This is Why The Oscars Loved ‘Birdman’
Hollywood is a land of narcissism. It’s an industry that loves itself, congratulates itself, and gives shiny gold statues to itself. Films about films tend to do well with The Academy.
In 2012, Argo won Best Picture, and that was a film about how a group of hostages were, more or less, rescued by filmmakers. The previous year, Hugo, a film about the birth of film, was nominated for 11 Oscars. That same year also saw two nominations for My Week with Marilyn, a biopic about one of Hollywood’s biggest movie stars. And who could forget 2009’s Inglourious Basterds, a film that used burning film stock to kill Hitler. In Inglourious Basterds, film literally ended World War II.
Tonight, Hollywood gave its most coveted gold statue, The Academy Award, to Birdman. Birdman is about a washed-up Hollywood star (Michael Keaton, playing a version of himself) who is putting on a play in New York to retain what little actorly dignity he has remaining. It’s set in New York and directed by the Mexican filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu, and it deals with the foibles of the stage and the New York critical milieu, but Birdman is very, very much about Hollywood, and specifically about how great the Hollywood movie star system is. But, at the same time, it also does a good deal of finger-wagging about blockbuster obsession; The Academy sure hates them some blockbusters. It’s a New York vs. L.A. tale in which L.A. wins. Let me elucidate.
Keaton’s character, Riggan, was once well-known in the world for playing the title character in an old series of shallow – but very popular – superhero movies. Very much like Keaton himself. Riggan looks back on these movies, and sees them as nothing but a failure in his career. They brought him wealth and fame, but he realizes that wealth and fame are not the same as critical acclaim or talent. His relationship with Hollywood blockbusters is one of derision and dismissal. Sure, millions saw these films, and they wouldn’t know who he was without them… but do they matter? In the artistic sense? Riggan feels the only way to prove himself is by baptism in the better-tested and more “serious” acting world of New York theater.
Over the course of Birdman, Riggan struggles between trying to make important art or comforting pabulum. Is he an artist? An egotist? Does he have talent? At one point in the film, a theater critic looks him dead in the eyes and says he is not an actor, but a celebrity. L.A. celebrities are not about craft, this snotty critic says, but about their own fame.
But while the film is constantly throwing his own illegitimacy in his face, and does indeed seem to be highly critical of action blockbusters in general, Riggan remains strong. Indeed, by the end of Birdman, Riggan succeeds not by succumbing to the seriousness of New York theater, and becoming a serious actor, but through a single act of madness that New York drove him to. Riggan learns that he is complete the way he is, and accepts that he is going to be the actor that he is. Well, the very end is ambiguous, but it could easily be read as a triumph.
But one of the main themes of Birdman is that an L.A. actor most certainly does not need to be legitimized by the hoity-toity world of New York theater. You may have doubts about those cheapie blockbusters you made 20 years ago, but they made you an important person. Fame is important in the world of Birdman, and is not just something actors (or celebrities) are neurotic about. The New York theater critic distinguishes between actors and celebrities. But the filmmakers are saying the opposite. That celebrity is a form of acting. Being important may not make you feel important, but under the right circumstances, it will do.
Related: Why Are The Oscars Anti-Blockbuster?
So in a very salient way, Birdman is a celebration of L.A. movie stars. It’s about acting, but it’s also about how the blur between acting and notoriety can be an empowering thing. It’s very telling that the film’s subtitle is The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance. If you ignore the high-class acting that’s been driving you crazy, then you’ll succeed and even be virtuous.
What’s more, Birdman has the exact same view of blockbusters that The Academy seems to. Birdman, while vaunting celebrity, puts down jejune summer entertainments. Given how few blockbusters The Academy seems to award, we can intuit that they don’t think much of commercial entertainments. So while it’s praising its own celebrity system, it’s slamming the very movies that make celebrities. “They put him in a cape too?” Riggan complains. All of his peers are now in superhero blockbusters.
So stay away from blockbusters, except as a means to make you famous. Once you’re famous, don’t delve into your craft away from Los Angeles. Stay in Hollywood, actors, and begin to make important “prestige” pictures, exploiting your fame for important Hollywood films. These are the only three paths, and two lead to ruin and insanity.
Birdman and the Academy, in this regard, think identically. That’s why the Academy digs it, and for better or worse, that seems to be the reason why it won.