It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! No! It’s an Ex-Superhero Actor Looking for Artistic Redemption!

By Stan Persky | February 20, 2015

I’m afraid this is going to be one of those years where I end up feeling that while the contenders for the 2014 Academy Awards Oscar for Best Picture are all sort of okay, none of them is really indelibly memorable. Now, it may just be me having a bad moviegoer’s year, or perhaps it relates to the viewing conditions in which I saw certain movies, or maybe it even points to my deeper troubles with Oscar, but definitely put me down in the “undecided and uneasy” category this awards season.

Wes Anderson (director), Grand Budapest Hotel (2014).
Richard Linklater (director), Boyhood (2002-2014).
Morten Tyldum (director), The Imitation Game (2014).
Alejandro G. Inarritu (director), Birdman (2014).
Woody Allen (director), Bullets Over Broadway (1994).


The crowded field of contending images for the 2014 Oscar Best Picture.

The crowded field of contending images for the 2014 Oscar Best Picture.

I’ve had trouble with Oscar for a while now. I suppose I should have known in 1976, when the Academy’s voters gave the prize to Rocky over All The President’s Men, Network, and Taxi Driver, that Oscar was not to be taken altogether seriously. Granted, the very notion of best picture is bound to produce a lot of hit and miss outcomes. Hollywood prefers, in case of doubt, to play it safe, and thus leans heavily towards “worthy” pics (12 Years A Slave, 2013; The King’s Speech, 2010) when it can’t find an appropriate gangster film (The Departed, 2005; or the classic Godfather I and II, 1972, 1974) or, in a pinch, a swords and sandals epic (Braveheart, 1996; Gladiator, 2000; Lord of the Rings, 2003).

While the worthies and the swords and sandals choices tend to be spotty (sometimes an intelligent worthy like Lincoln, 2012, written by Tony Kushner, gets passed over in favour, that year, of a not-so-intelligent action flick, Argo), occasionally Hollywood gets it right enough by giving Oscar to a zany but substantial “let’s-put-on-a-show” pic (Amadeus, 1984; Shakespeare in Love, 1998). Sometimes it goes to the right guy(s) but to the wrong movie (the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men, 2007, got Best Pic; their much superior A Serious Man, 2009, didn’t). Sometimes a really great comic film like Sacha Baron-Cohen’s Bruno (2009) doesn’t even get nominated because it’s too offensive-outrageous-offthewall. Often the Best Foreign Language Film is better than anything in the domestic category (Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty last year provides a recent example). And once in a while, the whole process goes to pieces: Crash in 2005 got the nod over Brokeback Mountain, Capote, and George Clooney’s movie about journo Edward R. Murrow, Good Night, and Good Luck (if you couldn’t see that Brokeback Mountain was best, there’s something wrong with your eyes, heart and your critical sense). It’s seldom that there’s a clear winner and it actually wins.

Jake Gyllenhaal (l.) and Heath Ledger (r.) in Brokeback Mountain.

Jake Gyllenhaal (l.) and Heath Ledger (r.) in Brokeback Mountain.

(Coincidentally, a new Hollywood Reporter survey, which re-assesses Academy members’ choices 20 years or so later, reports that voters would  now give the 1976 prize to All the President’s Men over Rocky, and that Brokeback Mountain is seen retrospectively as the Best Picture of 2005. (See Ben Beaumont-Thomas “Crash burned: Academy members reassess past Oscar decisions,” Guardian, Feb. 19, 2015.) Whoops. Well, better late than never when it comes to getting it right.)

This year’s contenders, in terms of buzz, are Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, Alejandro Inarritu’s Birdman, Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel, and Morton Tyldum’s The Imitation Game. The leading contender, in terms of box office, is Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper and, in terms of worthiness, director Ava DuVernay’s film about Martin Luther King, Selma (I haven’t seen the last two). Also on the list somewhere are the Stephen Hawking biopic, The Theory of Everything, and Whiplash (I haven’t seen either of those either). In addition to Best Pic nominees I haven’t seen, I’ve also yet to view best foreign language contenders, especially Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan, from Russia.

