Michael Keaton received his first Oscar nomination for portraying Riggan Thomson as well as the titular character in Birdman.
Michael Keaton was the first man to play Batman in a "serious" rendition and left after the first two films. He then went on to have not an unsuccessful acting career, but not an especially distinguished one in terms of being either critical darling or as a commercially bankable star. For me personally, I've always found Michael Keaton to be an actor I like, but unfortunately rarely is in films I loved. The back story connections between Riggan and Keaton are just an extra bit of something for all to enjoy, although I don't think should be taken too seriously, but I think the strongest bit is both possibly finding something to make use of their talent. Well Birdman is finally a great film for Michael Keaton, and he is essential part of achieving this greatness. Birdman's first two thirds spend a considerable time with the great ensemble cast of the film and their interactions. Not all the supporting players interact with one another, but Michael Keaton as Riggan interacts with them all. Here is the first part of what Keaton brings to his role, and by first a mean quite a few different things that are all rolled up into one Riggan.
Keaton fulfills many roles as Riggan must fulfill many roles as he tries to put on his play rendition of Raymond Carver's "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love", which we see through Riggan's relationship with every other supporting character in the film. One being with his lawyer/best friend Jake (Zach Galifianakis) who he technically schemes with to handle every problem to ensure that the play is a success. On this side Keaton displays the frustrations of the moment as he tries to brush them all off to Jake. Keaton here suggests more than anything he wants to use Jake just to make things gone as easily as possible, while subtly suggesting just a bit of his madness to him from time to time as though he is one of his few actual confidants. There is far less comfort that Keaton shows with his co-star/girlfriend Laura (Andrea Riseborough). We don't see much of their apparent romance but Keaton and Riseborough create their relationship instantly. Laura clearly wants something more than just an affair shown Riseborough's lusty approach, Keaton is great in bringing a distance from hesitation portraying that Riggan obviously is not sure what to make of his future with her.
The relationship that probably offers the most entertainment value is with Riggan's last minute replacement co-star the insufferable actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton). Keaton is terrific in portraying the unease in Riggan as he seems to be preparing himself beforehand to face an actor who has a bigger ego than he does. Keaton nicely portrays even maybe a little bit of a type of fear as Riggan first approaches Mike and has to deal with some slight insults based around Riggan's credibility as a true thespian. Keaton does not play as though Riggan's actually afraid, but rather indicates the apprehensive of have to dealing with an actor like Mike. They are both very funny together as Mike basically wants to prove that he's better than Riggan. Keaton is again great because he does not show Riggan wanting Mike to recognize him as superior, but just wants some respect that he believes he deserves. Although he does not mind trading a few insults, Keaton nicely puts an honest earnest quality as he wants Mike to recognize his accomplishments, particularly when he shows Mike the napkin he received from Raymond Carver himself which praised Riggan's performance.
Their best moments together though may be when the two are actually working on the play as Keaton and Norton realize the creative spark between the two of them wonderfully well. They are both good in kinda suggesting two styles between the two with Norton accentuating the confidence of Mike as he performs the script, even offering ideas for re-writes, while Keaton is very good by showing the way Riggan has to perhaps work harder to that point, and has a stronger passion perhaps as he wants the play to succeed so badly. My favorite moment between the two has to be technically their last substantial moment where the two have perhaps their most intense confrontation after Mike has given an interview where he criticized Riggan. Keaton is fantastic in the scene as exudes the rage in Riggan and finally just bluntly puts his distaste towards Mike directly towards him in the way of a fist. His best moment though is how he actually gets one over Mike more effectively when Riggan becomes very emotional, and Keaton is rather moving, as Riggan explains his brutal upbringing by an alcoholic father. Well that is until he reveals that's just an act and basically defeats Mike by beating him at his own game, and Keaton absolutely delivers in the moment.
