'Birdman' soars ... but gets a bit lost in flight

Liz Smith

"YOUR intellect may be confused, but your emotions will never lie to you," wrote Roger Ebert.

Well, over last weekend I went to see Michael Keaton in his new movie, "Birdman." It turned into one of the most harrowing experiences of film-going in a lifetime of attending movies since age 4 or 5.

But -- and this is a big "but" -- it could have been a GREAT film if the gifted director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu weren't so self indulgent.

"Birdman" is the tale of a star once famous for playing an action hero (think "Batman"), his hit days behind him. Now he is trying to make a living and a comeback as a legit theater actor.

The washed-up star, played by talented Michael Keaton, is Oscar-fabulous as the overly anxious has-been who is trying to make himself over. He is suffering from believing everyone he hears and then not believing they mean it. "Mistaking admiration for love," as they say.

He falls for every compliment from his outmoded audience of rabid fans. Then he tries and fails to believe in himself -- except when dangerously drunk, drugged or intoxicated with "real theater." He is aided or tormented by his best friend the producer ... the play's director-actor (a brilliant Ed Norton) ... various wives and lovers and strung-out offspring. Plus, he is coping with the actors starring with him, supporting him backstage. They are almost as crazy as he is.

THERE are a number of themes here, spelled out or slipped in or mysteriously canceling themselves out over and over. The movie doesn't make a lick of sense in its first 20 minutes, but much becomes clear later when egos, insecurities, loving every woman in sight or trying to, and the psychological realities of all of the characters are made manifest. But Inarritu, who is probably some kind of genius, keeps dead-ending his messages by letting one scene contradict another ... getting it just right (as in the ending) and then spoiling it by being too specific ... or re-doing what he has just shown us, etc.

YOU should go to see this as a perfect example of what to do and not to do by going overboard telling a story. It has some brilliant moments -- one, for instance, is the "Birdman" star locked out of backstage while taking a smoke on the street, only to find his robe is firmly caught in the closed stage door and he has nothing on underneath. And although Inarritu is long in letting the movie come to its chief lesson, it catches the essence of insecurity and madness that truly represents much of real THEATER. He manages this with adroit filming in actual B'way streets and theaters. One lesson is taught by an intellectual and cruel drama critic, played unforgettably by Lindsay Duncan. (The movie could have ended here!)

"Birdman" has already won umpteen awards, was chosen to open the Venice Film Festival in July, and has been written about by people more astute than I. But I'd say it is a cautionary "must" for anyone trying to learn the valuable adage that less is sometimes more.

Still, I wouldn't have missed this movie and its confusions for the world.

What's with the ongoing Nissan car commercials where everyone driving is looking at another person in another car? These new Nissans and their drivers who aren't paying attention in the driver's seat give me the creeps. I know that reaction time behind the wheel can't always cope with idiotic distractions. And these Nissan drivers look like hapless players.

I have been in three major car accidents where I wasn't driving. I don't like to be in cars where drivers are just having a high old time admiring other cars and drivers.

And, for my money, all commercials where automobiles are speeding, and doing dangerous things like lofting themselves out of moving trucks, are not funny. Nobody should encourage them.

Let them come to Manhattan and make a commercial where the speed limit is 25 mph.

OUR GOOD friend, Charles Masson, long the dedicated hard worker of the famed and elegant La Grenouille restaurant, which has had a long reign on East 52nd Street in Manhattan, has gone to France to attend his mother's funeral in Neuilly on Friday. He is accompanied by his son, Charlie.

Madame Gisele Masson was one of the most beautiful women I had ever seen back in the days when she and her movie-star handsome husband opened their restaurant in 1962. It became epic in a splendid moment after Henri Soule convinced Americans that they too could eat fine French food.

Charles's brother, Philippe, is now running La Grenouille and Charles himself will soon open in the new Baccarat restaurant on the East Side. We send all the Massons our sympathy, thinking of their mother with fond beautiful memories.

LAST WEEK we wrote about fabled Alfred Hitchcock actress Tippi Hedren receiving her very own stamp from the U.S. Postal Service. We included some remarks about Tippi's memories of the late director, which eventually led to an unpleasant HBO movie about Hitch and Tippi. Well, apparently some of Mr. Hitchcock's fans seem behind the ball on this, and began writing hate mail to Tippi!

Knock it off, guys. This was Miss Hedren's experience, and she has the right to tell it. Although the director's reputation suffered a bit, nothing can soil the memory of his great films, including Tippi's "The Birds" and "Marnie."

WE LIKE to mention the appearances of the actor and comic Sinbad. For one thing, he's funny. For another, my amazing assistant Mary Jo McDonough attended the U. of Denver with him. (He still remembers her!) Anyway, Sinbad appears Friday night at The Bergen Performing Arts Center in New Jersey.

(E-mail Liz Smith at


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