Birdman, or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance leads the Oscar nominations this year, and it scored big in the acting categories in particular. Its stars Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, and Emma Stone were each nominated, and of the three, Keaton is the most likely to pull out an Oscar victory, even if the latest buzz has him losing by a hair to Eddie Redmayne. But a lot can still change at this point in awards season, and history provides a greater indication of what will happen on Oscar night. For example, here is a theory: Keaton probably won’t win for Birdman. But Norton might.
When people discuss the possibility of Keaton winning Best Actor, they rarely suggest that his is actually the best performance of the year. We all know that’s not how the Oscars actually work. It often has more to do with politics, campaigning, and who’s “due,” which is what Keaton has going for him: Birdman might not be his best performance, but after five decades in the business, he has a lot of friends in the Academy and people really want him to win. It is what we typically call a “make-up” Oscar, and there are plenty of examples in Oscar’s history of actors winning for roles that were far from their best work. Al Pacino never won for The Godfather movies or Dog Day Afternoon, but he finally took home a statue on his eight try for Scent of a Woman. Same goes for Jeff Bridges, who finally won an Oscar in 2009 for Crazy Heart, a fine but unspectacular performance, after failing to win for The Last Picture Show, The Big Lebowski, or The Fisher King.
Keaton doesn’t quite fit that narrative. In fact, he does not have a single performance in his filmography that really stands out as Oscar-worthy. He did his best work in Beetlejuice and Clean and Sober, but, as great as he was in both films, no one was clamoring for him to win an Oscar then, and he wasn’t even nominated for either. And so despite being beloved in the industry and having built up a near-Bill Murrayesque stature, especially among those fans who grew up in his 1980s heyday, Keaton does not fit the mold of the “make-up” Oscar winner.
But Norton does.
In 1998, Norton was nominated for Best Actor for playing a neo-Nazi in American History X. The film was good, but his performance was a revelation. He was in the midst of a brilliant run (American History X followed Primal Fear, Everyone Says I Love You, The People Vs. Larry Flynt, and Rounders, and preceded Fight Club by a year), and he had already been passed over for the Oscar two years earlier. His performance in Primal Fear was remarkable, but it was his first film role, and Academy members probably assumed they would have many chances to honor him in the future.
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But when they got that chance with American History X, the timing could not have been worse. The Academy had just fallen deeply, stupidly in love with Life is Beautiful, and instead of hearing a passionate, composed speech from Norton on Oscar night that might have catapulted him to a legendary acting career, we got to watch Roberto Benigni make a spectacle of himself, promising to kidnap his audience and lead them in an interplanetary orgy. It might be unfair to judge the Academy’s decision in retrospect, but it is clear that it took Benigni about thirty seconds to start failing to live up to the honor bestowed upon him that night, and he never came close to the artistic achievement of Life is Beautiful again.
Because Norton so closely fits the mold of the make-up Oscar, his performance in Birdman does not need to be great. But it is. Norton brings all of the magnetism he has previously used to play killers (Primal Fear), bigots (American History X), and even superheroes (The Incredible Hulk) to the character of Mike, a smoldering young method actor and an alpha-male of the drama world. Arrogant in his work and helpless in his life, Norton creates a compelling character who is impossible to look away from, which might be why the film sags when he is inexplicably absent from its second half.
Best of all, the Academy might see the role as Norton’s apologia or at least a meta-comment on his reputation within the business for being difficult to work with. From American History X to The Incredible Hulk, he has driven directors crazy and made studio execs think twice before casting him in a prominent role. If wins this year, he must have mended a lot of fences, but playing a role that references and exaggerates that image is exactly the kind of winking attitude Hollywood usually goes for, and it could gives him a leg up.
Of course J.K. Simmons is still the odds-on favorite, but if Norton can pull off the upset, it could lead to a career resurgence and, unlike Keaton, he is still young enough to make the most of it. Since those promising early days, Norton has struggled to find his place in the industry. His last great performance before Birdman came over a decade ago in 25th Hour. In subsequent years, he has bounced around from cameos in studio movies (The Invention of Lying) to supporting roles in Wes Anderson films (Moonrise Kingdom, The Grand Budapest Hotel) to little-seen indies that don’t even merit a theatrical release (Leaves of Grass). Maybe it’s time for he and Hollywood to make up, and Birdman offers them both one great, perhaps last chance.