Adam Sternbergh argues in New York Magazine that Michael Keaton lost the best actor trophy this year for his work in Birdman because the Academy “doesn’t love comeback stories.”
There’s nothing wrong with Sternbergh’s logic per se, but before you can even consider his logic, the argument immediately falls flat on its face for ignoring the gigantic British elephant in the room. Eddie Redmayne won the trophy for starring in a comeback story — perhaps one of the best-known real life comeback stories of our time. A brilliant aspiring astronomer discovers that he has approximately two years to live, and his muscles will start giving away one by one until he can no longer communicate with the outside world. Yet … not only does he continue living for decades to come, but he becomes one of the most celebrated scientists of all time. (Can you hear the Rocky music?)
If I had to guess, Michael Keaton’s loss had more to do with the fact that it was hard to tell whether his acting was good or brilliant or somewhere in between underneath all that … stuff. I found it difficult to evaluate the richness of Keaton’s craft while the colors, music, special effects and swooping camera movements swirled round and round him with increasing speed. Not to sound cheesy, but I really couldn’t get a good look into the character’s soul with that much activity going on.
Whether people thought Birdman’s strong artistic direction was impressive or irritating, most would probably agree that the film was ultimately more about sustaining itself than about telling a great comeback story about its leading man. In fact, I would argue that Keaton becomes more of a centerpiece than a leading man. In his (arguably) best scene of the movie, he’s dazedly jogging through Times Square in his underwear, and the camerawork invites us to see him as more of a object of fascination rather than a real person.
Alternatively, maybe Keaton lost because the voters simply thought Redmayne was better. If you’ve seen The Theory of Everything, this is not a stretch. Redmayne and Felicity Jones’ performances are the standouts in a frankly middling film. Perhaps the Academy decided that James Marsh’s film showcased the archetypal comeback story in a more poignant fashion.
Regardless, there’s really no need to make broad sweeping suggestions that Hollywood is only “supposedly built on delivering rousing narratives” (emphasis is mine). What about Russell Crowe in Gladiator, Jamie Foxx in Ray or even Colin Firth in The King’s Speech? There’s nothing Hollywood loves better than a comeback story.
Frankly, I’m more concerned about the fact that the 2015 best actor nominees featured more than one comeback story about a white man, in an all-white field at that.