If you haven’t seen Birdman, Boyhood, or The Imitation Game, maybe don’t read this post yet.
Three of the films nominated for Best Picture this year have climactic scenes in which characters confront the importance of ‘being liked.’
Coincidence? Or an important cultural phenomenon captured? I’m leaning towards the latter. The ‘being liked’ discussion did heavy lifting in these narratives and served as a critical character-defining plot point in each.
In Birdman, Michael Keaton’s character Riggan is overwhelmed by the criticism and potential of failure he faces for trying to re-define his legacy. As a former action-movie star now forgotten, his quest for recognition has led him to produce a serious drama on Broadway. He tries to explain his motivations to his daughter, Sam (Emma Stone) but she calls his sincerity into question. She’s right.
Riggan: Listen to me. I’m trying to do something important.
Sam: This is not important.
Riggan: It’s important to me! Alright? Maybe not to you, or your cynical friends whose only ambition is to go viral. But to me… To me… this is… God. This is my career, this is my chance to do some work that actually means something.
Sam: You’re doing this because you’re scared to death, like the rest of us, that you don’t matter. And you know what? You’re right. You don’t. It’s not important. You’re not important.
Stage actors can’t convincingly argue that no one’s opinion matters or they would find something to do that doesn’t require a live audience. Being liked becomes the foundation of Riggan’s identity – he can’t exist as an artist without an audience, and the audience has to like him if they’re going to stay in their seats.
The theme repeats in the film as Sam and Edward Norton’s character Mike Shiner have a less animated (but more to the point) discussion about the same thing.
Sam: Why do you act like a dick all the time? Do you just do it to antagonize people?
Mike Shiner: Maybe.
Sam: You really don’t give a shit if people like you or not?
Mike Shiner: Not really.
Sam: That’s cool.
Mike Shiner: Is it? I don’t know.
When Sam dreamily asks whether Mike cares about being liked, his response sets up the antagonizing force that will eventually transform Riggan. Mike’s success seems to have been born from his indifference to recognition, and his attitude is partially what teaches Riggan that letting go of the need for acceptance will set him free and allow him to create ’true’ art.
In The Imitation Game, the ‘different’ and ‘weird’ Alan Turing character, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, doesn’t begin with the need to be liked, and then find relief from it, as Riggan of Birdman does. Turing’s story goes in the other direction – starting from a place where ‘likability’ doesn’t matter, but eventually being required to strive for it. Turing’s social environment would never ‘like’ or accept him as who he is, so he was forced to adapt and perform a ‘likability’ act that would keep him out of trouble. A mantra verbalized by Keira Knightley’s Joan Clark character repeats throughout the film:
Joan Clarke: Sometimes it is the people who no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.
Turing embraced the notion that an un-liked, low profile persona would give him the space to explore his scientific interests. But a wonderfully awkward scene in which Turing’s fellow scientists try and fail to invite him to lunch illustrates the problem Turing faces. He must confront the reality that working with other people is necessary to accomplish the mission he is called into, and that as smart as he is, he can’t do everything on his own. In contrast to Birdman, Turing’s not trying to be ‘liked’ for his own emotional satisfaction, but as means to an end.
Joan Clark (Knightley) explains to him that if he’s going to succeed, he’ll have to get the other scientists to like him. “They won’t work for you if they don’t like you,” she says. She suggests that he bring them snacks as a first step toward amiability, and in a scene as comically awkward as the failed lunch invitation, he arrives at the lab with a basket of apples and bluntly relates the logic that drove his actions – I hope you’ll like me, for bringing you apples, he says. The wheels are set in motion, and the film becomes as much about Turing playing the likability game as it is about him developing an electronic computer.
Boyhood comes to the ‘likability’ table in the first scene that exhibits a true independence of the main character, Mason, played by Ellar Coltrane. A road-trip with his girlfriend opens the door for a thoughtful discussion about whether or not it matters to be liked. The ‘likability’ dialogue takes place without Birdman’s gripping intensity of emotion, and without The Imitation Game’s dry humor – of the three, it feels the most genuine.
Mason: I just feel like there are so many things that I could be doing and probably want to be doing that I’m just not.
Sheena: Why aren’t you?
Mason: I mean, I guess, it’s just being afraid of what people would think. You know, judgement.
Sheena: Yeah. I guess it’s really easy to say, like I don’t care what anyone else thinks. But everyone does, you know. Deep down.
Mason: I find myself so furious at all these people that I am in contact with just for controlling me or whatever but you know they are not even aware they are doing it.
Sheena: Yeah. So, in this perfect world where no one is controlling you. What’s different? What changes?
Mason: Everything. I mean, I just wanna be able to do anything I want, because it makes me feel alive. As opposed to giving me the appearance of normality.
The scene follows Mason’s first monologue, and it occurs nearly two hours into the film. After watching him quite literally grow from a child into a young man, this becomes the first thing we know about how Mason is feeling and what he is thinking as an adult. Because the film is about his journey from boyhood to manhood, this scene is significant. It’s remarkable that the first vulnerability he exposes, as he transitions away from ‘boyhood,’ is weighing the importance of being liked by others – and it probably won’t be the last time, as evinced by the older characters of Birdman and The Imitation Game.
So, does the spirit of each film come to the same conclusion about likability? Birdman’s narrative is fueled by an intense desire to be liked and the struggle to escape from it. The Imitation Game is propelled by likability as a game – a game in which Turing must conform to the standards of social acceptability by suppressing his true persona. To those films, being liked is important to the characters, but in different ways. Boyhood takes the position that likability is only an encumbrance – to quote Mason, “feeling alive” is better than “the appearance of normality.”
The primary reason why I’ve seen all these movies and paid such close attention to them is because the Academy nominated each as Best Picture of the year. Their nominations all prove, to some extent, that being liked matters – if they weren’t liked by the Academy they wouldn’t have been nominated, and I might not have seen them or cared to think deeply about them. But what’s curiously interesting is the result of the competition – the film whose character had the greatest ‘need to be liked’ turned out to be the winner, while the film that stood firmly in its notion that being liked isn’t all that important didn’t get the top Oscar… and perhaps, it didn’t really need to.
“Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life” – Oscar Wilde