The first thing that I noticed about Birdman was that it appeared as if the movie never cut away from a scene. After a bit it became obvious that while there were long takes going on – some of them several minutes in length – the film was disguising the edits to make it seem as if the entire movie was one long continuous shot (ala Timecode or Russian Ark). After realizing this I actually was distracted for a while as I was watching to catch the hidden edits, almost as if it was a game. I finally settled down and started watching it as an overall movie, not just a bunch of clever camera movements. When I did I discovered a film that works on multiple levels and one that I feel has the greatest chance of winning Best Picture because of what it has to say regarding the performing arts.
Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is trying to adapt, direct, and star in a Broadway play based on the short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love written by Raymond Carver. He faces innumerable challenges to succeeding, not the least of which is that he used to be a big action star in superhero films where he played a character named Birdman. (Resemblances to Keaton having played Batman are entirely intentional). Getting financing for this play was pretty much impossible so he’s not only throwing his heart and soul into it, but also his financial well-being.
Riggan is one of the four people in the play. The two female characters are played by Lesley (Naomi Watts) and Laura (Andrea Riseborough). The other male character is a disappointment to Riggan and he gets rid of him right before live previews are to start. (More on that in a minute). Desperate to land anyone, Lesley tells them that acclaimed Broadway actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) just became available. How does she know him? “We share a vagina” is her response. What’s the catch? Mike is available because he’s notoriously hard to work with and either just quit or was fired from his last job. Like with Keaton, resemblances to Norton’s real life image are entirely intentional.
Also playing a key role in the movie is Emma Stone as Riggan’s daughter and personal assistant Sam. She’s just out of rehab. In addition, Zach Galifianakis plays Riggan’s lawyer and producer Jake. Amy Ryan plays Sylvia, Sam’s mother (Riggan is now dating Laura, his co-star in the play), and Lindsay Duncan plays feared Broadway critic Tabitha Dickinson, who feels that Broadway is being sullied merely by someone of Riggan’s ilk even deigning to think he can do what he’s doing. If Ratatouille had the kindest presentation of a critic ever in a movie, and Lady in the Water had the most insulting, then Birdman probably has the most honest presentation of a professional critic I have ever seen.
I’ve gone this far without mentioning what for many is probably the most memorable parts of the movie – Riggan hears and sees the character of Birdman talking to him, and Riggan may or may not have telekinetic powers. Remember how I mentioned he got rid of an actor that was disappointing him? Well, he made a stage light fall on his head. Or so Riggan believes anyway. Is Riggan truly telekinetic? Is Birdman really talking to him? Or is it all in Riggan’s head? The movie shows you the truth, if you watch carefully, except for the very last shot of the movie, which I will not spoil. I will say that it has caused quite a bit of consternation among viewers since it seems to directly contradict what was shown to us the entire rest of the film.
Keaton does a good job in the lead role and this might end up being a career revival for him. He was nominated for Best Actor. Stone and Norton were nominated for Best Supporting Actress and Actor. In fact, Birdman tied for the most Oscar nominations this year with nine, including Best Picture. Director/co-writer/co-producer Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu is thrice nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay.
When the film got done I thought to myself, “This is definitely going to win for Cinematography, Editing, and Score.” Guess what? Of those three it wasn’t even nominated for Editing or Score.
Cinematography would seem to be a lock because of the effort put into making it appear to be one long shot. There are other places where the camera deliberately moves in a way to call attention to itself, once passing through a complex wrought iron window decoration, and another time facing directly into a mirror while we see two characters from the side. In this day and age they probably just digitally removed the camera and cameraman from the shot (like in The Hollow Man), but I wonder about that because the “reflection” in the mirror seemed just a little off from the movements of the characters we were watching. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to figure that if Inarritu went to the trouble of figuring out how to film it as he did, that he wouldn’t also use the technique of having the actors perform their own mirror movements.
The lack of nomination for Editing is probably due to the bias of that group of Academy members. I was impressed by how well the edits were hidden and how they were made a natural, flowing part of the film. However, the movie that tends to win Best Editing is the nominee with lots and lots of quick, flashy edits in it. Birdman is as far from that as you can get.
As for the Score, the Academy felt that it had too much classical music in it and therefore it wasn’t original enough. That’s too bad. It’s rare for me to notice the background music in a movie, but I did this one because it went so well with what we are seeing on screen. And I honestly can’t remember a single instance of classical music playing over a scene so what was used didn’t make an impression on me like the original score did.
I mentioned at the top that this is probably the frontrunner for winning Best Picture. That prize is awarded by the entire Academy. What this film says about the nature of performing, what drives people to it, what makes them take risks, what barriers they have to overcome, all should speak directly to the people who will be voting.
One last thing I should mention. This film was nominated in the Comedy/Musical category at the Golden Globes. Please do not go into this film thinking it’s a comedy; it’s not. While there are some amusing moments here or there, it’s definitely a drama. This was just another example of the Golden Globes shifting films over to the comedy category in order to get more than five drama films nominated for their Best Picture awards. Of the eight Best Picture nominees this year The Grand Budapest Hotel, which tied Birdman with nine nominations, is the only true comedy among them.
Birdman is an interesting film. It may be a little too strange for those people who want their movies to be grounded in reality. It may spend a little too much time on the play within the movie for some. For everyone else, though, this will probably be an entertaining film. I highly recommend it.
Chip’s Rating: 4 out of 5 stars