (meaning there are very few obvious scene cuts, like there are in other movies)–and production values.
Michael Keaton and Edward Norton give the best performances here. They play off each other really well and their scenes are fun to watch. Norton is a cliche of the actor who wants to give the audience “real life”, who lives entirely for the stage, and, in the process, really screws up his off-stage life. Keaton’s Riggan is trying to keep it all together, and isn’t doing it very well. We can see the frayed edges of his character get even more tattered as the movie progresses.
Keaton does a great job with the character, creating a desperate, Hollywood -has-been who’s trying desperately to reinvent himself, while shunning overt manifestations of that idea (his daughter shouts at him, “You don’t even have a Facebook page!”). The play, to him, is truly THE THING: if the play is a success, then Riggan can remake his life. If it’s not, then his life is over. There’s so much riding on this show, it’s crazy.
The movie is hard to talk about since it’s pretty unconventional. It really needs to be seen. As far as the Oscars go, conventional wisdom is saying that it will probably upset Boyhood for best picture, and I wouldn’t say it’s undeserved. It’s about actors being actors, doing Broadway, so it has a built-in cache anyway (A movie about actors acting? Sure!). There’s a nice mix of comedy and pathos happening, it’s an unconventional film style (but not as much as Boyhood) and it has a strong plot that is nicely brought to life by a dedicated cast. Edward Norton certainly deserves to win Best Supporting Actor for his work here.
The Best Actor category is hard for me, because I like both Michael Keaton and Eddie Redmayne (and I’ve also seen The Theory of Everything, which I’ll talk about next). So I’ll write more about that race in the next entry. One of the big things, though, is that Keaton is creating a character out of whole cloth. He doesn’t have anything to model Riggan on, like Redmayne had Stephen Hawking. And yet you root for Riggan. You want the play to do well. You want him to have a good relationship with his daughter and current girlfriend. You basically want him to get his life together and be better. So that’s strongly in Keaton’s favor.