A couple of notable films have gone after Hollywood with a vengeance early this year. One managed to win over Oscar, and the other is likely to be forgotten by the Oscars next year because of a release this coming March. But there isn’t any denying the connective strings between Birdman and Maps to the Stars in their stinging condemnation of show business and celebrity culture. Arguably, the latter film has more of a beef against how Hollywood works than the former. And if Hollywood has a possible beef in return with Maps to the Stars, what are they possibly thinking about Birdman?
The above latter film has had a surprising path since it released in theaters this last fall. While working as a writer at The Movie Network over the last six months, I did a review of Birdman and pondered how the Oscar voting academy would take to a film that clearly pointed to show business as destroyer of families, credibility, ethics, and career. While that’s only a possible outcome for anyone, there was a lot of familiarity there. We even had to use the overused term “meta” because Michael Keaton’s own trajectory mirrored that of his character, Riggan Thomson.
Thomson’s character doesn’t have the same outcome as Keaton, which gives an even more powerful metaphorical parallel to actors in the Hollywood system. The greatest thing about Birdman is that Thomson eventually becomes aware of how much he’s been destroyed by his career and the trap he’s found himself in trying a comeback on Broadway. Regardless, with so much of Hollywood going to Broadway lately, I still posed the question of whether the film would offend celebrity culture voting in the academy.
It turns out that assumption was wrong on every level. Birdman has won every major award on the award circuit up to this writing. With this blog written a day before the Oscars, it’s likely the film will either get Best Picture or at least Best Director as a split with Boyhood.
So did the magic of the filmmaking behind Birdman usurp its message? Perhaps Hollywood wasn’t offended at showing celebrity culture as an inexorable trap nobody can escape. Maybe Hollywood found it refreshing that a film finally took on the issue in a bold way without flinching. It possibly even created spirited discussions in the voting community that would have made a great documentary on its own.
The reality is that celebrity culture has to be aware of the pitfalls their industry has had for decades. Birdman makes it even more painfully aware without necessarily offering any answers to fix it. The film’s ending alone is one that many people are still debating and whether it’s redemption or just giving up.
Any notable person watching the film must have had any complacent thoughts about their own career shaken to the core while accepting either interpretation of the ending. There isn’t a doubt movies are waking us up to increasingly more complex issues in culture and in our lives so we can work toward improvement. Many of those movies aren’t offering direct answers and instead let us know about hidden issues so we can find the long road to finding solutions, possibly years from now.
Maps to the Stars (from director David Cronenberg) is a film that also takes this same tack, though much more blisteringly than Birdman. Cronenberg shows us a ruined actress (this time played by Julianne Moore) with people in her orbit even more ruined by the ravages of show business and parental neglect. The pyromaniac character of Agatha Weiss (played by the still underrated Mia Wasikowska) is an interesting contrast to Emma Stone’s Sam Thomson, despite both being the emblems of what we see so much of in the entertainment industry.
Both of these films had to have hit a nerve with Hollywood families who’ve had kids ending up almost exactly like Agatha and Sam, if even worse (or dead). An Oscar victory for Birdman may be the message that the academy voters get it and they’ll work toward preventing more Riggan and Sam Thomsons from happening again. To them, ribbing celebrity culture and smearing the concept for all of its egoism and hedonism wasn’t the point of the movie. They may have seen the film in a much different light from the public who had more mixed opinion.
The irony here is that because of Birdman’s other innovations in direction, it’s going to be remembered far into the future than Maps to the Stars likely will. Both, however, may be just the beginning of films taking Hollywood to task for their perpetual craziness, whether seriously or through satire.
It may have already been enough for the celebrity world to permanently change things for the better.