Two of today’s most talked-about films, Gone Girl and Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), both focus on the hot topic of media celebrity. Gone Girl dramatizes the way members of the viewing public, egged on by TV commentators with biases of their own, choose up sides when faced with scandal or crime of a particularly heinous nature. If you’re unlucky enough to be featured on a TV news broadcast, you’ll inevitably find yourself typecast as either a villain or a victim. And you’ll discover along the way that changing public perception is by no means easy.
Birdman – which appealed mightily to my sense of humor and sense of wonder – concerns itself with the world of actors. It belongs in the category of movies (including everything from Forty-Second Street to Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway) that chronicle the staging of a Broadway play, taking us behind the scenes to meet actors with large egos and larger insecurities. In Birdman, there’s a priceless performance by Ed Norton as a cocky Broadway Method actor, and an appealing one by Naomi Watts as a fading Hollywood beauty both thrilled and alarmed at the prospect of making her debut on the Great White Way.
But Birdman belongs to Michael Keaton, whose long career includes outrageous roles in two early Ron Howard comedies (Night Shift and Gung Ho). Also in the 1980s, he starred in the popular role-reversal comedy Mr. Mom, then put on the cape and mask for Tim Burton’s Batman. The latter film surely helped prepare him for Birdman: in it he plays a former Hollywood he-man who, having once walked away from the fourth film in a popular superhero franchise, now wants to revive his reputation by presenting himself as a serious New York actor/director/playwright. His stage adaptation of a grimly realistic Raymond Carver short story couldn’t be more different from the films in which he made his name. The joke is that, though Broadway insiders scorn Keaton’s character as an over-the-hill interloper, the public still considers him royalty. That’s why they’re ready to respect anything he does, however misguided. It seems that playing a caped crusader on the big screen is clearly a form of godliness.
I won’t go into the many surprises that grace Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film, except to praise the way he balances magical moments with the nitty-gritty of the New York theatre world. We see a lot of an actual 44th Street theatre, whose cramped backstage hallways and grimy dressing rooms belie the glamour most of us associate with Broadway. The script, which convincingly portrays the tangle of emotions most actors know all too well, also has fun with insider references ranging from Robert Downey Jr.’s superhero chops to Meg Ryan’s plastic surgeon.
In this context it’s worth noting that the number of Hollywood legends who look for legitimacy on the Broadway stage continues to rise. In the recent past, Scarlett Johansson has trod the boards in Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Tom Hanks just starred in an original called Lucky Guy. Daniel Radcliffe, trying to shed his Harry Potter mantle, has done everything from a musical (How to Succeed in Business) to a take-your-clothes-off drama (Equus). Michael Cera is currently wowing critics in This is Our Youth, but not every Hollywoodite receives serious critical respect. The public, though, remains starstruck.
During the annual Tony Awards ceremony, honorees continue to imply that acting on a Broadway stage is somehow far more noble than mere movie-making. Still, Hollywood celebs sell tickets, and New York seems happy to let their stars shine bright.