The conversation around “Birdman” has shifted a little bit since early raves out of the Venice and Telluride film festivals. Maybe as expected, a number of writers are taking umbrage with a certain critic depiction in the film. Some reviews go so far as to read like performance art based on that depiction. Nevertheless, there was always going to be a bend in that road, and I'm fine with that. But I want to talk about something else. I want to talk about how Michael Keaton deserves the Oscar for Best Actor walking away.
No, I haven't seen performances from guys like David Oyelowo, Oscar Isaac, Bradley Cooper and Jack O'Connell, which lurk on the season's horizon. So the statement is what it is, one made without all the requisite info. But if you're asking me, I'm telling you: no one is likely to own a role or the screen with more authority this year.
I've been sort of mortified to watch the narrative around the film bog down so heavily in the meta angle of Keaton playing an actor who owes his fame to a former role as a superhero. It was there in the lead-up to the film's festival premieres and it's there now, because it's an easy, and admittedly interesting, way into talking about the project. As Norton put it to me in an interview, “There's an understandable and maybe necessary kind of reductivism that comes into the way the media covers something like this.” But at some point you have to let that go and see this performance for what it really is: an absolute showcase and reminder of the range Keaton is capable of exhibiting, all in one place, all in one role.
Thankfully, the idea is starting to swing around. Scott Foundas' profile of Keaton at Variety digs in on that point, and this quote from Ron Howard (who directed Keaton in “Night Shift,” “Gung Ho” and “The Paper”) could not say it any better: “Whatever tone he”s operating in, whatever genre, there”s a kind of emotional logic at play, which is why it”s been so easy for him to shift over into tragedy or seriocomic roles. Whatever gear you need, it always comes from a place of character, and it”s never exactly what you”d expect.”
Andrea Riseborough put it to me a different way when we spoke recently. “The man has a big pendulum swing,” she said. “He has a big palette to draw from and he has so many unusual and interesting responses. To me, the way that Michael responds is just very human. Humans are inconsistent. We are erratic. We have unusual responses and inappropriate responses to things. I always admired him for just being unafraid of showing that. And I think that's what makes his comedy so funny and so brilliant. Because we all identify with him. We all identify with a crisis.”
And in “Birdman,” he's not just putting that range out there in a single film, but sometimes in single scenes. The emotional spectrum of this character, Riggan Thompson – who all actors will identify with at the end of the day, whether they'll admit it or not – is like a fireworks display. But it's never graceless or baroque. It comes from such an internal place, like a fed furnace of insecurity and creative desperation. There surely won't be a portrait more representative of the artist's plight this year. And that plight is captured with brilliant strokes of humanism and even expressionism by Keaton and director Alejandro González Iñárritu.
Add to that the physical demands of the performance, so dependent on blocking for the elaborate camera moves, to say nothing of maintaining that tightrope walk for extended 10-minute takes and never, not for an instant, faltering – you have a performance that is simply unlike anything else in the race.
Keaton is a craftsman at the top of his game working with every tool he's quietly assembled throughout a career that didn't get swept up in its own hype. “I figured early on – maybe I was lucky or it”s just the way I”m built – that this is a fear-based industry, and you”re pretty fucked if you buy into it,” Keaton told Foundas. That's the kind of performer I want to see on the Dolby stage clutching an Oscar.
People are quick to call “Birdman” a comeback for Keaton, and in some ways, yeah, it is. But it's not as if he was banished from the kingdom and welcomed back like Mickey Rourke. And it's not like he got lost in dubious commercial comedies for a decade like Matthew McConaughey. He's been working, where and when he saw fit. Mostly he's just been kicking back in Santa Barbara and Montana, content away from the fray. And now he's gifted us with a career-best performance that, again, serves as a reminder: we're lucky to have Michael Keaton.
So let's give this man an Oscar.
“Birdman” is now playing in limited release.