I’m willing to allow that some of my troubles may be due to the circumstances under which I saw some of the leading films. I watched Grand Budapest Hotel while contorted like a pretzel in an economy-class airplane seat while we were encountering mild turbulence over Greenland; the cloth protector had slipped off the left earphone of my headset onto the unreachable floor, and the plastic was biting into my left ear. I felt more like a character in the movie trapped in a tiny prison cell or railway cattlecar or hotel boudoir closet, and I may have missed some of the crucial dialogue and elegant plot twists..

It’s also true that while viewing Boyhood, I was sitting next to an elderly critic well-known for his lip-smacking interest in adolescent boys, and though I’m sophisticated enough to appreciate that boys are attractive to more than teenage girls, it did feel a bit creepy and I may have been slightly distracted from director Richard Linklater’s bleak Texas backcountry landscapes. And yes, I totally dreaded, after watching the improbable Imitation Game, the idea of having to re-read Alan Hodges’ biography of pre-computer genius Alan Turing to determine which parts of the movie were truly “based on a true story” and which parts were made up in the addled minds of disreputable filmmakers. Finally, while watching Birdman, Inarritu’s film about the nature of art, I confess to letting my mind drift in the direction of other films about the nature of art. Maybe I just wasn’t paying sufficient attention.

Boyhood's Ellar Coltrane in "real time."

Boyhood’s Ellar Coltrane in “real time.”

Boyhood is probably the place to start, given that it has already garnered a Golden Globes Award for Best Drama (Grand Budapest Hotel won for Best Comedy), a Bafta (British Academy) award for best pic, and has drawn almost unparalleled critical acclaim (on the critics’ aggregator sites Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes it racked up, respectively, 100 and 98 per cent near-perfect ratings). Linklater (the mind behind Slacker, 1991; the Before trilogy, 1995-2013; and Waking Life, 2001), is a director known for technical and narrative innovations. In Boyhood, he has come up with an unprecedented device that everyone who is even slightly interested in movies is now aware of and generally awed by. The film’s four main characters — Mason (Ellar Coltrane), the eponymous “boy”; his mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette); her ex-husband, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), and the boy’s sister, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter) — are filmed over a period of 12 years, so this is a coming-of-age tale shot in literal “real time.”



The main focus, as the title indicates, is on the boy, who grows up before our eyes, from age 6, laying on the grass and gazing up at a cloudy Texas daytime sky, to age 18, unsteadily ready for adult life. The closest counterpart to this time-lapse device is Michael Apted’s multipart documentary, the 7 Up series, which checks in every seven years with the same group of people. However, its use in Boyhood is quite different, and has aroused the admiration of most critics. While the coming of age story is a fiction, possibly semi-autobiographical, the real time aging of the actors over the years is a documentary, thus successfully blurring the genre boundaries

New York Times film writer Manohla Dargis is fairly typical of the unstinted praise Linklater’s labour of directorial love has received. “It’s no surprise that watching actors naturally age on camera without latex and digital effects makes for mesmerizing viewing… Andre Bazin wrote that art emerged from our desire to counter the passage of time and the inevitable decay it brings. But in Boyhood, Mr. Linklater’s masterpiece, he both captures moments in time and relinquishes them as he moves from year to year. He isn’t fighting time but embracing it in all its glorious and agonizingly fleeting beauty,” Dargis rhapsodizes. (Manohla Dargis, “From Baby Fat to Stubble: Growing Up in Real Time,” New York Times, July 10, 2014.) I’ve only run into one amateur critic on one of the aggregator sites who even asked, Would the film strike us differently if Linklater hadn’t used the device and simply stuck with greasepaint, digital effects, and a child actor or two to stand in for the adolescents? (In the more conventional Imitation Game, that’s exactly what’s done — there’s an excellent adolescent actor to stand in for the adult Allen Turing, the film’s hero.)

