The Oscar nominations were announced last week, and I would be negligent if I didn’t make a comment about the much-lauded Birdman. This was the best movie I’ve seen all year, and it deserves every award it wins and two or three that it doesn’t (although, I’m rooting for Best Original Screenplay, for obvious reasons). Everyone who loves film has been gushing over the originality of Birdman’s script and its ingenious filming techniques (and rightly so), but the reason I’m mentioning it in my blog is because of what the movie says about American theater, acting, and critics.
Riggan (played by Michael Keaton) is a movie star who, in days past, starred in a series of blockbuster superhero films and now is trying to transform himself into a “serious actor” by renting space on Broadway and producing (and writing and directing and starring in) his own play. I’m not even sure I want to pull on that thread too hard, for fear of the whole tapestry unraveling. Suffice to say, equating “art” with “Broadway” is, in this day-and-age of Disney musicals, sadly absurd. Somehow, Riggan sees doing another Birdman movie as selling out, but succeeding on Broadway as not.
On the other hand, Mike (played by Ed Norton) sees devoting everything to his craft as paramount, financial success be damned (although, he isn’t exactly starving). Anyone who isn’t willing to similarly sacrifice themselves to their art is a hack. Predictably, he is a pretentious bastard and a completely unpredictable loose cannon on stage. Also, he’s a genius, and Riggan knows it, and he constantly second-guesses his own talent in Mike’s shadow, all the while hating everything his co-star does.
The Riggan/Mike dynamic is interesting in and of itself, but I want to point out a particularly poignant moment that may blow past you if you aren’t careful. Following one of Riggan and Mike’s many explosive exchanges, they visit a local bar where Mike spies a notorious critic (played by the gorgeous Lindsay Duncan). After verbally slapping Riggan around, denouncing him as a hack (while, it might be mentioned, still taking his money), Mike confronts the critic, asking her what she intends to write about the play she hasn’t seen yet. When he doesn’t like the answer, he batters her with a hard truth: Riggan has sacrificed everything for this play, and critics risk nothing to write about it. It’s something Mike would never say in front of Riggan, because he honestly believes Riggan is talentless, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t recognize Riggan’s bravery. His simple revelation, in one stroke, lays bare a secret admiration while speaking volumes of the love/hate relationship between theaters and critics. Never mind that the scene is brilliantly written and performed; it’s heartbreakingly insightful.