If you go by the cognoscenti, “Birdman” will win the Oscar for best picture tonight. Apart from wasting diseases or the descent into pitiful senility, things that will take us all in time if we are not murdered or die in accidents, there is nothing that warms Hollywood’s heart more than than an informed exploration of the neuroses, narcissism, deceit, betrayals, and insecurities of the industry. From “Sunset Boulevard” to “The Players,” “Ed Wood,” and now “Birdman,” the industry rises to its feet on Oscar night to acclaim the latest light shown on how selfish and rotten things are below that glittering surface. “Strip away the phony tinsel of Hollywood and you find the real tinsel underneath,” someone said, an arrow to the bull’s-eye so perfect it has been attributed to more than one wit, including Oscar Levant, the Oscar Wilde of his time, and the radio humorist Henry Morgan. Both are now forgotten, but their truth lives on.
“Birdman” is about a has-been Hollywood actor played by Michael Keaton trying to revive his career with a Broadway play based on a Raymond Carver short story that was probably as good as it was – brooding and angry enough to lower your spirts a good while after you put it down – because of tightening by the famous editor Gordon Lish. Yet there has been controversy and nastiness in the literary community over his pencil work. Why didn’t he leave well enough alone, one camp says. He made it better, the other answers. Broadway has always looked down its nose on Hollywood, so the movie-within-the-movie set up of “Birdman” has an extra helping of hostility and contempt. There is also divorce, drugs, bad parenting, F-bombs aplenty, and what is called virtuoso drumming to concentrate the mind at points in the story arc. Not a day in the park, movie-wise. My wife left the room after three minutes and wished it had been sooner. She didn’t care for the drunken bickering of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolfe,” either. There is no pleasing some people. On the other hand, as is often pointed out, books, movies, plays, operas and so on about happy people are boring because they lack vivid incidents and so yield meager returns at the box office. Nothing happens in happy lives to warrant outbursts of virtuoso drumming and they seem to like it that way. And apparently they are disinclined to see movies about unhappy people. The Hollywood Reporter had a story the other day saying movie attendance is at an all-time low, but then they seem to say that every year.
The better movie to my admittedly old-fashioned taste is “American Sniper,” which begins with an acknowledgement of infidelity as a commonplace of modern life, but then moves on to celebrate the virtues of honor, duty, patriotism, piety (now a bad word) selflessness, and heroism. Good collides with evil and as is so often the case it ends up as a draw. You have to go back to the French impressionist painters and Picasso to find someone as old as Clint Eastwood producing such good work. More people have seen this movie than all of the others on the Academy’s top ten list put together. But no one in it plays an aging actor frantic to recover youthful fame, so it wasn’t even nominated for best picture. It’s a rawer deal than when the slight romantic comedy “Shakespeare in Love,” also about the acting trade, beat the powerful and moving “Saving Private Ryan ” for the Oscar. The Machiavellian behind-the-scenes maneuverings of Harvey Weinstein caught the complacent Steven Spielberg napping.