After the Academy Award ceremony last week, people were shocked to see the Best Actor in a Leading Role not being handed to Michael Keaton for his performance in Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance); a film that won four other Oscars that night. Keaton’s overall work, from his earlier roles to recent, has been nothing short of exceptional. Even in commonly overlooked movies, like Multiplicity where Keaton performed four variations of the same character, are examples of his awesome talent. Likewise, Birdman was a remarkable performance from an already remarkable actor – worth of an award, even. However, that unfortunately is not always sufficient for the Academy of Motion Picture Science; Eddie Redmayne walked away with the Oscar that night, for his portrayal of renowned Astrophysicist Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything. Like Keaton, Redmayne did extraordinary work in his role. Unlike Keaton, Eddie Redmayne has not put more than three decades of effort in to only now finally have his talent acknowledged. Redmayne got his break in 2011 with My Week With Marilyn, and altogether has only been seriously working in Hollywood for just under ten years. This is where the argument grows that tenure should overrule the decision of who gets what award.
In Birdman, Micheal Keaton plays Riggan Thomas, a washed-up actor aiming for a comeback. He gambles on shot at producing, directing, and starring in his own adaptation to the Raymond Craver short story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” Thomas was once a major draw in Hollywood’s superhero-film circle, his crowning role being as character named Birdman. Now, middle aged and all but forgotten, Riggan Thomas struggles to stay relevant with both his fans and family. Although perfectly executed, Thomas Riggan’s situation too closely resembles Keaton’s own – for those people who ask “What happen to Michael Keaton” before recognizing his voice in blockbuster hits like Cars or Toy Story 3. What we see when we watch Birdman is Actor and Subject lining close enough it almost feels like an inside joke for everyone. Ironically, this works against what has made Micheal Keaton a great actor: his ability to adopt character wholly different from himself.
Portraying a real-life person, particularly one who is well known by virtually everyone and across multiple generations, is a tightrope. An actor has to replicate another individual’s entire set of mannerisms, or they risk being ridiculed. Mastering a performance like this is what can win someone awards – see Martin Landau as Bella Lugosi in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood. This is precisely what happened with Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything. Redmayne dissolved on screen and viewers only saw Stephen Hawking. A remarkable achievement for an up and coming actor, especially for one who has not been around as long as well-seasoned actors like Michael Keaton. Little makeup went into this production – whereas that was a helping factor with Martin Landau – and so this was accomplished nearly entirely by Redmayne, and what put him head of line for this year’s award for Best Actor in a Leading Role.
This is not an article to say Micheal Keaton does not deserve better recognition than what he has seen. Nor is it an article to belittle Eddie Redmayne. It is merely here to acknowledge the achievements of two wonderful actors.