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Here's why Birdman didn't deserve to win the Best Picture Oscar — and why it did

Michael Keaton and Edward Norton star in Birdman, which won Best Picture at the Oscars.
Michael Keaton and Edward Norton star in Birdman, which won Best Picture at the Oscars.
Fox Searchlight

BirdmanAlejandro González Iñárritu's bleak backstage comedy, seemingly filmed in one take, was named Best Picture at the Oscars Sunday, February 22, 2015. But did it deserve the award? We've got one writer in favor of the film and one who didn't like it as much.

The case for Birdman

By Alex Abad-Santos

There's a moment in Birdman, which just won Best Picture at the 87th annual Academy Awards, that's slight but revealing. Edward Norton, playing method actor extraordinaire Mike, needles and prods Michael Keaton's Riggan about the fake gun he uses during the final scene of their play.

"I don't even feel threatened at all," Mike says, eyes squinting. He's glaring, imploring Riggan to push himself and the play toward something greater. His argument: if art isn't making you feel something real, something uncomfortable, it's not inspiring.

Norton's electric flourish seamlessly describes the swirling piece of cinema that is Birdman. It's a movie that challenges the way we absorb art, snarks on the idea of culture, spits in the face of critics, and makes no apologies or explanations for moments that would seem to warrant them.

And it's a film that's also very worthy of its Best Picture win.

There isn't a better ensemble cast this year

Back in October, the initial rumblings surrounding Birdman suggested this was the film that was going to make Michael Keaton a movie star again. His scraggly, acidic take on the pained and burnt out Riggan is mesmerizing.

At times, like when he's confronting the chilly New York Times critic Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan), it's as if he's dumping Riggan's soul into a garbage disposal and holding down the switch. These scenes are pure, pained magic. And moments later, he's soaring, cawing, and bending himself into physical comedy feats we haven't seen from the actor since Beetlejuice.

Keaton's is a fantastic performance, but it's not the only one in the movie. Norton and Emma Stone were rightfully nominated in the supporting categories this year as well. The two buoy Keaton, giving him a blowhard rival to spar with and a daughter who reflects the consequences of Riggan's narcissism.

Stone offers the kind of performance that in any other year (a year where someone doesn't devote 12 years of their life to a film like Patricia Arquette did) would warrant an Oscar win. Her chemistry with Norton, and the desperate emptiness that connects their two characters, could have easily taken up more of the film. Instead, it becomes a kind of seasoning, used here and there to highlight what's going on.

That could apply to rest of the cast, too. Naomi WattsZach GalifianakisAndrea Riseborough, and Amy Ryan all find ways to provide glimmers of humor or hushed humanity throughout this dark, snappy, film. In a lot of movies, you find yourself missing characters and the actors that play them when they're not on screen. Birdman is the only one this year where I missed the entire supporting cast.

The One-Shot Wonder

The most ambitious and perhaps the most divisive feature of Alejandro González Iñárittu's film is that the vast majority of it is made to look like a single shot. Cinematography, of course, does not a Best Picture make. And these sorts of devices don't necessarily make art better.

But I can't help but appreciate the thoughtfulness that Iñárittu wove into his one-shot conceit. Perhaps it's because I haven't been in the depressing underbelly of a theater, but the pacing and composition of his shots — the zooming through narrow hallways, the use of levels to differentiate different scenes, the angles through which we see nooks and crevices of the St. James Theater — is spell-binding. One moment, the theater feels claustrophobic, like a caving trip gone wrong, and the next second, the camera glides above the marquee where you can breathe again.

Back in September, director Steven Soderbergh made the point on his website that a movie's staging and the way its shots are composed are an art.

"I operate under the theory a movie should work with the sound off, and under that theory, staging becomes paramount," Soderbergh wrote, and then presented a version of Raiders of the Lost Ark without sound and without color.

I have no doubt you could apply the same test to Birdman and see similar, sterling results.

Culture shock

The premise of Birdman can be read as a cynical take on comic book culture and the superhero industry. Riggan struggles for relevance and validation, and his entire career is overshadowed by playing the superhero in the title. Riggan's obsession and narcissism claw away at his own psyche.

Iñárittu has spoken about his disdain for superhero movies. "They have been poison, this cultural genocide, because the audience is so overexposed to plot and explosions and shit that doesn’t mean nothing about the experience of being human," he told Deadline in October.

But what Iñárittu did with his disdain is actually quite splendid — he opened up another avenue of thinking about superheroes, and the magic they bring. It might very well offend him, but with Birdman, he's tapping into ideas of identity, psyche, self-realization, and personal consequence that are in line with what comic books have explored. They're just ideas that haven't made it to big-screen comics adaptations.

Though Birdman is dark and at times steeped in human ugliness, there are still moments where Iñárittu has lovingly tucked in moments of unexplained, unapologetic magical realism — again, not unlike a comic book.

It's simple to bemoan something you don't enjoy. To provide, as Iñárittu is doing with the superhero genre, a suitable and verdant alternative to that something, is massively difficult. But Iñárittu has achieved that. And that makes his film a worthy Best Picture winner.


The case against Birdman

By Todd VanDerWerff

Birdman, which just won Best Picture at the 87th Annual Academy Awards, has some good qualities to it. Allow me to celebrate them before ripping it to shreds.