Well, if we weren’t so fascinated by the real time device, I suppose we would notice more sharply what’s going on in the movie as story. Linklater has experimented throughout his career with bending, fragmenting, and subverting narratives. His films are sometimes characterized (or mischaracterized) as plotless, “when compared to aggressively incident-jammed mainstream movies.” As critic Dargis goes on to point out, “One of the fascinating things about Boyhood is that a lot happens — there are parties and fights, laughter and tears — but all these events take place in a distinctly quotidian register and without the usual filmmaking prodding and cues.”

The main storyline, in addition to Mason’s coming of age episodes, is about his divorced parents. Boyhood traces the peregrinations of Mason’s dad, Mason Sr., through a somewhat erratic course from cool dude, complete with muscle car, garage band, and New Agey pseudo-philosophical meanderings, to more or less responsible middle-aged parent, with stop-offs along the way among endearing, redneck evangelicals (who offer young Mason, as I recall, a Bible and a gun at the local shooting range), and a couple of moments to pound in a few Obama-for-President election signs in 2008. The more interesting parent (and more memorable parts of the film) features Patricia Arquette’s Oscar-nominated creation of Olivia, who despite acquiring a psychology degree and a job teaching psych at a local college, is unable to avoid a string of loser men, starting wth Mason Sr. and regressing through an alcoholic, violent, family-abusive psychology professor (Marco Perella, in a persuasive over-the-top performance as her prof, with whom she unwisely takes up domestic life), and later a post-traumatized Iraq war vet who doesn’t look like he’s going to come to a good middle.

Patricia Arquette in Boyhood.

Patricia Arquette in Boyhood.

Although “a lot happens” over the film’s running time of more than two-and-a-half hours, Linklater’s commitment to the realistically mundane is such that much of it quickly fades from mind, though the emotional impression lingers. Two things, however, are memorable. One is the scene late in the film when Mason is packing up and heading off to college in his pickup truck, leaving Mom to the empty nest. He finds her weeping. “This is the worst day of my life,” she balls. Mason is puzzled. “I knew this day was coming. I just — I didn’t know you were gonna be so fuckin’ happy to be leaving.” Mason tries to protest.

Olivia wails, “You know what I’m realizing? My life is just gonna go, like that! This series of milestones. Getting married, having kids, getting divorced, the time we thought you were dyslexic, when I taught you to ride a bike, getting divorced again, getting my masters degree, finally getting the job I wanted, sending Samantha off to college, sending you off to college …. You know what’s next? Huh? It’s my fuckin’ funeral!” It’s as good as an operatic aria. Mason is stunned. “Aren’t you jumping ahead by like, forty years or something?” he asks. Last shot: “I just thought there would be more,” she groans, sitting at the table crying, as Mason exits-stage-open-road. It’s almost parody, and yet… it has a psychological ring of home-truths.

The other thing that stays in mind are the small towns and bleak Texas landscapes that somebody in the story is always moving to and from and through. The whole backdrop is shockingly dismal, even when it’s middle-class neat. If somebody had asked me immediately after seeing Boyhood what I thought it was about, I would’ve said, It’s a cautionary portrait of the horrors of growing up in everyday awful America.

The critics were near unanimous: “tender, profound,” declared the NYT’s Dargis; “extraordinary, deeply moving,” enthused Xan Brooks of the Guardian — “What an astonishing achievement, what a beautiful movie.” I feel almost guilty for not sharing the rapture, for finding Boyhood more or less okay (I certainly didn’t hate it; I didn’t think it was in any way phony) but missing the masterpiece that so many others saw. Ordinary, but self-selected viewers who have posted thousands of comments on the aggregator pages, are noticeably less euphoric as well. For some, Boyhood is simply formally too sophisticated as filmmaking, and they just don’t get it — it feels like a long, drawn-out, boring family dinner. But for others, who do appreciate Linklater’s accomplishment, they note that Mason is just not all that interesting as a person. In fact, his sister, Samantha, who’s far more prickly, might have been a more interesting focus than her rather bland brother. I was relieved that the critic sitting next to me, who was in tears at film’s end, hadn’t fondled the celluloid or the digitalia, and I was thankful not to have spent my youth under those endless Texas skies.

