First, praise be to the brave Oscar pundits who have Bradley Cooper in their crosshairs. Indeed, given how close this race probably is between Eddie Redmayne and Michael Keaton, it’s easy to see how Cooper could benefit from a vote split, not unlike, some have argued, Adrien Brody did back in 2003 when this award was anticipated to go to either Jack Nicholson or Daniel Day-Lewis. But we don’t have the courage to rally behind Cooper, terrific as he is in American Sniper, as this and adapted screenplay seem like the two categories where the contentiousness surrounding the Clint Eastwood film’s ostensibly mythmaking depiction of Chris Kyle is most likely to hurt. Which is to say nothing of the fact that, unlike Brody, Cooper enters this race without SAG, BAFTA, and Golden Globe nominations.
If anything, this year’s race more strongly echoes the Mickey Rourke/Sean Penn smackdown leading up to the 2009 Academy Awards. Like Keaton, Rourke’s “comeback” story generated plenty of goodwill, as well as Golden Globe and BAFTA trophies. We still called the Oscar race, and accurately so, for the SAG-winning Penn, arguing, “Yes, you empathize more with Rourke’s character, but we’re of the opinion that this undervalued actor’s ’story’ is being talked up more than his actual performance. That’s not to say voters aren’t being swayed by that story, but does Hollywood as a whole really feel it owes Rourke anything?” Keaton arguably bares more of his soul in Birdman than Rourke did in The Wrestler, and in a more uncomfortably autobiographical role, and following his Golden Globe acceptance speech, in which he tearfully honored his son, we were ready to call this for him over the more stiff-upper-lipped Redmayne.
Yes, Keaton’s performance appeals to actors, the largest branch of AMPAS; in his weathered face, and in his character’s turmoil on and off the stage, they recognize their own struggles with transformation and the fine line they often walk between reality and pretend. But, then, how does one explain why he lost both the SAG and BAFTA to Redmayne? It could be that the sincerity that Keaton displayed on the stage of the Golden Globes was so unmistakable as to call Birdman’s often willful, and wily, lack of it into question. Throughout the film, Keaton and his co-stars are understood to be an unmistakably integral part of a meta puzzle that, as formal exercise, is incredibly virtuosic, even though too often it’s easy to see them hitting their marks on a pathway toward a finale that lacks for emotional resonance.
In short, the audience is never really sure if Keaton’s Riggan is actually baring his soul or conning them. Which is one way to understand the incredible appeal of Redmayne’s performance as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything and why it towers above the dull film that contains it. The James Marsh film doesn’t lack for actorly masterstrokes, the most glorious of which is a scene where Stephen admits to his wife that he hasn’t ruled out God’s existence, only to then torturously tell her, through his computer-based communication system, that he’s fallen for another woman. And the range of feelings packed into this exchange, its astonishingly subtle display of humane empathy, is conveyed brilliantly by Redmayne almost entirely through eyes whose commitment to the truth the audience never doubts.
Will Win: Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything
Could Win: Michael Keaton, Birdman
Should Win: Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything