Last week, Oscar nominee Michael Keaton was on Letterman talking about a conversation that he had at the Academy luncheon with an elderly member of the Academy. He talked about how the man told him that his performance was amazing (way to blow your own trumpet, Michael), and that, despite his best efforts in Birdman, he was always going to lose because “illness always wins”. If you want to see the interview, it’s here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fdVtY_auxcA
I’m not a massive fan of Michael Keaton, but his performance was strong in Birdman, deserving of an Oscar nomination and it was one of his finest performances. However, it was nothing more than that. Despite holding frontrunner status from October to January and winning at the Golden Globes and Critics’ Choice Awards, he couldn’t hold onto his lead. In came British actor Eddie Redmayne, who took over Keaton as the Oscar frontrunner with his shock win at the Screen Actors Guild Award, following up his win at the Golden Globes. It was the takeover that many Oscarologists were waiting for, not only because it spiced up the race, but also because Redmayne was a more worthy winner, and whose performance in The Theory of Everything is nothing short of revelatory. An extraordinary portrait of a man as he struggles, both personally and professionally, through a devastating illness, exploring full range of the character of Stephen Hawking from able-bodied, all the way to an almost PVS. It’s a performance with charm and charisma, as well as intelligence and care, that stands as one of the best performances of the year.
However, Keaton doesn’t see it this way, similarly to the Academy member. They think that Redmayne only won because he was ‘playing an illness’. What a load of baloney. The best performance wins the Oscar, not what the person plays. If that’s true than why didn’t anyone else say that when Julianne Moore took home Best Actress for Still Alice this year? Or when Daniel Day-Lewis won his first Oscar for My Left Foot? Often, playing disabled characters win Oscars because it is so difficult to get right. There is a sensitivity to the subject matter, as well as the physical strains that it causes. It always comes under criticism as well, with many claiming that ‘crippling up’ is as offensive as ‘blacking up’, that disabled characters should only be played by disabled actors (something that would be impossible with The Theory of Everything, considering that the film shows Stephen Hawking when he was able bodied, something that Redmayne did equally as well).
Anyway, the Academy hasn’t always been rewarding those playing roles of people with illnesses. Just a couple of years ago, John Hawkes was snubbed for his incredible, career best performance as Polio sufferer Mark O’Brien in The Sessions, in favour of someone like Denzel Washington in Flight, playing a sufferer of Alcoholism, which isn’t shown as clear cut an illness as Hawkes’. This is an example of something contrary to the statement, but what about other performances that showed illnesses that were winners, and were they winners because of the illness they portrayed. Al Pacino in A Scent of a Woman= played a blind man, won because he was overdue. Colin Firth in The King’s Speech= played a man with a speech impediment, won because the Academy LOVED The King’s Speech. Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club= played AIDS sufferers, won becuase of the risks they took and their commitment to the role.
The most important thing to take from this revelation is that an Academy member, and one that has been a member for over 50 years, genuinely thinks that Eddie Redmayne won because he played ‘an illness’. It doesn’t matter how he performed, how commited he was to the role, how he impacted the film, just that he played ‘an illness’. Can we really trust the judgement of an Academy with these values. Obviously we can, mainly because they keep on giving Oscars to the deserving winners, as was shown when Redmayne won in February. I still honestly think that it’s wrong of Keaton to still be talking about the Oscars, it was months ago and just be happy for Eddie. You’ve had your career, let Eddie have his success so he can build and improve as an actor. Also, Keaton’s performance really isn’t that great: he was outshone by Edward Norton in Birdman and not only did Eddie give a better performance than him, so did Steve Carell, who, in Foxcatcher, exceeded all expectations of him as an actor and delivered a memorable, unnerving performance that was ultimately career-redefining. Keaton’s performance could have redefined him as an actor. While it certainly has put him back in the headlines, he shouldn’t get too carried away. There was a reason that Birdman was his first and only Oscar nomination and his first post-Batman leading film role in a major film. Honestly, just be pleased that Birdman won Best Picture, not that it deserved it.