Benedict Cumberbatch (c.) and Kiera Knightly (l.) in The Imitation Game.

Benedict Cumberbatch (c.) and Kiera Knightly (l.) in The Imitation Game.

The Imitation Game, Norwegian director Morton Tyldum’s Alan Turing biopic can be dispatched more neatly than the messy end his tragic hero meets. The film, as the usually reliable A.O. Scott tells us, “is a highly conventional movie about a profoundly unusual man.” Critic Scott welcomes a Turing bio-pic because of the ubiquitous significance of what was on his mind. “Chances are that you are reading this, as I am writing it, on a device that came into being,” he says, “partly as a result of papers Turing published in the 1930s exploring the possibility of what he called a ‘universal machine.'” Further, “his decisive contribution to the breaking of the Nazi Enigma code gave the Allied forces an intelligence advantage that helped defeat Germany,” and likely saved thousands of lives, even though Turing’s role remained a classified secret for a long time after World War II. Finally, there’s the secret of Turing’s homosexuality, only revealed when he was arrested on indecency charges in 1952, leading to Turing being subjected to pseudoscientific “chemical castration,” and his suicide in 1954, at age 41, having eaten part of a cyanide-laced apple. (A.O. Scott, “Broken Codes, Both Strategic and Social,” New York Times, Nov. 27, 2014.)

Benedict Cumberbatch, the leading Brit actor of the day, locates the genius-nerd hero somewhere along the autism scale (Turing’s younger self is performed by Alex Lawther with adolescent poignancy — he’s considerably more interesting than the protagonist of Boyhood), and there’s also a winning performance by Keira Knightly as Joan Clarke, the sole woman math whiz on the Enigma team.

The significant fault Scott finds with the film is that “Turing’s sexuality is mystified and marginalized, treated as an abstraction and a plot point” when Andrew Hodges’ Alan Turing: The Enigma (1983), the book upon which the movie is based, “gives eloquent and sensitive testimony to the contrary.” In the end, Scott sees the film as having the “hollow ring of conventional wisdom. It’s kind of perfect, and also kind of stale.” I didn’t get the perfection, but the staleness was evident.

Critic Anthony Lane also has his doubts. “Here, in short, is a film about a highly intelligent homosexual mathematician that shows no homosexual behavior, almost no math, and a faltering faith in the intelligence of its viewers.” He adds, “As for the cracking of codes, it is shrunk to a single, Oh-my-God epiphany, triggered by a comment in a pub, and feted with a barrage of music-boosted hugs among Turing and his team.” You could see the punchline coming from a kilometer or more away. The moral of the story is underscored and repeated several times: “Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things no one can imagine.” As A.O. Scott quips about the phrase, it “sounds each time as if it had been plagiarized from a TED talk.” (See Anthony Lane, “Keeping Secrets,” The New Yorker, Dec. 1, 2014.)

As noted earlier, I dreaded having to come out of the film (pleasant enough entertainment) and head to the scholar’s study to re-read Hodges’ biography in order to sort out what was true story and what was conventional moviemaking with a tangential relation to crucial facts. Fortunately, and much to my relief, Christian Caryl did all the legwork for me (Christian Caryl, “Saving Alan Turing from His Friends,” New York Review, Feb. 5, 2015).

“I can imagine many possible ways of turning [Turing’s] story into a movie,” says Caryl. “The choice seems clear: either you embrace the richness of Turing as a character and trust the audience to follow you there, or you simply capitulate, by reducing him to a caricature of the tortured genius. The latter, I’m afraid, is the path chosen by director Morton Tyldum and screenwriter Graham Moore.”

Caryl goes through the whole business, chapter and verse, including the telegraphed punches: “I realized, with gathering dread, that we would soon be coming to a scene in which a character makes an offhanded remark that inspires the hero to jump to his feet with an awestruck expression, thereupon announcing an astonishing discovery that resolves everything at a single stroke.”