That's not all though as there is even his relationship between his other female co-star Lesley (Naomi Watts), who hopes the play is her big break. Their interactions are relatively brief but even here Keaton naturally portrays another side of Riggan as the supportive director. There's a nice bit of warmth that Keaton brings as Riggan support here, particularly after one problematic stage performance thanks to Mike. It's almost fatherly something that's not quite there in his actual relationship with his daughter Sam (Emma Stone). Keaton's not cold in the scene that he shares with Stone, but does an express a certain confusion on how even to approach his relationship despite her being his assistant. Keaton does well to express the attempt of Riggan to try to make his relationship with her work as he seems overprotective at times, but carelessly harsh at others. Keaton does well to honestly show that early on Riggan does not know how exactly to approach being a father to her. It is only when Riggan is a bit down himself as Keaton suggests that because Riggan does not have the energy he doesn't bother to frankly try too hard. In these moments Keaton quietly shows the connection because he's not preventing himself from connecting with her.
Perhaps his most poignant relationship though is with his ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan). Keaton and Ryan are just about perfect together as they have such a genuine chemistry with one another. There is an ease and often understanding that underlies their conversations in a way that suggests the two's past and that Sylvia does probably know Riggan better than any one else. The past is in the comfort there is between the two but as well an undercurrent of bitterness. It is not strong but something that still can be felt, an animosity still present no doubt from a hatred that was once quite strong due to Riggan's past behavior. There is though as well the love between the two that is muted, but still very palatable between the two. There's a particularly effective moment late in the film where Sylvia congratulates Riggan on seemingly finally finding success again. There is a beautiful moment of adoration between the two and Keaton and Ryan in that moment seem to express the happiness they once had together. It is amazing how convincing Michael Keaton is in this and every other relationship of the character, and bringing the needed depth to each while naturally working with the different tones involved with each. It's incredible work as he brings the whole ensemble together.
Of course I have not even gotten to Riggan on his own. Well sorta since Riggan does not seem quite alone as he is constantly being reminded of his faults by the voice of his superhero Birdman. The voice incidentally is fairly similar to the voice he used as Batman in the Batman films. The most eloquent way to describe the voice would be to say that's it's rather awesome. I don't mean that's its just cool though, although is the case, but rather it is all by itself an imposing presence within the film. The dark and rich voice that Keaton uses creates the Birdman persona as the voice of something that cannot be ignored. The callousness and cruelty in his delivery though are made properly ambiguous by Keaton. It is hard to say whether or not the Birdman is there to discourage Riggan from his potential or to inspire him greatness. The voice is an ideal representation of whatever it is that is going on in Riggan himself. Is he a man simply going insane due to the stress of his failures, perhaps he really does have telekinetic abilities, or perhaps Birdman is not a sign of insanity but merely the normal voice of his mind. The nature of a voice is a great question that never feels like a cheap trick.
With that we have Keaton direct portrayal of Riggan as a man. There is the exasperation of a man who knows he has made many mistakes and the desperation of man trying to recapture some sort of glory. Keaton is remarkable in his scenes of performing as Riggan. He does not change his accent or his mannerisms, nor does he have to. In his performances Keaton expresses that desire for success and integrity simply through the "honest" delivery of words he respects so dearly. Keaton though just is endlessly compelling in his portrayal of the bundled emotions going through the process of putting on the play and dealing with his personal demons. Keaton reflects every set back and success so incredibly well. Something so notable about this performance is this isn't one necessarily about the big moments, but rather he is just so realizes Riggan as someone to sympathize with throughout it is every second of his performance is something special. The way he can bare his soul yet have a hilarious reaction in the very same scene is a most unusual challenge, but one that Keaton meets without a misstep throughout the entire film.
I would be remiss though not to mention when Riggan gives into the idea of the Birdman. Keaton's performance is essential to the success of this oddity working because it could have easily come off as just pretentious or just something lacking in any substance. Keaton though helps turns it into a piece of cinematic magic with his performance. It can be interpreted still but what Keaton does is outstanding in his creation of Riggan becoming one with Birdman, and again it may be one finally inspiring to be something greater than himself, or maybe finally giving into a madness that is destroying him. No matter what you may believe it is I absolutely love the way Keaton expresses this discovery that may be the unexpected virtue of ignorance or it might not be. This is an absolutely great performance by Michael Keaton. Keaton gathers it all and there would have been so many places for him to fall. Keaton only ever soars (pun definitely not intended) in the role as he amplifies the emotions and even the entertainment value of second of the film in which he appears. Keaton brings us through the otherworldly mind and place of Riggan in a truly wondrous fashion.