The Perpetual Pissing Contest between Cinema and Stage
A Film Review of Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Writer, director, producer, Alejandro González Iñárritu has taken it upon himself to make some social commentary regarding the entertainment industry as it pertains to the acting slice of the pie and oh my, he’s got some interesting observations to make. For anyone who has been on the ground floor regarding this current renaissance of comic book blockbuster adaptations, for those who are down with the theater (Broadway or otherwise), for those who follow the entertainment industry and for anyone with even a modest interest in the status of “celebrity,” Birdman has got the goods for an eye-opening adventure. Fans of both the cinema and stage will have layers upon layers of subtext and context to smile, weep and chuckle upon as the story unveils before our eyes. Birdman is a film undeserving of its own mundane title for it easily suggests a limited scope to the vision of its production. I assure you all that viewers who side with big money glam and those that prefer small indie art can build a bridge with a film like this. It is easily one of this past year’s best in every conceivable aspect of the filmmaking process and as of right now has surpassed American Sniper as my favorite to win best picture this year.
Birdman’s story follows former blockbuster superhero actor Riggan Thomson and his attempt to get back into the biz by way of his own, single-handed financing, directing and starring in a stage adaptation Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. However, the audience is taken on a much more surreal journey into Riggan’s mind, ego and distorted sense of self worth as the telekinetic powers of his former “Birdman” persona appear to be playing havoc with the production. What’s most entertaining about this film is the seamless integration of all the action and drama of every scene thanks to a virtual non-existence of cuts. Everything is happening here and now and in this very instant. This film’s composition (cinematography, lighting and setting) establishes an intimate, mise en scène reality upon reality; perspective upon perspective; viewer’s physical placement within the film’s frame of what is actually happening during the setup, rehearsal and debut of this Broadway show. Riggan’s supernaturalism collides with his costars’ personal agendas which reflect the harsh realities of the acting profession and is all consumed by our society which commands infinitely more power than we, ourselves realize in our ability to interact “socially” via the internet. While all this is happening, the audience is also getting an introductory course on the unspoken animosity between stage and screen actors, the nature of prima donnas, the influence of critics, the difficulties of production, and the personal toll of the less disciplined who choose to get into this profession in the first place.
Despite the very interesting use of special effects as well as the placement of these moments during the film, Birdman is primarily a dialogue, driven drama and must therefore have a cast willing to lift that kind of load. Just about every character in this film is either a struggling actor or producer, yet ironically, this entire cast has first-hand experience in mega budget production films: Michael Keaton (Batman 1989), Emma Stone (The Amazing Spider-Man 2012), Zach Galifianakis (The Hangover Trilogy ’09-’13), Naomi Watts (King Kong 2005), Andrea Riseborough (Oblivion 2013) and Edward Norton (The Incredible Hulk 2008). Please note the number of comic book blockbuster adaptations on this list. The names of this cast, independent of its fine performance, is a comedic slap in the face to stage actors due to the roles they fill in Birdman and the fact that despite differences in performances, preparation and processes between stage and screen acting, they are more similar than either side would ever admit. Thus, this production is heavily sided with the cinema, and that’s perfectly all right seeing how it is far more interested in deconstructing Hollywood than Broadway. This is further evidenced by the heavy use of steadi-cam shots to deliver screen perspectives that piggy back Michael Keaton as he walks through the St. James theater and park right in front of Emma Stone’s face when she’s going on about how old and irrelevant her father is. This intimate proximity is an experience the theater can never produce, and it is a style that film actors are comfortable with which aids in the delivery of exceptional individual performances for the cast of Birdman.
Selecting Ed Norton to play the antagonizing golden child of the stage, Mike, was just about the biggest no brainer this side of casting Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man. Norton is a fine actor that brings an experienced touch to a character type that today’s pop culture may or may not have confused for his personality in real life. The fact that his character has specific issues reconciling his stage and true life behavior is equally unsurprising, yet quite satisfying. Playing an actor that doesn’t “play” well with others in a production is yet another ironic link to the fact that he was removed from the potential cast of The Avengers as continuing the role of Bruce Banner/Hulk for true reasons that you and I will probably never know. Mike isn’t a character completely devoid of sympathy as he tries to make sincere observations of life to the naive Sam, which is somewhat invalidated by his sexual interest in her. Mike’s sole concern is the artistic integrity of the stage which may be a front to protect the adoration and ego boost he receives from the theatrical community by being the maverick he’s come to relish.
