In anticipation of the Academy Awards, we polled our contributors to see who they thought should win the Oscar. Once we had our winners, we asked various writers to make the case for our selection in each category. Here, Glenn Kenny makes the case for the Best Actor of 2014: Michael Keaton in "Birdman". Two winners will be announced Monday through Thursday, ending in our choices for Best Picture and Best Director on Friday.
Because almost every actor in Alejandro G. Iñarritu’s “Birdman” is playing an actor, critics have easily yielded to the temptation to conclude that the leads, particularly the male leads Michael Keaton and Edward Norton, are playing some versions of themselves. In Keaton’s case, a correspondence seems particularly direct: he plays Riggan Thompson, a movie star whose fame and now-apparently-dwindling fortune was made playing a movie superhero, the titular “Birdman.” Thompson is, in the movie, going for a shot at artistic redemption by sinking what’s left of his rep, and a good deal of his money, into a cockamamie Broadway project, adapting a famed Raymond Carver book for the stage. The tortured Thompson seems to be trying to make amends for participating in what Norton’s more “pure” co-star Mike calls “cultural genocide.” But even as Thompson tries to make good, his gruff, break-stuff superhero alter-ego dogs his every step.
Keaton’s performance, unspooling in the hard-earned illusion of a single-take shot, is a marvel of wit, anger, self-effacement, and a whole lot more. But here’s an interesting thing, and the reason they call it, you know, “acting:” Keaton is NOT playing himself. (And neither is Norton, but this piece isn’t about him.) As he’s made pretty clear doing the press for “Birdman,” Keaton’s not hungry for redemption; he wears his “Batman” past pretty lightly; he picks his roles according to his interests, not in search of a self-re-invention milestone. His work as Riggan is more a feat of empathy and craft than of ostensible self-revelation, despite the scene in which Riggan is compelled to walk through Times Square in nothing but underwear briefs and socks. And he’s also funny as hell, which is often how we like Michael Keaton.