Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Screenplay: Armando Bo, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr., Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone
Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki; Editing: Douglas Crise & Stephen Mirrione
Production Design: Kevin Thompson; Set Decoration: George DeTitta Jr.
Costumes: Albert Wolsky; Score: Antonio Sánchez
Stars: Michael Keaton (Riggan Thomson), Emma Stone (Sam), Edward Norton (Mike Shiner), Naomi Watts (Lesley), Zach Galifianakis (Jake), Amy Ryan (Sylvia), Andrea Riseborough (Laura), Lindsay Duncan (Tabitha), Merritt Wever (Annie)
Given the advance word of mouth, award accolades and promising premise, with Michael Keaton as a has been superhero movie star trying to reestablish himself as a serious actor by staging a Broadway play, I was expecting to like Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s surreal satire far more than I was ultimately able to. Perhaps I set my sights too high, persuaded by critical consensus (“The only opinion that matters is the critic.”) which seems to have accepted the film’s artistic pretensions at face value. Given the movie’s brutal representation of their own breed, reviewers appear motivated by a desire to prove what good sports they are, but there is such a thing as being too tolerant.
Birdman is one of those movies that viewers either love or hate. To me it seemed smug and snarky where it’s meant to be funny and featherheaded. Maybe its south of the border comic sensibility is just a shade too dark and meanspirited. But what really turns me off to self-referential, meta movies like this is the condescending attitude of superiority they adopt toward their audience for patronizing the sort of summer blockbusters Birdman lambasts, ridiculing them for providing a market for such over-budgeted, crash and boom claptrap. But the film’s pretentious affectations and holier than thou attitudes toward art are just the sort of thing that sends most people screaming toward the nearest negligible piece of commercial junk in hopes of flossing their mind of all the fatuous deep thoughts. Despite presenting itself as a surreal tale told by a madman, signifying nothing, Birdman has been stuffed fuller than a Thanksgiving turkey with slogans and bumper stickers and high flown pretensions. It’s been difficult for me to even work up the enthusiasm to write about this one because for my generation, Michael Keaton will always be the Batman, the one and only, the same way Adam West was for kids who grew up in the ’60s, so it’s nice to see movies once again acknowledging this long lost talent in the wake of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight blitzkrieg which effectively eradicated the earlier Tim Burton series from living memory in the pop-culture conscience. “It’s going to be Clooney’s face on the front page, not mine,” Keaton’s character may mourn but it’s actually going to be Christian Bale who’s most closely associated with Batman by future generations, unless Ben Affleck becomes a more successful standin. It can’t be easy watching your legacy superseded within your own lifetime, which makes me resent the stance Birdman takes toward Keaton’s past claim to fame, and the manner in which it tries to torpedo it, all the more. In tone and temperament, the movie has the cheap feel of fairground hucksterism.
The story is set amid the theatrical glitterati of Broadway and speaks to prurient public fascination with what’s really transpiring behind the scenes while the show goes on, but Birdman’s cockeyed view of the actor’s life seems drawn less from reality than from a litany of backstage movies about trodding the boards, proliferating with off Broadway bars, viper-tongued critics, men in trench coats and easily available actresses eager for a shot at fame. It’s a view of Broadway carried forward from the ’40s in which one can step off the Great White Way into the genteel stillness and quietude of an old-fashioned watering hole preserved in amber from an earlier age. Things don’t appear to have changed much since the days when Bette Davis played the insecure, aging star jealous of the up and coming threat to her throne.
In their peripherals, Keaton’s Riggan and Edward Norton’s Mike have been written with a similar adversarial dynamic, but here it’s the younger man who’s the reigning Broadway star and the older one desperate to establish himself at any price. Like All About Eve, Birdman is a sharply written philosophical satire about the world of New York actors, which is a safe target as far as Hollywood is concerned, explaining this barbed indie’s being so widely embraced by the industry, regardless of its espoused views on the general quality of their films. An extended inside joke, Birdman is the sort of film that speaks far more deeply to those in the biz than those outside it, but despite all its movie friendly references and name-dropping of celebrity figures like Oprah, R. Kelly, Meg Ryan, etc., it seems to look down its nose on those of us who find more pleasure in the democratic art of the cinema than the elitist world of the theatah. And by doing so Birdman inadvertently insults anyone who might be watching it for contributing to the overall cultural genocide.
