“To me… this is – God. This is my career, this is my chance to do some work that actually means something.”Michael Keaton as Riggan in ‘Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)’
In 2015, the Best Actor race came down to 63-year-old veteran comedian Michael Keaton and newcomer Eddie Redmayne, 30 years his junior. Keaton starred in the Best Picture-winning film Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) while Redmayne led the way as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything. Redmayne wound up taking most of the awards that season – BAFTA, SAG, GG (Drama), and the Oscar – while Keaton only managed to take home two: GG (Comedy) and CCA. Given how the decade turned out, it makes sense that Redmayne won for playing a real person – since 2010, 8 of the 12 winners were playing real people – and that person is one of the most influential scientists to have ever lived.
What the Academy must not have taken into account that year was: even if Riggan Thomson wasn’t a real person, Michael Keaton absolutely is. What I mean by that is that, in a sense, Keaton was playing a version of his own self. The character of Riggan Thomson and the life of Michael Keaton have enough similarities to where one could label this a semi-autobiographical role for one of the most well-known actors in Hollywood.
Riggan was a former Comic Book star who was looking for one last shot at personal redemption after being tied to one role his entire life. Keaton was also a former Comic Book star and was looking to have a career shift later in his life. Gone were the days of Michael Keaton of Mr. Mom, Beetlejuice, and Batman fame, and in were the days of Michael Keaton the Oscar-nominee who can pull off a magnitude of different performances.
Of course, how the two felt about their super-pasts are completely different – Riggan resents his past work while Keaton embraces it – but the sentiment between the two is still there. For his entire career, Keaton was seen as the funny man or the Batman, and on a dime he changed his entire persona to be a well respected dramatic actor, one worthy of major industry awards. Many comedians try this and while some succeed (Robin Williams) others fail (Jim Carrey). Awarding him the Oscar wouldn’t have been just for his performance in Birdman – genuinely the best of the year – but it would have been a true culmination of his entire body of work leading up to that award.
Every year it seems like there is another actor up for a “legacy” Oscar, one that is for there performance, but also for their body of work as a whole. Usually this is given to actors with multiple Oscar nominations who haven’t quite managed to cross the threshold from Oscar nominee to Oscar winner (Leonardo DiCaprio, Gary Oldman, and most recently Will Smith). Before this film Keaton had never gotten an Oscar nomination, was honestly never really close to one, but because of Birdman, Keaton didn’t just break through the wall, he tore the whole thing down.
This role was perfect for his skillset as an actor; it was comedic and fast paced and it truly gave Keaton his chance to shine. It was the perfect role at the perfect time. Redmayne’s performance as Stephen Hawking was good, and I think the nomination was well deserved, but it paled into comparison as to what Keaton brought to Riggan Thomson. A fully layered, loud, and at the same time nuanced performance. He constantly kept the audience on their toes, and thanks to Alejandro G. Iñárritu decision to replicate the entire movie in “one take,” there was a physical and mental layer that was added as well. Keaton went toe to toe with some of the best actors of the 21st century (Naomi Watts, Emma Stone, and Edward Norton), but he consistently out-performed them all.
After this film, Keaton would mainly stay on the more dramatic side of things following this Best Picture winner up with another Best Picture winner, Spotlight, and currently made the rounds picking up major wins for his performance in the Hulu Original Dopesick. His versatility and willingness to take on challenging roles will get him a win someday I just know it, but this is a race and a performance people will look back on and wonder: “How did he not win for this?” I know I already have.