Caryl doesn’t comment on a weird scene in a pub during Turing’s engagement party (he contemplates, briefly, marrying co-worker Joan Clarke) in which he blurts out a confession of his sexual preferences to another co-worker who just happens to be the Soviet mole in his work group, possibly planted there by the super-secret service, M-16. Caryl merely notes that it’s factually unlikely Turing ever met the spy working for the Russians, but skips the improbable plot coincidence. However, Caryl’s mounting anger goes further than finding almost every angle and motive — the science, the relationships, the technology — played for filmic distortion. “In perhaps the most bitter irony of all, the filmmakers have managed to transform the real Turing, vivacious and forceful, into just the sort of mythological gay man, whiney and weak, that homophobes love to hate,” he concludes.

Ralph Fiennes (l.) and Tony Revolori in Grand Budapest Hotel.

Ralph Fiennes (l.) and Tony Revolori in Grand Budapest Hotel.

As previously noted, Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel successfully distracted me from my worst fantasies as the plane I was on bounced around the turbulence over Greenland. Those who haven’t seen a lot of Anderson romps (this is his eighth feature) are likely to be charmed, even without turbulence over the Atlantic, but both long-time Anderson devotees and grumblers may be prone “to consign GBH to the slappable corner of the Anderson oeuvre,” as did New York Post reviewer Eric Kyle. He dismisses this tale of grand hotels, incipient totalitarianism, whacky inheritance plots and suave concierges of the 1930s, set in a mythical mid-European mock-republic as a “featherweight screwball comedy that, trying mightily to be cosmopolitan, feels awfully provincial… The effect is droll at best, tedious at worst.” (Kyle Smith, “‘Grand Budapest Hotel’ is a triumph of the twee,” New York Post, March 4, 2014.)

The Times’ A.O. Scott saw quite a bit more in it than that. Yes, there’s Anderson’s “patented whimsy,” and “a kind of madcap melancholy, soulful and silly in equal measure,” as well as a film stuffed with great actors striding through their paces: Ralph Fiennes as the master concierge Monsieur Gustave, Tony Revolori as his protege Zero, and F. Murray Abraham, Adrian Brody, Willem Dafoe, Harvey Keitel, Jude Law, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Tilda Swinton, and more. It’s like a celebrity 5-star lobby and labyrinth where everytime the viewer turns down a corridor, they find themselves asking, Hey, haven’t I seen you somewhere before? But beyond the frivolous fun and games, Scott discerns “an especially rich and complicated slice of 20th century European culture, and therefore a reckoning… with some very ugly history.” A phrase that occurs twice in the film — “a glimmer of civilization in the barbaric slaughterhouse we know as humanity — is, according to Scott, “the key to its intentions.” (A.O. Scott, “Bittersweet Chocolate on the Pillow,” New York Times, March 6, 2014.)

Scott hears and sees echoes of the comedies of 1930s filmmaker Ernst Lubitsch here, some of whose films “fight tyranny with irony, frivolity and unshakable charm.” He notes that Grand Hotel Budapest “makes a marvelous mockery of history, turning its horrors into a series of graceful jokes and mischievous gestures. You can call this escapism if you like. You can also think of it as revenge.” Well, I’ll settle for escapism from a bumpy flight halfway to a mythical European fairytale.

Michael Keaton and his Birdman alter ego.

Michael Keaton and his Birdman alter ego.

Birdman may be the most difficult of this year’s contending films with which to deal. People have been putting on plays and making movies about the nature of art and creativity, in the modern Western tradition, ever since Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Mexican director Alejandro G. Inarritu (Amores Perros, 2000; 21 Grams, 2003; Babel, 2006) is in that tradition of aiming beyond the stagelights and vaulting through the big screen (or the small one in your hand).

