Michael Keaton has been a busy man, though it is not always apparent. His television debut was in 1975 and he was a regular fixture for the rest of the decade in parallel with his film career which began in 1978, and by 1983 he was a leading man in comedy films. It was at the end of that decade that he collaborated with director Tim Burton on the title roles of Beetlejuice (1988) and Batman (1989), parts which could not have been more different yet with which he remains associated, despite almost thirty further films in the twenty three years since he last donned the Batcape.
Like Keaton, Riggan Thomson is remembered for a role in a comic book adaptation he has not played in decades: Birdman. Trying to relaunch his career as a serious actor, Riggan has directed and stars in a Broadway production of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, his own adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story from the 1981 collection of the same name.
When during final rehearsals a stage light falls and injures another actor the part must be recast at short notice and neither Harrelson, Fassbender nor Renner are available, but all the press want to talk about is whether he’ll ever play Birdman again…
In recent years it not been uncommon for actors to play versions of themselves in films, most obviously John Malkovich gleefully satirising himself in Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich (1999) and more recently the entire cast of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s This Is the End (2013), and while Keaton has moved from his comedic beginnings to more substantial dramatic roles there has always been a manic element to his performances which recalls his roots, and Riggan draws from both these sides of Keaton‘s career.
Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu from a script co-written with John Lesher, Arnon Milchan and James W Skotchdopole, Birdman features a cast cinema giving fearless performances under the most ridiculous of situations. The Grand Budapest Hotel’s Edward Norton is Mike Shiner, a confrontational method actor who throws a tantrum during a preview performance when Riggan switches out the gin he had placed on stage for water while an atypically subdued Zach Galifianakis (Muppets Most Wanted) is producer Jake who tries to keep the show moving even as he watches his best friend Riggan approaching a nervous breakdown.
The two leading ladies of the play are the embittered Laura (Shadow Dancer’s Andrea Riseborough), also Riggan’s underappreciated girlfriend, and Lesley (The Ring’s Naomi Watts) who knows bringing boyfriend Mike into the theatre was a mistake but also knows she had no choice. Backstage are Riggan’s ex-wife Sylvia (Gone Baby Gone’s Amy Ryan), resigned to whatever stunt Riggan will pull next, and daughter Sam (The Amazing Spider-Man’s Emma Stone), just out of rehab and working as his assistant; all give life to their characters, with Watts demonstrating as she did in her 2001 breakthrough role in Mulholland Drive how good she can be when given material beyond the mundane.
Spanning the days leading up to the opening night, the action is choreographed around the theatre, the stage, the dressing room, the warren of corridors between, never straying more than a few blocks from Riggan’s obsession. The camera following him like a stalker, the film is structured to appear as though it was created in a single take but without the staged feeling of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948), more akin to the fluidity of Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2002), though there is a also a nod to the ballroom scene of Roman Polanski’s Fearless Vampire Killers (1967); like a vampire lover, the camera never appears in the dressing room mirrors.
While Mike demands authenticity onstage, Riggan’s madness is taking form elsewhere in the voice of Birdman which only he can hear, in the telekinetic powers he believes he can manifest, in his belief that he can fly, but his concern should be whether the play will take flight. Having financed the production he stands to lose everything should it fail, and theatre critic Tabitha Dickinson (Doctor Who‘s Lindsay Duncan in a brutal cameo) has already told him to his face she intends to destroy his vanity project simply for the offence of taking up space on a stage which might otherwise be used for something worthwhile.
Occasionally indulgent, marginally overlong and wilfully contrary, Birdman will not be to the taste of all audiences and may appeal more to those who appreciate the intimate performances of a small ensemble associated with live theatre as it is this which the film offers rather than the conventional narrative of traditional cinema. Certainly there is unlikely to be a more revealing film about the acting process this year, nor will there be such a startling redefinition of a career as it has granted Michael Keaton.
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is now on general release