Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Birdman won the Oscar for Best Picture of 2014 and three others, Best Director (Alejandro G. Iñárritu), Best Original Screenplay and best Cinematography. The Grand Budapest Hotel also won four Oscars that year. It was one of the other contenders for Best Picture, the others being American Sniper, Boyhood, The Imitation Game, Selma, The Theory of Everything and Whiplash. I have seen both The Grand Budapest Hotel and The Theory of Everything and to be honest I liked them both more.

It’s another year from which I have seen very few films. Apart from The Grand Budapest Hotel and The Theory of Everything, noted above, and Guardians of the Galaxy, noted two weeks ago, I’ve seen The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, The Lego Movie and Annie. I liked Birdman more than Guardians of the Galaxy, and maybe about the same as the third Hobbit movie, but less than the rest. (Everything is special!!!) IMDB users rank Birdman 12th best film of the year on one ranking and 22nd on the other. Interstellar tops both rankings, and another nine films are ahead of Birdman on both.

Here’s a trailer:

Surprisingly, none of the cast had previously been in Oscar, Hugo or Nebula/Bradbury-winning films. There is a crossover with Doctor Who: Lindsay Duncan, who plays theatre reviewer Tabitha here, was Adelaide Brooke four years earlier in the Waters of Mars special.

It’s the third year out of four where the Oscar went to a film which looked at show biz (after The Artist and Argo), and I slightly suspect the Academy of rewarding story-telling about their own industry. The film is about a washed-up actor known for his superhero films from two decades earlier, trying to regain his credibility by staging a Broadway adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story, haunted by the Birdman, a superhero who he played on film many years ago, and by various family and professional insecurities.

I’m sad and surprised to write this about such a recent film, but I don’t think there’s a single African-American with a speaking part, and the Asian-Americans all have very minor roles – in a film set in New York in 2014.

The stage play in the film is based on a short story by Raymond Carver. This fascinating Forbes article by Jonathan Leaf mercilessly dissects the film’s flaws in passing, but also makes the case that the film fails to honour Carver by taking the wrong version of the story – his editor drastically revised it for book publication. The original New Yorker version is here, the revised version which is now in general circulation here, and I think Leaf is absolutely right that the original is much better.

I also have to say that the film as a whole didn’t really grab me. It shifts between three realities – 2014 New York, the stage play which is at the core of the plot, and the Birdman fantasy – and maybe I’ve just read too much sf not to find it all a bit glib. The central character is not very attractive and it’s difficult to sympathise with his (largely self-inflicted) problems.

The star is Michael Keaton, who of course had played Batman in a similar timeframe to his character’s Birdman. There’s a very good dynamic in his interactions with his girlfriend, played by Andrea Riseborough, his ex-wife, played by Amy Ryan, his co-star, played by Naomi Watts, his rival actor, played by Ed Norton, and especially his daughter, played by Emma Stone. Stone is in only a couple of scenes but really stands out.

The big gimmick is that it’s presented as if it’s been filmed in (almost) a single take, so the pacing is very intense, and we get a lot of close-up dialogue shots (while presumably props and scenery are being rapidly moved around behind the camera). Not having seen many of the other contenders, I can well believe that it deserved the Oscar for Best Cinematography. The music is also good, but was ruled ineligible for the Oscar on a technicality. (The Grand Budapest Hotel won that category.)

However, it’s not one of my favourite films, and I’m putting it in the bottom 25 of my list, between two other films set in New York about self-centred male protagonists, Annie Hall and Gentleman’s Agreement.

Next up will be the award-winning films of 2015: Mad Max: Fury Road, The Martian and Spotlight.

1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can’t Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King’s Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in 80 Days (1956) | The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) | Gigi (1958) | Ben-Hur (1959)
1960s: The Apartment (1960) | West Side Story (1961) | Lawrence of Arabia (1962) | Tom Jones (1963) | My Fair Lady (1964) | The Sound of Music (1965) | A Man for All Seasons (1966) | In the Heat of the Night (1967) | Oliver! (1968) | Midnight Cowboy (1969)
1970s: Patton (1970) | The French Connection (1971) | The Godfather (1972) | The Sting (1973) | The Godfather, Part II (1974) | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) | Rocky (1976) | Annie Hall (1977) | The Deer Hunter (1978) | Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
1980s: Ordinary People (1980) | Chariots of Fire (1981) | Gandhi (1982) | Terms of Endearment (1983) | Amadeus (1984) | Out of Africa (1985) | Platoon (1986) | The Last Emperor (1987) | Rain Man (1988) | Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
1990s: Dances With Wolves (1990) | The Silence of the Lambs (1991) | Unforgiven (1992) | Schindler’s List (1993) | Forrest Gump (1994) | Braveheart (1995) | The English Patient (1996) | Titanic (1997) | Shakespeare in Love (1998) | American Beauty (1999)
21st century: Gladiator (2000) | A Beautiful Mind (2001) | Chicago (2002) | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) | Million Dollar Baby (2004, and book) | Crash (2005) | The Departed (2006) | No Country for Old Men (2007) | Slumdog Millionaire (2008) | The Hurt Locker (2009)
2010s: The King’s Speech (2010) | The Artist (2011) | Argo (2012) | 12 Years a Slave (2013) | Birdman (2014) | Spotlight (2015)

1 thought on “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

  1. An RL friend once said I wasn’t allowed to have an opinion on Grand Budapest Hotel because I was it’s target audience, and they couldn’t have made it more for me if they’d tried and … I love it so much.

    I also love both Fury Road and the Martian. In my top 10 of the year the year they both came out I went with the Martian as the marginally better film but they’re both optimistic about people in a really good way (in a very odd way in Fury Road’s case, and in a downright beautiful way in the Martian’s case).

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