His let’s-put-on-a-show, very noir comedy begins with a middle-aged actor, his back to us, in white undies, not only meditating cross-legged but levitating in mid-air a meter or more above the floor of what will turn out to be a cramped dressing room in an old Broadway theater. That’s Riggin Thomson (Michael Keaton), director, star, and writer of an about-to-premiere Broadway play based on Raymond Carver’s stories, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981). His meditations are disturbed by a voice-over in his head (Keaton, in a deeper register) telling him what a crappy comedown this is from his superstar salad days in Hollywood when he was the lead in a franchise action hero series called Birdman. The voice in the voiceover is that of Riggin’s alter ego, Birdman himself, who, in the magical realism of Inarritu’s concoction, can often be found, in full superhero costume, at the edge of the frame.

The in-joke that you’re supposed to get from the start is that in “real life” actor Keaton was the star of two Batman movies a couple of decades back, and that his appearance in Inarritu’s film is a kind of comeback, not dissimilar to the one Riggin is attempting. In the film, Riggin, having made a Daedalus-like pact with the Hollywood gods to fly high in superhero blockbusters, now humbles himself by returning to what used to be known as “legitimate” theater in a bid for not mere flight but artistic authenticity and redemption. As the dress rehearsals and previews disastrously proceed and the cast of the fictional Broadway play (as well as the actual movie), chew up the scenery, it looks like this will turn out to be more of an Icarus outcome than a Birdman triumph. Icarus, it will be recalled, is the lad who ignored his father Daedalus’ warnings about flying too near the sun and melting the wax holding together the feathered wings that his artist father had crafted for both of them in order to escape imprisonment in ancient Crete. Well, at least that’s what I vaguely remember from mythology class in school, now supplemented by contemporary info sources (see Wikipedia, “Daedalus”; “Icarus”). Whoops, my mind is drifting — Birdman does that to me.

Riggin’s companions on and off-stage include his daughter Sam (Emma Stone), just out of drug rehab and helping pops with the production. She’s often to be found on the theater roof, when she isn’t busy deriding Riggin for being a bad-dad-all-round-jerk and so out of touch with the real world as to be unfamiliar with the importance of videos going “viral.” Sam views Broadway from a perch on a precarious roof ledge that doesn’t seem like such a good location for fragile personalities. That’s where she has heart-to-hearts with Mike Shiner (Ed Norton), a last-minute replacement Method actor with box office appeal and an uneven record of screwing up productions. He’s the one who blasts Hollywood for “cultural genocide” — and here, you’re supposed to get another in-joke: Norton, known for being a “difficult” actor, also did a superhero turn in the Incredible Hulk (2008). There’s also an ex-wife (Amy Ryan), a mostly off-again romance with a cast member (Andrea Riseborough), another former Hollywood actress seeking respectibility (Naomi Watts), a lushed-up embittered theater critic named Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan) who writes her play-crushing reviews from the neighbouring barroom. Oh, and finally, Zach Galifianakis as Riggin’s lawyer-producer-pal. If you’re having difficulty getting the picture, nevermind, as Gilda Radner used to say on Saturday Night Live. I have to admit I got confused by the women and had trouble keeping track of who-was-who… and who were the women involved in the gratuitous dressing room lesbian kiss, and why?

Like Boyhood, Birdman features a couple of experimental film devices. The familiar magical realism touches work surprisingly well. Riggin’s ability to fly, perform kinetic feats with objects, and levitate are easily assimilated as fantasy features of a mind with a tenuous grip on reality. “At one point,” notes Anthony Lane, “Riggin strolls down the street, clicking his fingers to make cars explode, and balls of flame sizzle from the heavens. There’s is even a giant black griffin that clings to a skyscraper and screeches down at city life,” and the whole thing provides some of the pleasures audiences expect from cartoonish superhero spectacles. (Anthony Lane, “High Fliers,” The New Yorker, Oct. 20, 2014.)

The big semi-innovative device, however, comes from Inarittu’s cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki (he won an Oscar last year for shooting Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity), who makes the film unroll in what seems to be a single take, with scenes so cunningly spliced together that we can’t see the seams. “Through impossibly long, intricately choreographed tracking shots,” reports Christy Lemire, “the camera swoops through narrow corridors, up and down tight stairways and into crowded streets. It comes up close for quiet conversations and soars between skyscrapers for magical-realistic flights of fancy.” Most reviewers were quite taken with the seeming single-take sleight of cinema; I’m afraid that, predictably, I missed it until afterward, and then couldn’t quite see what its purpose was supposed to be in relation to the film. (Christy Lemire, “Birdman,”, Oct. 17, 2014.)