The performances are uniformly excellent, particularly from Michael Keaton, as Riggan Thomson, an egotistical actor attempting a comeback; Edward Norton, as a blowhard method actor; and Emma Stone, as Thomson's emotionally bruised daughter. Emmanuel Lubezki's camera work is superb, using a roving eye to capture the protagonist's slowly disintegrating mental state. And I even like the drum-heavy score, which turns a crisis of conscience into a kind of cacophony of uncertainty.

What's more, the film is a marvel of interesting ideas being executed well. Most stories that appear to be filmed in one take (as this entire film is) use that technique to tell a story in real time. Birdman leaps across weeks of time, even as it appears to be taking place in real time, and it gives the story a dreamlike quality, when the characters might exit one room and enter another several days later.

It's all so fascinating it makes me wish everybody involved was working on a better film, because Birdman's direction, by Alejandro González Iñárritu, and screenplay, by Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, and Armando Bo, are so hilariously self-congratulatory as to be completely off-putting.

It's a masturbatory exercise in self-delusion, a movie about movies that's also about how terrible the movies are today, and when is anybody going to make great art? It's so impressed with itself that it becomes laughable.

Late in the film, a character bellows the "out, out, brief candle" speech from Macbeth, which concludes with the idea that life is "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

This probably wasn't meant as a description of the film, but it works almost as well.

Let's ease the doubts of actors

At the center of Birdman is the peril of being an actor. Keaton's Thomson has come to Broadway to revive his career. He, like the actor playing him, is best known for a string of superhero movies made decades ago, movies he can't quite escape. (If you guessed that the superhero he played was named Birdman, you get a cookie.)

As a bid at artistic relevance, he's adapted some Raymond Carver stories into a stage play, which he is also directing and starring in. We don't get a real sense of what the play entails, beyond two scenes, because the film is less interested in the actual mechanics of the theater than it is in using the stage a shorthand for artistic integrity, one it never really bothers to explore. After all, there are posters for Phantom of the Opera lurking in the background of most outdoor shots. It's not like the stage is always a haven of cutting-edge work.

Thus, the story of the film is how Riggan is going to transcend his own worries about irrelevance to achieve artistic immortality. Along the way, he'll have to deal with Mike (Norton), who is known and beloved in the theater community (if not by the layman), as well as the ways he has disappointed his daughter, Sam (Stone).

The film also shoehorns in a largely unnecessary subplot where Mike and Sam flirt with each other and slowly fall into infatuation, if not love. It could probably be cut from a movie that's over-long, but the scenes between the two are also some of the only ones where the story comes alive with something like real human emotion.

In Keaton's hands, Riggan becomes something interesting, at the very least, a man trying to outrun his past (sometimes literally) and mostly failing. But you're still left with the disquieting sense that the vast majority of this story consists of Riggan thumping his chest and preening for alpha male status in a world that has largely passed him by. And if you're going to make that story, a favorite of Oscar voters since time immemorial, feel like it has any juice left in it, you'll have to bring much more originality to it than Birdman has on offer.

In short, the technique of Birdman has to be as ostentatious as it is, because otherwise, it would be all the easier to notice how empty the story is.

Who cares?

Let me put this another way. I've seen Birdman twice now, once before release and another time just before the Oscars. The first time through, I didn't like it much but mostly found the camerawork and Keaton's performance dazzling enough to give it a mild pass. (I never wrote about it, because I couldn't imagine anybody enjoying it that much.)

The second time through, I noticed something sort of bizarre — a huge percentage of the script consisted of exposition. Characters explained their emotional and mental states. They explained what they were doing. They explained their relationships to each other to each other. At one point, Zach Galifianakis's character explains to Riggan who he is, just so the audience will know, even though he and Riggan are friends and work associates.

Exposition is, of course, a necessary evil, but too much of Birdman is inartful exposition, mostly designed to keep the story moving along, so you don't notice how clumsy the center is. It would be possible to suggest that this is the film's snide joke about how often writing for the stage consists of long, expository monologues, because of how the stage must allude to things, rather than directly depict them. But every time we see a scene from the play within the film, it seems like a solidly constructed little show but one greeted by rapturous responses that seem completely at odds with its actual quality.

That, ultimately, is what grates most about Birdman. There's something solid and maybe even affecting here, and there's all the technical wizardry and acting excellence to prop that up. But go beyond the glitzy surface, and the center of the story is a complete fraud. It exists solely to reassure its target audience — actors and would-be artists and aging white guys — that they are okay, that everything they have done in their lives (even the bad stuff) will be just fine so long as they're true to their "vision."

The most honest moment in the movie, then, is when Sam berates her father for thinking he's somehow better than the world around him, for thinking that his relevance is of interest to anyone but himself. It's a good moment, because it understands that, well, Riggan's relevance isn't inherently interesting to anyone but everybody who automatically identifies with Riggan in the first place.

But the movie quickly forgets about this. There's absolutely no attempt to make Riggan recognizable, identifiable, worth empathizing with. There's simply the assumption that we will, because his quest is somehow just. But when his quest is just to mount a play so he doesn't have to make a superhero movie, not to put too fine a point on it, but who the fuck cares?

The answer, by now, is obvious. The voters in the Academy very much care. It's the rest of us who are left out in the dark.