In 1989, Michael Keaton looked to be the next big thing in Hollywood. “Batman” had just released to critical raves and commercial success, and, coupled with his previous iconic turn as the gratuitous and bombastic character Beetlejuice in the film of the same name, Keaton’s popularity soared. He possessed a rare versatility, the ability to handle the broad physical comedy of “Mr. Mom”, the slick grandeur of Bruce Wayne, and the dark, subtle cynicism of Wayne’s cowl-wearing alter ego. It was expected that Keaton would go on to be one of the great stars of the 90s, a star on the level of Harrison Ford. It was a peak, however, the actor ultimately failed to reach.
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s new film “Birdman” follows aging Hollywood actor Riggan Thomson, played by Michael Keaton, as he attempts to revive his career by writing, directing, and starring in a Broadway play after a career defined by a single role, the role of a lifetime: Birdman, a popular super hero.
One need not look too deep to spot the parallels between Keaton and his new role. The trailers paint the character as a tragic figure, one done in by his own hubris, his inability to move on from his past life; a disembodied voice in the trailer asks Keaton, “How did we end up here in this dump?” That might very well be a question Keaton asked himself over the years, a decade spent middling in flops, inferior role after inferior role, paycheck after paycheck. There were bright spots here and there; detective Ray Nicolette in “Jackie Brown” stands out. Yet missing from these roles was the chance to shine. Keaton was a caged bird, unable to fully spread its wings, left only to squawk in contempt and pick at the birdseed that was “Jack Frost.”
Lately though, Keaton has made a slow and steady comeback, less flashy and with less pomp and circumstance than the revival of Matthew McConaughey. Bit roles in well-received animated features like “Cars” and “Toy Story 3,” a return to comedy in “The Other Guys,” and a villainous turn in the remake of “Robocop” have brought him back to relevancy. “Birdman,” however, might very well be Keaton’s “Dallas Buyers Club,” the cherry on top of a monumental resurgence, a film with plenty of Oscar buzz, especially for its lead actor. The film is presented as a mix of comedy and drama, allowing the creatively dormant actor to flex his muscles, his wings, for the first time in decades. Not since Batman has there been a role so rich, so deserving of Keaton’s talents. One of his more underrated talents is pathos, his ability to create sympathy, something Riggan Thomson looks to have in spades. The trailer includes humor and drama alike, but there is also a sense of yearning, a loss of time, the want to escape the present and revisit the past, a place Thompson pines for.
The loss of the limelight is not an unfamiliar theme. Artists have always been eager to depict tragedy and downfall at its most brutal and human, and have never shied away from a story of redemption. But “Birdman” is so perfect a match for its star that it seems almost destined, this marriage of actor and part, this blending of fiction and reality into a resurrection of fantastical proportions. This film looks to be Keaton’s ticket back into Hollywood and return to an echelon of prestige long silent. The trailer for the movie includes a scene in which the voice of Birdman tells Riggan Thompson-although it might as well be Keaton telling himself-, “Let’s go back and show them what we’re really capable of.” Knowing what Keaton is capable of, imagining the peak he may at long last reach, there’s nothing I would rather see than that.
By Lucas Dispoto