‘Birdman’ closes NYFF: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu & cast talk ego and perils of celebrity

Birdman” was the Closing Night selection at the New York Film Festival, following acclaimed bows at the Venice and Telluride fests in August. It opens in limited release on October 17, and discussing the showbiz satire with press and industry on Saturday afternoon, director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and his all-star cast discussed their personal feelings about ego and celebrity.

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The film, about washed-up action star Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) trying to stage a comeback on Broadway, was inspired by Inarritu’s own midlife crisis. “I think the idea came from this struggle in battle that we all have … in this case in a personal battle that I have just turned 50 years last year,” said the director. “You make kind of a revision of the priorities that you have been giving to your life, and some things are missing, some things are great, and some things are not so great.”

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At the heart of the film is a struggle against ego. Inarritu explained, “Sometimes when I’m doing something I say, ‘Oh, this is great, this is fantastic, you’re a genius!’ and then 20 minutes later I feel like a dead jellyfish and I say, ‘You’re a stupid asshole!’ … The ego is a tyrant.”

Riggan is not the only character inspired by the director himself. Perhaps surprisingly, so is Riggan’s co-star and professional rival, Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), an unpredictable egotist who threatens to derail the production. “People ask me what actors I was referencing, and I always say that I basically just looked four feet to my left at Alejandro,” said Norton. “I’m wearing his scarf in the movie, I’m wearing his jacket, everything I say in the movie I’ve heard him say or I know he wants to say … My entire performance constituted dropping the Mexican accent.”

One of the primary conflicts between Riggan and Mike is a battle between celebrity spectacle and true art. Zach Galifianakis, who plays Riggan’s friend and producer, would prefer to keep his head down and do his work: “Being a celebrity is shit. It’s dumb. I’m not interested in it. I like to be an actor and that’s it.”

But Keaton argues that even the concept of celebrity doesn’t have the power it once did, thanks to widespread multimedia access: “I think everybody’s kind of a celebrity now. Anybody can be anything … We’re living in this really weird world where people are everywhere. Everyone is omnipresent.”

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“Birdman” could be the latest Hollywood story to make an impact at the Oscars. Recent Best Picture winners “The Artist” (2011) and “Argo” (2012) focused on the movie industry. And “Shakespeare in Love” (1998) and “Chicago” (2002) featured stage performers nearly as vain and volatile as Riggan and company. This film is more eccentric than those previous Oscar contenders, with absurd comedy and elements of magical realism, but many academy members may be able to relate to Riggan’s struggle to reinvent himself after falling out of the spotlight.

But despite its offbeat tone, our predictors rank “Birdman” third in the Best Picture race (click here for its complete stats). Inarritu ranks second for Best Director (click here). And Keaton is currently the odds-on favorite to win Best Actor (click here).

The film is stacked top-to-bottom with standout performances, so we also mustn’t underestimate Norton for Best Supporting Actor; he ranks second in that race for what might be the only character who could go toe-to-toe with J.K. Simmons‘s monstrous music teacher in “Whiplash.” Click here to see how they measure up against each other in our predictions.

Emma Stone, who already has one Best Picture nominee on her resume (“The Help“), ranks third in the race for Best Supporting Actress as Riggan’s resentful, belligerent, but vulnerable daughter who is fresh out of rehab (click here to see who she’s up against).

Do you think the ego-mad “Birdman” characters will be embraced by the academy? Predict Best Picture below.

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