Oddly enough, it’s currently infuriating the culture snobs it was explicitly about. It’s the film that “robbed” the ‘superior’ Boyhood, that infuriated po-faced broadsheet critics and red-faced tabloid hacks alike, and that trumped Alan Turing, Stephen Hawking and Martin Luther King Jr. Amidst the wreckage of Sunday night, after the Academy declared Birdman Best Picture, writer Lucy Cowburn argues in favour of a much-maligned masterpiece.
So; I am gobsmacked. When I walked out of the cinema after seeing Birdman I knew that I wanted it to win the Best Director Oscar. I didn’t expect it to win the Best Picture award for a moment. I thought it too small a film for that and there were other films about more inspiring men vying it out for that title. As much as the Academy claims to love a story about an everyman, it’s a lie. They give awards to stories about men who change the world, preferably while being really patriotic or fulfilling the American Dream. Clearly why Selma was nominated for so many awards. It’s nice that it fell back onto the actors playing actors option. We haven’t seen that since Argo in 2013.
The story is a pretty simple one. Michel Keaton is a washed up ex-superhero actor, Riggan Thomson, putting on a Broadway adaption of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Keaton’s wonderfully cast as a man whose best days are far behind him plagued by auditory hallucinations of his gravelly voiced superhero alter ego. Just to clarify, it’s the film I’m talking about now. The supporting cast is also supreme. Ed Norton, especially, is hilarious. It’s been a while since I’ve seen him in anything decent and I forgot just how good he can be.
What I love about the film is the way it’s shot. Almost all of the film is one long take and, yes, if you look very closely and think about it, you can tell where the different bits have been edited together but it’s still fantastic. Doing a film like this is by no means a new idea; most famously Alfred Hitchcock did it with Rope back in 1948. What Alejandro González Iñárritu does so well is to update that idea using modern technology. No longer is all the action contained to one room, instead the characters are followed around the maze of their theatre by what appears to be a single hand-held camera. It’s not a gimmick though. The style creates a claustrophobic atmosphere that ramps up the drama of the film. The audience is rarely permitted to leave the theatre the play is being staged in and even when the story does move outside the one building, it doesn’t stray far. Conventional film language calls for cuts and the fact that there are none until the play ends makes Birdman an unrelenting film as obsessed with Riggan’s play as he is himself. The music does exactly the same thing; everything heard in the film is diegetic sound and it’s so unexpected. I’ve got to be honest it’s also just so refreshing to hear a dramatic monologue without a hammy score interrupting at the crucial moment. It’s almost as though the filmmakers were assuming a level of intelligence from their audience.
The only bit that didn’t do it for me was the ending. Apparently, the one that ended up in the film isn’t the one originally written. The original would have involved an inspired cameo by Johnny Depp and sounds like it would have been brilliant. The one in the film is less brilliant. Everything up to the end of the play could be written off as reality and any oddities a product of Riggan’s deteriorating mind. The last ten minutes or so of the film just don’t work and it’s a real shame. It feels like all of a sudden the film goes for deep and symbolic. All the bits prior to it are very straightforward, so it’s incredibly jarring to suddenly have nonsense montages and people flying. Especially when it’s been previously established that people can’t fly.
I realise that this mostly just a love letter to Birdman and there are probably some meanings that I’m completely brushing over. It sucks you in and makes you care about a desperate man making a terrible play and ultimately it’s all down to the style. If there were cuts, this would be a decidedly mediocre film. I really just enjoyed watching this film without over analysing it and it’s the first Best Picture winner for years that I’d willing sit through again. And, as an added bonus, it’s pissed off The Daily Mail.