Birdman was bathed in critical adoration, scoring 92 and 88 per cent, respectively on Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, not quite as high as Boyhood, but close. I needn’t reprise the gushing review quotes that were quickly turned into advertising blurbs. The only unambiguously negative review I could find was by the estimable Rex Reed, who calls Birdman “a miserable load of deranged, deluded crap masquerading as a black comedy.” Grouses Reed about fellow reviewers, “Some of the critics who embrace this kind of stupidity claim that Birdman pretends to say something witty about the perils of celebrity, fame, stardom, success and failure.” Reed clearly thinks otherwise, and can’t find a good word to say “about any shard of the pretentiousness on view here.” Well, Anthony Lane was taken with the “high, human comedy of forever falling short,” and Christy Lemire thought it “a ton of fun… a complete blast from start to finish.” As I sat in the gloom, not particularly caring how it all worked out for Riggin or any of the others, I could see how it might rub critics like Reed entirely the wrong way. I, too, found my mind drifting.

Wasn’t it Chekhov who said, If you see a gun mounted over the mantelpiece in the first act of a play, it better be fired before the third act ends or it shouldn’t be there in the first place. Of course, Chekhov wasn’t thinking of a real gun shooting real bullets but a stage gun shooting blanks; Birdman director Inarittu isn’t thinking only of stage guns, and without giving anything away, we can say that Birdman fulfills Chekhov’s dictum.

My mind, in the meantime, was drifting — to another, more satisfying film about the nature of art. It, too, has a Chekhovian gun that is destined to go off before the curtain falls. I realize that this will probably irrevocably date me and my aesthetic tastes: the film is Woody Allen’s underrated Bullets Over Broadway (1994).

John Cusack (l.) is the playwright and Chazz Palminteri (r.) is the hitman in Woody Allen's Bullets Over Broadway.

John Cusack (l.) is the playwright and Chazz Palminteri (r.) is the hitman in Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway.

It’s a straightforward comic play-within-and-without-a-play, set in New York at the close of the boozy 1920s. David Shayne (John Cusack) is an earnest, not all that talented, left wing playwright, a stand-in for the usual Woody Allen nebbish lead character. The only way to get his work on stage is to compromise his mediocre art. The unangelic backer putting up the money is a rich gangster (Joe Viterelli) who, as the late Rogert Ebert said in his 1994 original review, “couldn’t care less which wing [David] is — just as long as the gangster’s girlfriend gets a big role in the play.”

The gangster’s moll, Olive (Jennifer Tilly), comes equipped with a bodyguard named Cheech (Chazz Palminteri), “a hard-nosed killer who insists on attending all of the play’s rehearsals. He sits back in the darkness of the theater, a large dark lump of menace with a gun tucked under his armpit, and then, one day, from out the shadows, his voice is heard. He has a suggestion about the crappy dialogue.” “You don’t write like people talk,” the hitman tells the playwright. (Roger Ebert, “Bullets Over Broadway,”, Oct. 28, 1994.)

All the rest is wonderful “bizness,” as they say in the theater biz, with a typical Woody Allen all-star, note-perfect, ensemble cast (something like those casts put together by Wes Anderson) which includes Rob Reiner, Jack Warden, Tracy Ullman, Mary-Louise Parker and others who are equally sure-footed on the boards. There are the signature Allen romantic visual mashnotes to New York, a soundtrack of great old standards, and an Oscar-winning best supporting actress performance by Diane Wiest as the scene-stealing, slightly-over-the-hill, legend of theater, Helen Sinclair. Or as her manager (Harvey Fierstein) admits, in recent years, she’s “been better known as an adulteress and a drunk, and I say that with all due respect.”

