Oscar Countdown: Revisiting “Birdman” by Alex and Nate Blake

Nate: 

Welcome to the second installment of this year’s Oscar countdown series. We’re going to try to make an annual tradition of having a series of posts looking back on past Oscar winners in specific categories. To kick this off, this year we are starting with Best Picture winners. Each week between now and the Oscars, we’ll look back on a Best Picture winner and discuss some things we like about it, some things we don’t, and whether, now that time has passed, the film has really held up as the best of the year it was released. Our second Best Picture winner, randomly selected, is Birdman.

Birdman was directed by Alejandro G. Inarritu and stars Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Edward Norton, Zach Galifanakis and Naomi Watts. It tells the story of Riggan Thomson (Keaton), the former star of a Batman-like film franchise who is haunted by his winged alter-ego. He hears the voice of Birdman taunting him and imagines that he can levitate and perform telekinesis. Riggan is in the midst of trying to reshape his career and be seen as a serious actor by writing, directing and starring in a broadway adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story.

birdman 2

The film is shot to appear like it is one long take. Inarritu took home the first of his two consecutive Best Director Oscars for Birdman, while cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki took home his second of three consecutive Oscars (the previous win being for Gravity and the following win being for Inarritu’s The Revenant). Birdman also won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Screenplay. It claimed the top prize in the midst of a murky awards season in which Boyhood was considered the favorite to win big at the Oscars. Alas, Boyhood only took home the award for Best Supporting Actress (for a very deserving Patricia Arquette).

Alex: 

I think these top prizes were definitely deserved. I enjoyed Boyhood (probably not as much as Nate), but I find the story that Inarritu had to tell to be more compelling. However, I do have a bone to pick with Inarritu about the style in which this film was shot. I totally get that the one-shot style is a technical marvel. The speed at which it was done though I found to be totally disorienting. Overall, it went well with the feel of the narrative and the surreal aspects. But, as a viewer, I honestly was feeling motion sick by the end. I think slowing it down even just a little would have helped immensely.

Nate:

Inarritu employs magical realism to tell this story and to explore his theme about the lengths people will go for love, and not just the romantic type, but the adoration of strangers we may never meet face to face. The first time we see Riggan, he is in his underwear, levitating in his dressing room while Birdman asks “How did we end up here?” Riggan’s quest for love is explored by his conflicted feelings about being best known for a superhero franchise, through his strained relationship with his daughter and struggles to get his play off the ground. One of those struggles arises early on when one of his co-stars is injured and has to be replaced by a quirky, difficult and very confident actor named Mike (Edward Norton).

birdman 6

Alex:

I really like the surreal aspects in this story. It made a very heavy theme a little lighter and more relatable to your average viewer. While not all of us are actors, we can all relate to the idea of wanting to be admired, loved, and remembered. We are all constantly fighting to stay relevant in some way. Whether it be in our work, our relationships, or our online presence. This film takes a very narrow story and makes it something we can all draw parallels to our own life from. Riggan is also one of those characters that at times he is makes life harder on himself. His anxieties and insecurities drive a lot of his narrative. You just want to reach out, grab him by the shoulders, and tell him to pull it together.

Nate:

My favorite thing about Birdman is the contrast presented through the dynamic between Riggan and Mike. Whereas Riggan is constantly worried about what people will think of him, Mike is only concerned with giving an honest performance. Though he is a very flawed character in his own right, one who interrupts a play at one point because the alcoholic beverage his character is supposed to be drinking is actually tea, and who sexually assaults his wife in front of an audience in the name of an honest performance, he is entirely secure with how people view him. He doesn’t care what anyone thinks as long as he gives his best possible performance. It’s what Riggan aspires to, but will never be since his priority is to be popular and adored.

birdman 3

Alex:

I agree that this is a really interesting dynamic that is created between the two characters. Riggan is fighting two sides of himself. He wants to be authentic and honest in his performances, but his need for love and admiration always wins. It is interesting to watch these two dueling sides as the narrative progresses and becomes more extreme.

Nate:

All of this of course is how we interpret the story. Birdman is the kind of film where concrete answers about any of the questions it explores are intentionally avoided. Inarritu himself has said the film is open to interpretation, and that’s particularly true about the end, which he described as one that “can be interpreted as many ways as there are seats in the theater.” My interpretation of the hospital scene at the end is that it is entirely a metaphor. Riggan hasn’t actually committed suicide, but he has embraced the idea that he will never be an actor like Mike, but that he can and will be a celebrity. He becomes content with his reputation as Birdman, perhaps to the extent that he will make Birdman 4, as well as his newfound social media celebrity status. What lies dead on the pavement below the hospital window is Riggan’s aspirations to be a great actor, writer and director.

Alex:

We do differ a bit in our interpretations, but that is to be expected with a film like this. I interpreted the voice that is always talking to him to be his anxiety over being relevant. The voice is always pointing out his flaws and criticizing him. We all have inner monologues like this at times. But in a profession like his, it is probably more extreme as he fights to remain relevant and beloved by his fans. I agree that his main driving force to be loved. Whether it be love from his daughter, his ex-wife, or theatre goers, it is definitely clear that this is his motivation. As far as the ending goes, I agree that it is Riggans letting go of something that has always held him back. Almost like a new beginning, allowing him to let go of the expectations and insecurities he held before.

All in all, I really enjoyed this film and think that is has truly stood the test of time. With that being said, there were still flaws, especially in how Mike’s character is portrayed. He does some problematic things that just don’t seem like they would be ignored or rewarded in the real world. But then again, this was released during a time when Harvey Weinstein was still getting away with things, so it’s hard to tell.

birdman 4

Nate:

Half a decade later, I’d say Birdman holds up better than most Best Picture winners, and it hasn’t aged too poorly with one exception: I agree with Alex that Mike’s onstage assault of Lesley (Naomi Watts) is handled too casually. Aside from that, the performances are universally strong, the almost all percussion score and Lubezki’s cinematography make for an immersive experience and the dialogue is witty and often delightfully vicious. This is a great film, but once again this is a case of it not being my favorite of the year. I think Boyhood was a bigger achievement and a more moving experience. It also seems, despite what the title may suggest, that Boyhood developed female characters better, even if they were still placed in supporting roles. I would have preferred to see Boyhood win Best Picture (or Foxcatcher, had it been nominated in that category), but Birdman is a respectable choice.

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s