Birdman (Or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Written by: Alejandro G. Iñárritu,, Nicholas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Armando Bo
Michael Keaton as Riggan, actor and director
Edward Norton as Mike Shiner, a Broadway star
Zach Galifanakis as Jake, producer of the play
Emma Stone as Sam, Riggan’s daughter and assistant
Naomi Watts as Lesley, star of the play
Andrea Riseborough as Laura, female co-star
Amy Ryan as Sylvia, Riggan’s ex-wife
Lindsay Duncan as Theatre Critic
Riggan in his dressing room in the theatre
Riggan (Michael Keaton) is an actor who used to play a superhero called Birdman, in a three part series which ended in 1992 (at the same time as Michael Keaton’s last Batman film). He calls himself a washed up actor. He adapts, directs, and stars in a Broadway play, a last ditch attempt to revive his career, or rather his own self-esteem. After a cast member is flattened by a stage light, he needs an instant replacement: Edward Norton as Mike Shiner, a major Broadway serious actor. Add in problems with his assistant and daughter (Emma Stone) who is just out of rehab, Shiner’s emotional co-star (Naomi Watts), Riggan’s possibly pregnant actress girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough), producer (Zach Galifanakis), and Riggan’s ex- wife (Amy Ryan).
The USP of the film is that it looks as if sections were made in one continuous take often hand-held, … it wasn’t the entire “one take” that some reviews suggest at all, but it was filmed in long unbroken chunks, covering up to fifteen pages of dialogue, which is a major trial for actors on film. It’s something actors have to do every night in the theatre, and the film is about theatre v cinema, which is the rationale. I will say it’s phenomenally harder to do on film, the pressures are far different, just as reading a piece aloud to an audience is easy enough, but reading it into a microphone requires far more intense concentration. According to imdb, Michael Keaton and Edward Norton kept a running tally of the inevitable fluffed lines on set in Birdman, each necessitating a complete retake. Emma Stone had most, Zach Galifanakis the fewest. That fits in with my experience … the best looking actress is the one who drops most lines.
The longer the take, the more pressure there is on actors not to fluff lines. If they do, they can look at the huge number of people standing out there on the set who will have to do the whole thing again. It’s bad enough on a three minute take, I can assure you.
The current NT Live / RSC Live filmed plays are not comparable, because they get on and do the play as they would have done anyway, and the cameras do their best to work round them and fit. We were at the filming of the RSC Julius Caesar. It’s a multi-camera set up, with the director cutting between cameras as they go along, like any “live before an audience” sitcom.
Like Boyhood it has Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Best director, Best cinematography, Best actor for Michael Keaton, Best supporting actor for Edward Norton and for Emma Stone). It already has Golden Globes for Best Actor (comedy or musical) for Michael Keaton and Best screenplay. The innovative styles helped both Boyhood and Birdman. The day we saw Birdman it won the Producer’s Guild Darryl F. Zanuck Award for best picture. A clear Oscar pointer, as the last seven Zanuck award winners went on to win the Oscar.
Birdman is not the first film with apparently unbroken shots … Hitchcock tried it in 1948 with The Rope, though technology confined him to a series of ten minute continual takes. Locke in 2014 takes place entirely inside a BMW X5 SUV driving along motorways. That was filmed in one continuous drive along the actual route in real time, which was repeated for five nights and the results clipped together. Birdman’s long shots create an empathy with the character of Riggon in some odd way. I’ll add that in the fantasy sequences near the end, they’ve given up on long unbroken shots.
