Entertainment & Arts

‘Birdman’ wins: Why Oscar loves backstage dramas

Michael Keaton as Riggan Thomson, floating above New York in “Birdman.”
(Atsushi Nishijima / Fox Searchlight)

Oscar loves movies about show business, the conventional Hollywood wisdom goes, and the Academy Awards ceremony Sunday was no exception as “Birdman” took home four prizes, including the award for best picture.

The story of a former superhero actor losing his mind as he attempts to revive his career with a Broadway play, “Birdman” belongs to a subset of showbiz-themed movies, the backstage drama, which includes such other best-picture laureates as “The Great Ziegfeld,” “All About Eve” and “Shakespeare in Love.”

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Backstage dramas are notable mainly for their portrayal of neurotic actorly behavior. The catfighting between Bette Davis and Anne Baxter in “All About Eve” is axiomatic of the thespian theatrics that Oscar loves so much. In “Birdman,” Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is having a breakdown as opening night for his play nears, his mounting paranoia manifesting itself in the form of his superhero screen alter ego.


Actors make up the academy’s largest voting bloc, so it’s little surprise that they would be drawn to movies that mirror and lampoon their own narcissism. “All That Jazz,” Bob Fosse’s thinly veiled auto-biopic, is set in the world of New York theater and took home four Oscars in 1980. 

The movie follows the Fosse character (Roy Scheider) as he juggles a new Broadway production, a feature film and several romantic attachments. The protagonist is unrepentantly self-obsessed, and his journey climaxes with a musical interpretation of his own open-heart surgery.

Woody Allen’s “Bullets Over Broadway” won an Oscar for Dianne Wiest’s performance as a vain theatrical diva whose narcissism is dwarfed only by her drinking problem.  And Richard Dreyfuss took home a golden statuette for his performance in “The Goodbye Girl,” in which he played a frazzled, struggling off-Broadway actor.

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Other backstage-set Oscar winners include Katharine Hepburn as a Broadway ingenue in “Morning Glory"; Grace Kelly as the wife of a has-been theater actor in “The Country Girl"; and Ingmar Bergman’s “Fanny and Alexander,” about a family of stage actors in early 20th century Sweden, which won four Oscars.

Fans of “Birdman” and Keaton may want to check out the little-seen 2005 movie “Game 6,” in which the actor plays a dramatist whose new play is opening just as his beloved New York Mets are reaching for World Series glory.

“Game 6" received zero Oscar nominations, but it would make an interesting double bill with “Birdman” for its portrayal of theater as a form of redemptive madness.

Twitter: @DavidNgLAT    

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