What We Talk About When We Talk About Michael Keaton
There is a note on the mirror of Riggan Thomson’s dressing room in the St. James Theatre in “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).” It reads, “A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing.”
What’s been said about “Birdman,” which closes Aspen Film’s Academy Screenings Friday, is that it’s a virtuosic and bold piece of filmmaking, driven by director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s groundbreaking camera work, which makes the movie look like it’s one long, lone continuous shot. What’s been said about Michael Keaton’s performance as Thomson is that it’s a comeback tour de force, reminding us all of Keaton’s rare ability to walk a fine emotional tightrope between comedy and tragedy.
But, Keaton said in a recent phone interview, the thing about “Birdman” is that it’s more than those things.
Iñárritu’s extended steadicam takes, for instance, did raise the level of difficulty for the whole cast. If anyone flubbed a line or missed a mark, it couldn’t be edited away. But the much talked-about method isn’t a gimmicky stunt, nor is it the boldest thing Iñárritu did with “Birdman.”
“Out of 10, that’s like 4 on the scale of what was accomplished by this director,” Keaton said. “It’s not about, ‘Let’s see if we can make it look like it’s one long take.’ That’s a minor point. I can’t imagine making the movie any other way and having the same effect, on the other hand, because it creates a world and pulls the audience in and then it get’s more intense by pulling you inside Riggan Thomson’s head. You’re actually a participant in the movie. You’re going though this experience with him.”
The film matches its technical wizardry with emotional depth. As Thomson, Keaton creates a character with all the complications and contradictions of a real human being. Thomson is a washed-up movie actor, decades removed from his star-making role as the superhero Birdman, attempting to make a comeback on Broadway by writing, directing and starring in an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” The egotism and insecurity and delusions of grandeur that most every mortal struggles with are writ large in actors, and in Thomson, but Keaton plays him brilliantly like an everyman, not as a Hollywood caricature.
Keaton said he read Carver’s story collection, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” three times over the course of the project, but slid into Thomson’s skin relatively easily.
“Some roles require research and some don’t, and this one didn’t,” he said. “I make my living as an actor and this guy is an actor, so there wasn’t a ton of research to do.”
For all of Thomson’s flaws, Keaton found he admired him.
“As pathetic and needy and insecure as this character is, he’s also noble,” Keaton said. “He’s a brave dude to try this. The guy deserves an enormous amount of credit just for having the balls to attempt it.”
The meta-narrative of “Birdman” is unavoidable. Anybody watching Keaton on-screen knows that, like Thomson, his biggest role was as a masked crime-fighter and, like Thomson, he has not done a lot of high-profile work on screen after abandoning the cowl and cape.
Since walking away from the Batman franchise after 1992’s “Batman Returns,” Keaton has earned a reputation for turning down a lot of movies. Over the last 20 years, he’s popped up every so often to remind audiences how good he is, with roles in films like Quentin Tarantino’s “Jackie Brown.” The story goes that he passed on that one at first, as well, and originally rebuffed Tim Burton on 1988’s “Beetlejuice.”
Even President Barack Obama, when he met Keaton on the campaign trail in 2008, asked Keaton why he didn’t make more movies. And the satirical newspaper The Onion touched on the dearth of Keaton screen time in a 2011 story titled, “Study: 87 Percent of Movies Would Be Better With Michael Keaton In Them.”
Keaton said the legends about his saying “no” aren’t all true. He needed to talk extensively with Tarantino and Burton, for example, he said, before understanding those roles well enough to say “yes.” And over the last 27 years, he’s spent most of his time in Montana, fishing, hunting, raising a son and attempting to be a human being instead of a movie star.
“People blow this out of proportion about what I turn down,” he said. “I guess I do turn down a lot of things, because I was raising a kid and I didn’t want to be going on location – I still don’t like going on location – and I have a big life. Movies are just how I make my living, but I spend a lot of time in the mountains.”
Yet he jumped at “Birdman.”
When Iñárritu reached out, Keaton had begun making an effort to act more, including turns in the 2014 “RoboCop” remake and Larry David’s HBO movie “Clear History.”
“I enjoy work more now than I have in a long time,” he said. “I started purposely focusing on attracting things to me and looking at things I wanted to do.”
He was dubious when Iñárritu said “Birdman” was a comedy, because the script didn’t necessarily read funny and because Iñárritu’s previous films – “Amores Perros” and “Babel” among them – are earnest dramas.
“That made me think twice,” said Keaton. “But one, you just want to be in business with people like Alejandro. And two, I’m always looking for something original. And this was certainly that.”
Still, it wasn’t until he and the cast began rehearsing with Iñárritu that Keaton realized how exceptional “Birdman” could be.
“I was a big fan of his work, so I thought, ‘There’s a level below which this won’t fall, because this guy is too talented. So even if it doesn’t work, it’s not going to be a bad movie,’” Keaton recalled. “However, it was risky in the sense of how he wanted to make it and everything he was reaching for. Once we started to rehearse I saw, ‘Wow, this guy is taking on a gigantic project here.’”
The movie incorporates bits of magical realism (Thomson levitates and has telekinetic powers), and the growling voice of Birdman goads Thomson throughout. Its intense, drumbeat score seemingly never stops as Iñárritu’s camera whirs through the theater, onto the streets of midtown Manhattan and into the sky. Its rapid-fire dialogue is strewn with gems like “Popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige, my friend,” delivered by Edward Norton as the pretentious Broadway actor Mike Shiner, who is one of many thorns in Thomson’s side. Along with its character study of Thomson, the film is about family, fame, social media, and the way we live now; about the destructive and productive sides of ego, the power (or lack thereof) of art, and the insignificance (or lack thereof) of the individual in the grand scheme of things – all tackled while maintaining a comic pitch. That’s what we talk about when we talk about “Birdman.”
Ambitious as it is, “Birdman” refuses to spoon-feed its audience with good guys and bad guys (other than a cartoonishly evil New York Times theater critic), and a clear moral or message to take home. When the credits role after the movie’s open-ended resolution, and the audience catches it’s breath, viewers are left with a lot to mull and debate.
“It’s like a reward for the audience for being such a great participant,” Keaton said of the much-discussed ending. “You get sucked into this movie, and whether you like it or not, you’re in it. … I think it’s kind of a gift to say, ‘Now you have something to ponder. And it’s up to you what to do with this.’”
Since “Birdman” premiered in August at the Venice International Film Festival, Keaton’s performance has become the most talked-about of the year, winning Best Actor honors from most critics circles that have announced their awards, a Golden Globe nomination and plentiful Oscar talk.
Being thrust into hurly-burly of awards season, Keaton said, is simply “a chance to be extraordinarily grateful, that’s all.”
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