Fantasy sequence begins
It’s basically a backstage movie. The film creates ripples, or circles. Michael Keaton’s character has a brilliant exchange with the theatre critic (Lindsay Duncan) who says she will kill the play. She rails against Hollywood actors, saying they act out comic cartoon figures with the focus on first weekend takes. Add Norton’s character, as a “real New York Broadway actor” who has shunned Hollywood, and this is a running theme. Like Batman of course. But reality crosses over because Birdman was never intended to be an SFX blockbuster, but Keaton already has a Golden Globe, and after the Zanuck awards the film moved into the Oscar favourite slot. It completely pulled me in … as I have said so often in the theatre reviews here, major movie stars acquit themselves extremely well on the London stage … look up Carey Mulligan in Skylight, James McAvoy in Macbeth, Zach Braff in All New People, Daniel Radcliffe in The Cripple of Inishmaan, or Kevin Spacey in Richard III, Rowan Atkinson in Quatermaine’s Terms, let alone those with a foot in both camps, Martin Freeman in Richard III, Benedict Cumberbatch in Frankenstein, Jude Law in Henry V, Ian McKellan in The Syndicate. The ideal career path now seems to be one blockbuster for the money, one art film a year for the prestige and awards and three months on the London stage for the satisfaction.
One of two marvelous balcony scenes (Edward Norton & Emma Stone)
Is Birdman really a comedy? We laughed out loud several times, couldn’t stop in the “underpants on Broadway” sequence. In a way it reminded me of Linday Anderson’s If in that it feels extremely realistic much of the time, but breaks into tiny sections of fantasy (Riggon can levitate and move objects by thought) then a major fantasy sequence at the end when he becomes Birdman and we’re suddenly into an SFX- festival over a New York street. That doesn’t stay enigmatic. After he flies to the theatre and walks in, we see a taxi driver pursuing him for the fare.
Emma Stone as Sam, Riggon’s daughter and assistant
However, Keaton’s despair and angst and voices in his head and fantasies are all seen in such tight close up, that it has a lot to say about the human condition, the process of aging and losing relevance in the world, acting, reality v fantasy. Emma Stone as his daughter carries a lot of that impact, railing at him for having no Facebook or Twitter presence. She also has two superb balcony sequences with Mike Shiner (Edward Norton). She asks him if he wants to fool around. He declines because he fears he might not be able to “get it up” – he is twenty years older than her. She points out his onstage stonker earlier, and he says he is only “real” on stage. She has a powerful visage with huge eyes … but at the end we swear they were SFX’d larger.
Keaton and Norton as Riggon and Mike fight
Edward Norton creates the serious actor Mike Shiner well enough to thoroughly deserve a Best Supporting Actor award. He also gets to take a few mighty punches and wrestle with Keaton … echoing Fight Club, just as Keaton is echoing Batman.
A comment on IMDB says:
Similar to how Michael Keaton’s character reflects his earlier role as Batman, Edward Norton’s caracter is likewise a parody, since Norton – like his character – has a reputation for being abrasive and difficult to work with.
Things may change over twenty years. Our 1994 ELT video Only in America was just about Edward Norton’s first professional role on graduating, and he was the most accomplished, enquiring (in a positive way) and co-operative actor we ever worked with. In Birdman his character, Mike, is insistent on getting things real. So real gin on stage, a sunbed to make him look red-necked, an attempt to really screw an actress on stage, a request for a real-looking gun. That did remind me of the young Edward Norton playing a nerdy college student. We were in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and he examined the props spectacles and said they weren’t nerdy enough. He asked to borrow the first aid kit, took a sticking plaster, wrapped it around the bridge as if a repair, and they instantly became nerdier. That’s inventive attention to detail above and beyond the role, and admirable.
On stage in the “play within the play” – The Raymond Carver story adapted for the stage
Overall? When we saw The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything and Boyhood, I thought “This is an Oscar performance” or ”This is an Oscar film.” I thought Mr Turner worthy for cinematography and that Timothy Spall would be nominated (but not the film).
But having finally seen Birdman I reckon it’s way ahead of the others. Script, innovative directing, story, all the performances, music. It’s one of the best films I’ve seen in ten years. Yes, it deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as If.
BATA nominations in nearly every category, but only won Best Cinematography.
OSCARS: vindicated. Best film, Best director.
Blu-ray instantly on release, aka 5 stars.
Incredible. The unaccompanied drum score by Antonio Sanchez is totally effective. Most of the time there is just a crisp drummer … actually echoes of the famous Peter Brooks A Midsummer Night’s Dream on stage where two drummers accentuated the story with no accompaniment. The drums here, on their own, are worth an Oscar.
Superb, simple black, white and red animated typography credits.