For many movie fans, Michael Keaton’s Oscar-nominated role in “Birdman” was so good people wondered where the star had been for so many years.
But as Leonard Maltin, moderator for SBIFF’s Modern Master Award, pointed out on Saturday night at the Arlington Theatre, “He’s never gone away. But it’s been a little while since we’ve seen a performance that’s been able to showcase his talent as fully and richly as ‘Birdman’ does.”
Alejandro Gonzá Iñárritu’s film stars Mr. Keaton as a film actor who is still trying to prove himself and get out of the shadow of the superhero role than made him rich and famous. He does so by sinking his money into a possibly ill-fated Broadway adaptation of a Raymond Carver play, and must contend with ex-wives, lovers, a daughter in recovery, an egotistical costar, and a vicious critic, and all in one long take.
The references to the actor’s career after “Batman” are spelled out broadly, but the film is much more interested in magical realism and the inner life of the mind.
The fact that much is left ambiguous in the film is part of what attracted Mr. Keaton to the role, he said on the red carpet.
“I love stuff like that. … The movie starts off with me levitating. And once (Iñárritu ) told me that at the beginning, I said, ‘Jeez, I’m in.’ ”
As for the comparisons to be drawn from the film to his own career, Mr. Keaton said, “Well, I’m an actor and I’ve had ups and downs like anybody.”
The montage shown at the Montecito Award showed so many ups it made us all forget the downs. There was his first breakthrough role in “Night Shift” and then “Mr. Mom,” then his attachment to the “Batman” franchise in its first reboot in 1989 — to many people, the best of the bunch — and then films like “Pacific Heights” and “Clean and Sober,” and playing the same Elmore Leonard character in two films by different directors: “Jackie Brown” and “Out of Sight.”
Mr. Keaton was amicable and friendly, free to open up about his life. He recounted a life as the youngest of seven, from Scottish and Irish heritage. The Irish side he credited for his quick wit and love of words.
At first he was shy, but then his love of expressing himself had to come out. He was a terrible high school student and his first attempt at stage acting wasn’t very good. His second go-round, he said, was when he started to get it.
“I started to get a feel for it,” he said.
He honed his craft not in acting, but in standup, recounting how he got to do a set at the Comedy Store on the same night as another up and coming comedian named Larry David.
Asked why he didn’t follow that career, he said, “I really wanted to be an actor, and I stuck at it, writing, going to workshops, going to acting class. … I still love comedy, and it’s an artful discipline … but I just love, love motion pictures.”
He never claimed to have a game plan for his career, Mr. Keaton said, just “try to do a good job in whatever’s given you.
“I didn’t waste it,” he said. “I just wanted to be better. … I’m very, very blessed.”
His co-star in the 1996 film “Multiplicity,” Andie MacDowell, was on hand to present the award to her friend.
The Santa Barbara International Film Festival continues today with more films and the Virtuosos Awards at the Arlington. Visit www.sbiff.org for more information.