By: Dan Tomasik
There’s a saying among actors; “If you want to get rich, do television. If you want to get famous, do movies. If you want to get good, do theatre”.
Birdman is unique, brilliant, and many different kinds of weird. It’s sure to inspire nostalgia and memories for anyone who’s ever been involved in theatre (especially actors). It definitely brought me back to the rush of excitement before a show. Walking through the wings, watching everyone working tirelessly to get everything ready in time for the curtain to go up, glimpsing people getting into costumes, chatting about things with each other, yelling at people who don’t seem to be doing their job hard enough, dealing with nerves or anxiety before you go on….
And then there’s that indescribable feeling when you walk onto the stage from the wing and start acting. You get so lost in that moment. You never get over it either, hence why people who have experienced a bit of theatre often find themselves incapable of leaving it. It’s not just the acting bug, it’s being a part of something so big. Dozens of people working and struggling to create this story, this scene, this situation, this experience for others to enjoy; everyone working towards the same goal. Once you’ve had a taste of that, there’s no going back to ordinary life. It’s unbearably dull by comparison.
Former superhero actor Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is pushing 60, turned down Birdman 4, still signs autographs for Birdman fans, and is trying to create something truly meaningful for once in his career. His solution is a broadway adaptation of a Raymond Carver play that he adapted, produced, directed, and stars in. That should probably tell you a lot about his ego. The film travels through a final rehearsal, three preview shows, and opening night, as well as everything in between. How well is the production going? Consider: final rehearsal saw one of the actors get hit by a stage light (intentionally), the first preview featured an on-stage meltdown by the replacement (Edward Norton), second preview saw said replacement try to get intimate for real with a costar (Naomi Watts) for “added realism”, and third preview Riggan got locked out of the theater and had to walk through Times Square in his tighty-whiteys to get back in time for his scene (which he did from the aisle). There is bad, there is disastrous, and then there are the preview shows for Riggan’s play.
Whether Michael Keaton will win Best Actor is uncertain (The Theory of Everything’s Eddie Redmayne’s the favorite to win), but it’s completely understandable why he’s a frontrunner. Almost every second of this movie we are following him as he struggles with almost every second of his life. Even when he manages to make things work out momentarily, they almost inevitably fall apart later on. With all the pressure on Keaton to carry the weight of the movie (and it’s an ambitious one), he never shows an instant of shrugging or collapsing under it all. Even when Riggan is collapsing from it all.
The one break Riggan seems to catch is his replacement actor, Mike Shiner (Edward Norton). Shiner is an audience favorite, critics love him, he sells out shows, he already knows the play by heart the first time he steps on stage, and he’s good. The problem is he’s too good for his own good. Every moment he’s on stage, he’s a master. Everything else, he is a disaster. Ed Norton is the perfect choice for the role, to the point where one has to honestly question whether it was written for him. If there’s any actor who can be as good as Mike Shiner and still avoid widespread success, it’s Ed Norton. A great and extremely versatile actor (as well as a personal favorite of this critic) who never disappoints, it’s a crime he hasn’t won an Oscar yet. It’s a mystery why Ed Norton isn’t a bigger star. After seeing this movie, it’s a mystery how someone this good became a star in the first place. It’s Norton’s best performance to date and that says a lot.
Last among the acting standouts is Emma Stone. Totally out of nowhere, she knocks it out of the park with a phenomenal performance. It begs the question how long she’s been capable of such an incredible achievement in acting. This didn’t just happen overnight, she’s clearly much better than her movies (including the abominable Amazing Spider-Man 2) depict. Every scene was so good, such ability would be wasted in blockbusters or episodic media. For whatever this critic’s opinion is worth; don’t give these people awards, give them paid theatre work for the rest of their lives. To do anything else would be a waste of this kind of talent.
Everything is filmed to appear as one long continuous shot, which is a marvel in it of itself. Even when time skips ahead it still feels uninterrupted. Recently and horrendously disqualified for a Best Score nomination is a single drummer who is as much a character in the movie as any of the actors. Who knew a score created by one drummer could be so organic and charismatic? Better question, who disqualified it for Best Score?