After Birdman

We watched Birdman, and the film is excellent, and seemed to me to be a good selection for all the accolades it received, and Michael Keaton’s performance was powerful in such a technically challenging and demanding role. After the film, we observed the behind-the-scenes featurette, to see the long, sweeping camera shots that follow the actors around the meticulously orchestrated hallways. It looked like a technically challenging film for all members of cast and crew, when we were watching it. Seeing the footage behind the scenes only increased the level of difficulty that the filmmaker’s vision demanded. Michael Keaton’s presence at the heart of the film is a testament to his ability and skill as a commanding actor, capable of wide-ranging emotional deliveries that turn swiftly in scenes with moments and glances.

After the film, we talked about other actors that could have pulled off that role. Oddly, the names we returned to, Denzel Washington, Raul Julia (R.I.P.), even Cate Blanchett, were not white men. We talked about what would change if the ethnicity of the lead changed, for example. It would lose realism, because a movie about Hollywood’s biggest stars in the 90s is primarily a movie about white men. It’s hard to imagine an Indian actor in the role, for example, though many of the largest-grossing box office stars of action films are in India. The play within the film is based on a short story by a white, male author – Raymond Carver. It is about a white, American suburb, and things that are left unsaid there. Imagining a film with Raul Julia, for example, would also add an overtone of overcoming the accent, transcending it, and being more than just the one person of that ethnicity permitted to be a star in Hollywood – the way that Hollywood will have one actor of an ethnicity that is “bankable” and delimit their narratives to films exploring that ethnicity. The demons that haunt the heads of Latino actors must include the idea that they will be considered for Latino roles, only, and there is a limited number of them permitted in each film or series. African-American actors would also wrestle with the demon of prejudice. In one iconic scene, Michael Keaton is locked out of his own theatre just before the climax, and he must walk around the back of the theatre, through crowded streets, wearing nothing but his underpants. Imagining Denzel in this scene carries the specter of threat that is far beyond Michael Keaton’s intensity. An African-American making that same desperate walk through crowded New York streets would be grappling with the darkness of his body, and the danger of being black and vulnerable in a crowded street, where Keaton’s walk is comedic and sad, and mortifies his flesh in the name of art.

It is a wonderful film, and it would feel slightly less authentically Hollywood if it included any people of color. It even mentions, in the film, that theatre is an art for a few hundred old, rich, white people, with a tastemaker that is a bitter, old, white woman, while Hollywood is for all the people of the world. Though, really, it is not. There is Bollywood, Hong Kong, Korea, Japan, Nigeria, South Africa, and all the different offshoots and variations happening all over the world. I would love to see this film completely remade in Bollywood, adjusted to their traditions and modes. I would love to see the film remade as an Anime, about an anime director that leaves the art for the traditional live theatre of Japan. The powerful film feels constrained by the quiet racial prejudices of the world it is presenting in verite, and is missing all the layers that would come from a masterful lead actor of a different ethnicity.

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