Like I say, the shenanigans, the cast sub-plots, the bucolic splendor of Central Park –most of which is far more interesting than the equivalent schticks in Birdman — all that is charming, Woody Allen standard fare. The action is down in the pit, with the killer and the writer, Cheech and David. Once David gets over his wounded amour-propre, even he can see that Cheech is right, and begins to accept changes to the text under the hitman’s guidance. As Janet Maslin puts it, “And the rest ponders the disparity between David, who has studied playwriting as hard as he can, and Cheech, who immediately knows what it’s really about.” Cheech has hardly seen a play before, but gradually, as David makes his way to the gunman’s favorite poolhall for advice about art and life, it becomes clear who is really writing the play and who is merely pencilling in the rewrites. Tough, but that’s the way it works. “Cheech is single-minded,” Maslin notes, “and he thinks a good play is, quite literally, to die for.” (Janet Maslin, “Allen’s Ode to Theater and, as Always, New York,” New York Times, Sept. 30, 1994.)

In the end, it’s Cheech who sees that the production has only one problem, and the problem is the raspy-voiced, talentless girlfriend of the mobster. It’s Cbeech who sees that an artist’s gotta do what an artist’s gotta do. Olive has gotta go. Cheech, utilizing his other professional skill besides playwriting, takes care of it. Naturally, the Chekhovian moment takes place tastefully off-screen with a whimsical tune like “Up a Lazy River” tinkling while the gun goes off.

Bullets got nice reviews, some Oscar attention (especially for Wiest), but I regard it as slightly underrated because while everyone saw the charm and the timing, few fully appreciated “the master stroke” up Allen’s sleeve, as Ebert wrote, that “only gradually do we realize that the only artist in Bullets Over Broadway who takes art really seriously is Cheech, the bodyguard.” Allen’s argument about art is in the Romantic tradition, but it’s a great argument and the message is subtlely delivered, with a bang not a whimper. If there’s a better art-for-art’s-sake work in recent years, I’ve missed it.

Meanwhile, back on the red carpet. My guess? Oh, as a deep student of Hollywood psychology, I assume the Academy voters a) will want to play it safe with a film that’s not offensive to anyone, and b) that allows the voters to pat themselves on the back for going with something progressive, edgy, aesthetically hip. Sounds like Boyhood, no?

Berlin, Feb. 20, 2015

Update: “Birdman Takes Flight, but Boyhood Suffers Growing Pains.”

Birdman director Alejandro Inarritu (r.) at the Oscars.

Birdman director Alejandro Inarritu (r.) at the Oscars.

Well, actually, no, not Boyhood. In the event, it was Inarritu’s Birdman that swept the field, winning the four major Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Cinematography. Boyhood, as the morning-after Guardian quipped, was left behind with “growing pains”; it’s only important win was a heavily-predicted Oscar for Patricia Arquette’s best supporting performance. Grand Budapest Hotel picked up a clatch of condolence prizes, with Oscars in various technical categories, and Imitation Game was shut out except for an underserved best adapted screenplay.

There were some Monday morning lamentations for Richard Linklater- Boyhood’s paucity of honours. Guardian film critic Peter Bradshaw called the Birdman win “the wrong choice,” and that “failing to give the best picture award to Richard Linklater’s marvellous Boyhood” was a “snub.” The Academy, says Bradshaw “had the chance to mark out a real classic, and in so doing reinforce the Oscar’s own brand-value. But no… It’s baffling.” (Peter Bradshaw, “Oscars 2015: Birdman takes flight but Boyhood suffers growing pains,” Guardian, Feb. 23, 2015.)

Birdman and Michael Keaton.

Birdman and Michael Keaton.

As is clear from my review (above), I was entertained, but I didn’t have a favourite in this year’s statuette race. In fact, I was mildly pleased that there was clear agreement on Birdman as this year’s winner in all major categories. Of course, picking Birdman represents Hollywood’s standard default position: “let’s-put-on-a-play”… about us. But at least the choice was unambiguous.

Okay, now we can dim the lights and turn off the popcorn machine.

Berlin, Feb. 23, 2015.


  • Stan Persky

    Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

More from Stan Persky: