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With 'Birdman,' Michael Keaton's Comeback Takes Flight

August 27, 2014

For a certain generation of film fans, a Michael Keaton comeback is about the best thing that could possibly happen to movies. Beloved for his off-kilter performances in movies like Mr. Mom (1983), Beetlejuice (1988), and Batman (1989), the 62-year-old actor has gone over a decade without a significant lead role in a film. If the early reviews of his new movie Birdman (in theaters October 17) are any indication, that longed-for Keaton comeback is about to happen.

Critics got their first peek at Birdman, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu (Babel, Amores Perros), when it opened the Venice Film Festival on Wednesday. A genre-defying film that combines comedy, existentialist dread, and superhero battles, Birdman stars Keaton as Riggan Tomson, a washed-up actor whose career peaked with the role of a Batman-like character called Birdman. He’s now staging a Broadway play to get his legitimacy back, an effort threatened by his cynical daughter (Emma Stone), a rival actor (Edward Norton), and his own self-doubts, which manifest themselves as hallucinations of his Birdman persona. So far, critics are united in their praise for the film, particularly when it comes to Keaton’s nuanced performance.  

[Related: How Tim Burton’s ‘Batman’ Changed the Way Summer Movies Are Sold]

Here’s a sampling. Variety calls Birdman is “a triumph on every creative level,” which will “send awards pundits into orbit and give fresh wings to Keaton’s career.” The Hollywood Reporter also goes with a bird metaphor, saying that Keaton “soars perhaps higher than ever” in the movie. The UK Telegraphagrees, calling Riggan “the role of Keaton’s career.” And according to Empire, Keaton’s performance single-handedly “stamps [Birdman] as the first must-see of the autumn.”

The buzz around Keaton is reminiscent of that which surrounded Bill Murray after Lost in Translation debuted for critics in 2003.  Like Murray, Keaton built his career on comedy, which propelled him to peak popularity in the 1980s. Both actors spent a decade flying under the radar, in partially self-imposed exiles from the press and mainstream Hollywood. In Lost in Translation, Murray floored audiences with his ability to telegraph comedy and tragedy in the same understated performance. Judging from the reaction at Venice, Birdman could have that same impact for Keaton, poising his career for reinvention — and maybe, as happened for Murray, a first Oscar nomination.

Of course, this speculation is all very early. Birdman is a film that’s tough to package, and may have difficulty netting a mainstream audience. On the other hand, it couldn’t come at a better time for Keaton nostalgia. When Ben Affleck was announced as the new Batman last August, his casting was met with a loud chorus of protests, and a fresh wave of appreciation for Keaton’s performance as the Caped Crusader (including Seth Rogen’s ode to the Keaton era is this summer’s Neighbors). Birdman hinges on the very idea of an actor reconciling his career-defining superhero role with his subsequent life and career – which is why director Inarritu cast Keaton in the first place.

“I thought that few people in the world have the authority to talk about being that,” Inarritu said at a Birdman press conference. “Michael was a pioneer.”