Michael Keaton as Riggin in "Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)." Photo credit: Atsushi Nishijima / Fox Searchlight Pictures.

“Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)”

October 17, 2014

For an actor who came to worldwide fame wearing Batman’s black cape and bat-eared headgear, Michael Keaton can perhaps relate all too well to the cloaking ordinariness of civilian wear.

In his new movie, “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance),” by director Alejandro González Iñárritu, Costume Designer Albert Wolsky dressed Keaton not as a superhero, but as a typical New Yorker.

The film portrays Keaton as Riggan, an actor once famous for playing the iconic Birdman superhero. Instead of fighting criminals, now he battles his ego to stage a Broadway play intended to reclaim his past glory. Set in the present day and 1950, the film mostly concerns Keaton’s comings and goings between rehearsals and in flashbacks.

Wolsky, who won costume design Academy Awards for “All That Jazz” and “Bugsy,” plus five other Oscar nominations, said this story demanded subtlety.

“My work is fairly invisible,” he said. One garment gets significant screen time: A raincoat.

“I needed six, seven, eight–10 of them. I had no time to manufacture them and there was no reason. I needed it to look like a plain, old raincoat,” Wolsky said. “It was some schlock brand–I don’t even recall what.” He selected the single-breasted, placket-front coat for what it didn’t have: a lining, epaulets, belt, buckles or water-shedding front and back yoke flaps–details that would complicate the fit and look.

The movie, which shot in six weeks, allowed little time for experimentation or fittings, even though a key scene required Keaton to fly.

Wolsky bought a few coats in a size larger to accommodate the stunt’s rigging and harness. He also had to make, pardon the pun, an on-the-fly decision about what type of coat design and fabric would look most convincing suspended in air.

“I looked for something totally ordinary, but that would move. And it had to be a certain length,” he said. The coat had to seem like “something in his closet that he grabs.”

In run-of-the-mill tan and 100 percent cotton–his preferred choice to show aging–the coat isn’t meant to portray him as a loser, though it shares his woes.

The raincoat does get trashed later because he ends up sleeping outside because he’s gotten drunk. He wakes up in a stupor, and that is probably the worst the raincoat looks, too.”

“Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” is now open in theaters.

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