Everyman returns

Hollywood diaries

The door to Michael Keaton’s house was wide open. Inside, the two-time Batman and one-and-only Beetlejuice emerged from the kitchen for a hello.

 “I’ve got a big life,” Keaton said, getting comfortable in an armchair. “I’m curious about a lot of stuff.” Fans wondered, too, about the path of this versatile performer who made his name in the ‘80s and ‘90s in comedy, drama and cape, before seemingly disappearing from the multiplex. 

Now his talent is surfacing anew. In the dark comedy Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance, he plays a washed-up action star trying to make a comeback. Some parallels to his life are intentional: Grappling with a superhero alter-ego — the Birdman of the title — his character is hoping to recapture artistic prestige or a shred of what turned him onto acting in the first place. In the film, the results are bumpy. Off screen, though, it’s working out great. With Alejandro Iñárritu as director and co-writer, Birdman opened to ovations at the Venice and Telluride film festivals and has the esteemed, closing-night spot at the New York festival. Narratively complex and technically audacious, it’s already generating the kind of critical response that leads to Oscar front-runner status.

The film is a meta-commentary about the pitfalls of fame, ambition and ego, but it is delivering Keaton, 63, in a daredevil, career-defining role. “It’s rare that you get to be part of some amazing experiment like this,” he said. “The movie gets dark and gets weird, and it gets funny. So you’re constantly on this surfboard, kind of feeling it out. I like that. I just like seeing if I can do it.”

As the balding, once fit, now paunchy Riggan Thomson, he adapts, directs and stars in a stage adaptation of the landmark Raymond Carver story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. The film follows along, often in spiraling close-up, as this overwrought idea unravels, taking with it Riggan; his Broadway co-stars, including Edward Norton and Naomi Watts as a theatrical power couple; and his daughter turned assistant, a gloriously tart-tongued Emma Stone. Throughout, he is haunted by the voice and vision of Birdman (also Keaton, in full latex plumage), who reminds him, mercilessly, of the celebrity he used to be.

“When I finished the script, I knew that Michael was not the choice or option, he was the guy,” said Iñárritu, the filmmaker known for Babel, 21 Grams and Amores Perros. Keaton, he said, had the emotional range and Everyman charm to offset the moody, narcissistic Riggan. “He’s one of the few guys in the world who has worn that cape,” he continued, referring to the 1989 and 1992 Batman films. “The authority and the relatability that he gave, all those were essential.”

The film, Iñárritu said, may fit Keaton, but it was inspired by the director’s own life. “When I’m working, my Birdman, my ego, becomes really big,” Iñárritu said. “It can elevate me, and, 30 minutes later, it destroys me. It’s a tyrant.” Birdman functions as a backstage satire and an insider’s laceration of Hollywood life and pecking order. Iñárritu conceived Birdman first as a short, and to convey the self-referential, narrow interior life of a man tormented by his own ego, planned to film it in one long, tunneling take. 

For Keaton, who has striven in his acting to be unaware of the camera, it was like working in reverse. “There were times, to be honest with you, where we would say: Wait a minute. Why are we shooting this movie like this? Why don’t we just make a movie?” he said. “Just on a practical level, I had to stay locked in. It was extremely demanding, the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”

But from that flowed a clockwork ensemble, including Zach Galifianakis, playing against type as Riggan’s reasonable manager, and Amy Ryan as his ex-wife. Watching the film, Norton said, he was impressed by Keaton’s “unvarnished” performance, which included unflattering hairpieces and a memorable, tighty-whitey jog through Times Square. “Michael went all the way there,” he said. “He didn’t soften it. It’s not like one of those things where it’s cloying for your affection. He doesn’t back off the depiction of the guy who really flushed the best things in life.”

As for the Oscar talk surrounding Birdman, Keaton said, “What do I think about it? I think there’s chickens, and there’s hatched chickens.” No matter the part, he added, reaching for a sports metaphor to describe his career, “I play it like I’m losing.” 

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