I blame Alec Guinness.
The late Englishman is famously reputed to have labelled 1977’s Star Wars, which brought him elevated fame, fortune and an Oscar nomination, as “fairytale nonsense”. And so, right at the very beginning of Hollywood’s blockbuster era, the message to awards season voters was clear: the new wave of fantasy action epics were to be regarded as inferior, especially so as even those who starred in them thought they weren’t much cop.
The key character in Birdman, Riggan Thomson, might be seen as a latter day Guinness (though surely the Englishman never suffered so greatly). Former Batman Michael Keaton plays a washed-up former A-lister fighting against almost constant psychological torment, desperate to prove himself as a “real” actor because his best-known role is that of the titular man-sized avian crime-fighter. His damaged daughter (played waifishly by Emma Stone) tries to persuade him that the Broadway play he is mounting is little more than a vanity project. But Riggan is so terrified at the prospect of finding himself returning to the role of Birdman (to the point that he hallucinates the character urging him back into what is admittedly a very silly suit) that he cannot see the truth.
Alejandro González Iñárritu’s black comedy won four awards, including best film and best director, at the 2015 Oscars, so it is possibly a little late to express bemusement that its anti-superhero polemic might be cementing itself in Hollywood. But this idea of actors desperately fighting to escape the horrifyingly inexorable, vortex-like pull of mainstream cinema for the joyous relief of arthouse existence is surely utter nonsense. Does Tom Hiddleston weep tears of sweet rage each time he finds himself back in the Loki suit? Does Robert Downey Jr mutter to himself about all those lost opportunities to sweep the boards in a David Mamet play every time he slips, sulkily into the Iron Man costume? Of course not: actors are by nature massive showoffs, and will almost always grab the opportunity to bring their talents to the widest possible audience – whether that means dressing up like a robot or pretending to be Charlie Chaplin.
A case in point is an actor who could not be more closely identified with art house material, the Ingmar Bergman regular Max von Sydow. The veteran Swedish actor has just signed up to play a key supporting role in the new Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens, but this is hardly his first blockbuster fantasy rodeo. Who’s that in the dodgy “oriental” makeup as Ming the Merciless in 1980’s Flash Gordon? Yes, it’s von Sydow. How about the failing King Osric in 1982’s Conan the Barbarian, or sinister “pre-cog” director Lamar Burgess in 2002’s Minority Report? Von Sydow again.
And yet Birdman’s premise clearly has found traction in Hollywood. At the Oscars, Jack Black performed an opening song that railed against the ubiquity of superhero movies, forcing Guardians of the Galaxy’s James Gunn into a tetchily defensive Facebook post in which the film-maker pointed out that genuine talent and charlatanical bluster exist equally in both mainstream and arthouse corners of cinema. Nightcrawler’s Dan Gilroy also spoke out against the “tsunami of superhero movies that have swept over this industry” while picking up the prize for best first feature at the Independent Spirit Awards on Saturday.
All of which means Academy voters are likely to continue ignoring better mainstream fare for the conceivable future. This would be fine if the alternative offered up genuine art, but surely the Oscars have got to do better than Birdman.
Iñárritu’s film is nothing more than an occasionally funny but often laughable examination of the excruciatingly banal inner turmoil of the thespian class. It’s the kind of movie only other actors, or tunnel-visioned acolytes of a certain elitist, infuriatingly self-reflexive form of cinema, would find worthy of great reward. Give me Guardians of the Galaxy’s spikily written, joyous space romp or even The Lego Movie’s barmy anti-corporate Trojan horse of a (bizarrely merchandise-funded) kids movie any day.
The irony is that Keaton himself may well believe the snooty hype. This is an actor who admits to having not seen any of Christopher Nolan’s critically-acclaimed Batman movies, which makes you wonder whether he has actually seen any of the new crop of superhero films.
He might want to have a word with the Dark Knight trilogy’s Christian Bale, a Batman actor who has actually won an Oscar. The Welshman recently revealed that he stared into space for half an hour after finding out that Ben Affleck had been cast as the new caped crusader (admittedly, many others did the same for entirely different reasons).
Though Guinness would presumably have disagreed, Keaton might just discover Birdman’s vision of an impenetrable dividing line between arthouse and mainstream has about as much substance to it as the contents of old Obi-Wan’s Jedi cape in the wake of his final battle with Darth Vader. There’s simply nothing there.
This article was written by Ben Child, for theguardian.com on Friday 27th February 2015 12.55 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010