Or, Hollywood is Sorry for Pushing Crap on You, But It’s Kind of Your Fault.
In 1989, Michael Keaton starred as the first Batman to not suck. That role made his career. I’d argue that it didn’t really define him though. He’s been in zany comedies and serious dramas, performing expertly in both.
Yet, as a former Batman who’s ditched the cowl to seek out more serious roles, one is left to wonder how much of Birdman is semi-autobiographical. Does Keaton identify with Riggan? Only Keaton could truly answer that.
Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, a big time actor who, twenty years ago, played a feathery comic book super hero in a series of Birdman films. They were special effects extravaganzas that made him a lot of money and were big at the box office.
Today, Riggan is trying to leave his past behind him and gain recognition as a serious actor. He’s broke, having sunk a fortune into a Broadway play adaptation of a work by author Raymond Carver. And true to the style of a play, the cameras follow the actors on and off stage, with very few cut scenes throughout the film.
Actors aren’t as happy as you’d think, there’s intense pressure, you can’t please everyone, and whatever you do, someone is criticizing you. You try to produce art (i.e. Raymond Carver) but alas, people just want fluff (i.e. Birdman). Even worse, once you “sell-out” and take a role like “Birdman,” the “true artist” community will shun you and refuse to consider your attempts at artistry, even if they are worthy of notoriety.
As consumers of entertainment, should we push for real, serious, dramatic art? Plays and movies where there’s all kinds of gut wrenching dialog to make you think? Or should we just have fun and watch Birdman fight bad guys?
Are purveyors of comic book movies making us all stupid? Are creators of heady dramas just too full of themselves?
These questions are asked, and never really answered, though the movie serves as a chronicle of one actor’s attempt to produce serious art only to be stymied at every turn.
Riggan’s foil, played by Ed Norton, is veteran broadway thespian Mike Shiner. Recruited for Riggan’s play, Shiner is a pretentious limelight hog and though he claims to be all about the art, he’s ultimately just as obnoxious as any movie star.
Meanwhile, Riggan has to deal with a snooty play review critic, who vows to shut Riggan’s play down before even seeing it, simply because she does not believe someone who stooped low enough to play a cartoon superhero is deserving of praise for attempting real art.
In other words, if the entertainment world is at war, then it’s a battle between the big blockbuster fluff eaters and the holier than thou tweed jacket wearers. Both think they’re the smartest people in the room. Neither is willing to meet the other half way.
Emma Stone, who plays Riggan’s daughter, Sam, earns her Oscar nomination with this speech:
TEXT OF SAM/EMMA STONE’S “RELEVANT SPEECH” FROM BIRDMAN
RIGGAN: It’s important to me! Alright? Maybe not to you, or your cynical friends whose only ambition is to go viral. But to me . . . To me . . this is — God. This is my career, this is my chance to do some work that actually means something.
SAM: Means something to who? You had a career before the third comic book movie, before people began to forget who was inside the bird costume. You’re doing a play based on a book that was written 60 years ago, for a thousand rich old white people whose only real concern is gonna be where they go to have their cake and coffee when it’s over. And let’s face it, Dad, it’s not for the sake of art. It’s because you want to feel relevant again. Well, there’s a whole world out there where people fight to be relevant every day. And you act like it doesn’t even exist! Things are happening in a place that you willfully ignore, a place that has already forgotten you. I mean, who are you? You hate bloggers. You make fun of Twitter. You don’t even have a Facebook page. You’re the one who doesn’t exist. You’re doing this because you’re scared to death, like the rest of us, that you don’t matter. And you know what? You’re right. You don’t. It’s not important. You’re not important. Get used to it.
I don’t know about you, but after I listened to Emma rant away on that one, I came close to shutting down this blog. (Obviously I didn’t, because, you know, nothing can stop me from my one a day post challenge.
Still, Sam’s right. We’re all just shouting in the wind, trying to be relevant, trying to matter. And at the end of the day, after movie goers walk out of the theater, after play watchers go out for cake, after novel readers put a book down, and after my 3.5 regular readers go on to read another blog…how relevant are we? As it turns out…not very.
Fame is fleeting and celebrities just aren’t as happy as we think.
Throughout the film, Riggan is taunted by Birdman himself – a gravelly voice that sounds more like Christian Bale’s version of Batman than Keaton’s. Birdman is the voice of commercialism, urging Riggan to abandon his efforts at serious drama and sell-out – do a reality TV show, make a Birdman comeback movie. Forget the hoity toy stuff and just rake in the dough.
And honestly, whether Birdman is right or wrong is left up to the viewer’s interpretation.
Big surprise of the film – Zach Galifianakis can actually act. He plays Riggan’s agent and rather than be that same old obliviously rude cartoon character he plays in every movie, he actually comes across as a competent, reliable professional, someone you’d actually want to represent you if you were an actor.
At one point, Shakepeare’s “Life is a Tale Told by an Idiot” speech from MacBeth is prominently featured. If you want to know more about that, you can read expert commentary from world renowned literary expert Bookshelf Q. Battler.
It’s a film that starts a dialog about what we, the entertainment consuming public, want from Hollywood. Because, as it turns out, if enough of us want it, they’ll give it to us. If we show them that high-falutin, chin-stroking, navel gazing, thought provoking dramas will make money, then Tinseltown will send them our way. Yet, if we keep buying tickets for Birdman-esque blockbusters, then we’ll get more comic book movies. It really is up to us.
And it’s also up to us to determine whether or not we should feel guilty about choosing comic book-esque movies over drama. Personally, I don’t. I’m a nerd. I love comic book movies. I love hoity toity stuff too. There’s room in the world for both. One need not cancel the other out.
And sure, the public often complains that Hollywood isn’t trying that hard, but then we pay more attention to viral videos, tweets, and gossipy nonsense than serious efforts at art. At one point in the film, Riggan’s stroll through Times Square in his underpants gets more attention through social media than his play ever does.
We all want to be relevant. We’re all clawing over each other to grab our piece of the public’s limited attention span. We’re all idiots. Can’t we all just calm down, take a deep breathe, stop crawling over each other for a few fleeting minutes of fame, and take a moment to enjoy friends, family, and the things that actually matter? At the end of the film, Riggan frets more about not spending enough time with his daughter than he does about his fizzling acting career.
Heck, had I not promised my 3.5 regular readers a year’s worth of posts, I might seriously consider packing it in myself.
Because if a guy who was paid buckets of money to dress up like a cartoon bird hero can’t be happy, then what luck do any of us have?
I predict this film will win best picture. Keaton’s had a long career and has yet to be graced with an academy award, so he’s overdue. Ironically, it’s a movie about a man trying to get past commercialism and make some serious art made by a man who’s trying to get past commercialism and make some serious art.
The Academy will no doubt love its message – “Hey, we actors aren’t as happy as you’d think, we really struggle to make you all happy!”
And finally, I’d just like to say, I think Michael Keaton is awesome. He made me laugh in movies like The Dream Team and Beetlejuice. And I remember seeing him in the first Batman and I thought, “Wow, Hollywood picked a guy that isn’t all buff and muscle-bound to play a super hero and he did an awesome job. Maybe there’s hope for us nerds.” So I hope tomorrow night is his night to walk home with a little gold man. (I mean an Oscar, not an actual little gold man).
Did you see it? What did you think? Flap your bird wings to the comment section and let me know.