Zach Galifianakis as Jake the producer does not fill this film’s role as the solitary generator of comedic energy, but he does a fantastic job at doing so. As with Norton’s prima donna, Jake is somewhat of a stereotypical producer whose undefined responsibilities and uniformed status presents a member of the production team that clearly has authority, but is also disconnected from the visceral evolution of the production at hand. Representing the money invested and potential profits made or lost by reviews will never present the most sympathetic character for an audience, but it is Zach’s comedic timing and facial expressions that soften the blow. Jake is an easier character to identify with because most of us aren’t experienced in artistic production, so it’s easy to be completely confused by actors when they are knee deep in their “process.”
Emma Stone plays Sam Thomson, Riggan’s daughter and yet again stereotypes are hard at work in presenting a character the audience has seen before in real life. Being the daughter of a blockbuster actor may have yielded minimal bonding with dad, but plenty of cash to get into fun and trouble with; so much so, that it lands her in rehab. Where oh where have we ever heard of such tragedy that has befallen the sons and daughters of celebrities whose only real challenge in life is living under mommy or daddy’s shadow? Sam is a troubled girl in search of guidance and Emma’s ability to pierce the frame with her giant eyes signify moments to the audience when her character is being sincere as opposed to just mailing it in with a middle finger.
Unsung heroine Amy Ryan as Riggan’s ex wife Sylvia easily delivers the most dramatic performance by a supporting cast member in this film. Representing the one character that is completely removed from the acting/entertainment profession, her interests are simple: the welfare of her daughter as well as her flaky ex-husband. She relates to the rest of us “normies” best because it might seem like no big deal for a former hot shot actor to refinance a home to pay for a pet project, but that’s a big time red flag for people who worry about paying for food, rent, utilities, etc. Sylvia seems like a character with almost saintly levels of patience as she is desperate to anchor Riggan to reality, despite his emotional issues. What I like best about Amy’s performance is the fresh perspective she gives to this “theater scene” with her kind demeanor and practical attitude.
Michael Keaton may not be the only man alive that could have pulled off this part, but he certainly did so phenomenally in Birdman. So let’s quickly examine some past Batmen just for comparative giggles. Adam West is too old and too successful at being a current spoof of his former self. Val Kilmer is certainly removed enough from the current film scene to develop the irrelevant angle, but would require some significant P-90x to get back into “washed-up” physical shape. George Clooney is bigger than any possible role cast in an indie or indie-esque film at this point in his life; so he’s out. Christian Bale has more than enough acting chops for the indie scene, but the content of this film would perhaps be a bit too harsh for the sensitivities of his past work, especially when being critical of acting and actors is the order of the day. What makes Michael Keaton an ideal choice for Riggan Thomson, formerly “Birdman,” is NOT any conceivable personal baggage he may or may not be dragging into it, but his entire filmography and in particularly the range of his past work. Keaton has done action, comedy and drama and his work has been solid (please forget Multiplicity) and it takes that kind of balance to be able to approach this burnt out, actor role in a manner that almost crosses the shameless threshold. He fires up enough anger for his fight with Ed Norton, he plays back every funny beat he picks up on and he can stare down others as well as himself when his character is most vulnerable, pathetic and empowered.
Birdmanis an entertaining cinematic adventure, layered with meaning, filled with great performances and most importantly, is self-reflecting of Hollywood (and Hollywood loves that). Politics always play a role in the Academy process and until the entire system of lobbying or campaigning for films to be recognized in this way is removed or the consuming public gets more transparency regarding the voting process (reveal the counts in every category), politics will be as influential as the base quality of the product. Michael Keaton has one heck of an acting legacy and adding an Academy Award to his accolades would be a hell of a thing, but best actor is still going to Eddie Redmayne. Birdman is my pick for best film not because I enjoy blockbusters or comic book adaptations, but because it’s just that damn good and that damn fun!