That or Iñárritu seriously believes his own high concept films are above such populist pandering. Clearly Birdman doesn’t see itself as being on the same level as the superhero blockbusters whose audiences it’s upbraiding. Telling us precisely what Iñárritu believes his pretentious piece of art is not, the lead character is advised to “Give people what they want, old fashioned apocalyptic porn. The public loves action. Not talking and philosophical BS,” while we wait for the hero, who keeps all his professional frustrations bottled up inside so that they manifest subconsciously, to puncture this windbag of all its hot air by revealing his big sensory superpower, unleashing it on the deserving and unsuspecting, wasting the movie in an orgy of wanton destruction. For all the script’s witty barbs, it’s disparaging the easiest of targets – summertime superhero franchises – which are here meant to epitomize everything that’s wrong with film today, while at the same time feeding off them in order to fuel its own feature-length riff. If superhero franchises didn’t exist to be parodied, then neither would this film, so all the while Birdman is bemoaning the lack of depth and quality in movies, its very existence disproves that cinema is actually at such a nadir.
With its onanistic scaffolding simply serving as one long, self-aware commentary upon itself, Birdman’s captivating premise sounds far more promising than the follow through. Beginning with that pretentious subtitle (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), the movie is rife with phony, philosophical pronouncements about life and art that are intended to be profound. At once it seems as self-serious as Ingmar Bergman’s depressing excursions into realms of loss and regret, as surreal as a Felliniesque circus, as neurotic and chatty as one of Woody Allen’s New York films and as improvisatory as a roving Robert Altman collective (the restless camera enhances this impression) like Short Cuts, which was also based on several Raymond Carver stories. Birdman is being advertised as a comedy but it’s less funny in the traditional sense than caustic, biting.
Veering from spiky wit to slapstick silliness, the dour humor is of the type encountered in political lampoons originating in the print media of third world countries during times of crisis and revolution. In tone, it has a life or death desperation that seems absurdly exaggerated given the rather flighty subject matter. There’s something dark and nastily impolite about Birdman, like something Buñuel might have dreamt up to unnerve and upset the establishment, though there’s nothing truly daring about it. It’s a picture long theater of the absurd, a subdued slapstick skit in which things are structured to go from bad to worse in a mounting way that riddles Riggan’s play with notions of portending doom from the start, shredding it with the death of a million cuts, then turns around and admires Riggan’s quick thinking whenever anything goes wrong, his turning it to his advantage, incorporating it so that everything looks organic, like part of the show.
With the help of his cinematographer and editor, Iñárritu comes close to capturing a look that’s just as jittery and frazzled and full of nervous, expectant energy as Birdman’s backstage world itself before opening night. Lowest common denominator aside, it’s movies in general, not just superhero franchises, that are being belittled by Birdman in comparison to the artistic integrity of a life lived on the legitimate stage. To emphasize the point the film has even been conceived as imitation theater, its semblance of one continuous take allowing scenes and performances to flow in real time, building up a head of steam naturally as they would before a live audience. The film tries so hard to be bold and audacious in this avante garde way that at one point Iñárritu has his camera remain stationary in the wings, focusing on nothing in particular until Keaton hoves into view several minutes (or maybe just seconds, it feels like an eternity) later, emphasizing how static a moving picture can be when the camera’s own feathers are clipped. Borrowing elements from the gonzo and found footage formats, Birdman is meant to be very edgy and rule breaking and an affront to established filmmaking protocol despite a technique that distracts by drawing unnecessary attention to itself. Emmanuel Lubezki smoothes out the tricky camera gymnastics and logistical nightmares of choreography remarkably well with his darkly lush, fever dream cinematography distinguished by a lighting scheme that has primary spots bathing the sets in irradiating beams of green, blue, red, especially as characters depart the wings for the even more surreal world framed by the proscenium arch. His camera will follow Riggan’s mistress (Andrea Riseborough) as she climbs onstage to make her entrance same way it follows his daughter Sam (Emma Stone) as she descends the stairs of the rooftop exit, and despite no real rhyme or reason to such visual parallels, the circular similarity is aesthetically pleasing to the eye. With invisible cutting by Douglas Crise & Stephen Mirrione, Lubezki’s long, complex tracking shots seem equally as impressive when gliding down the narrow maze of twining hallways and cubby holes behind the scenes as Wolfgang Petersen’s camera did in the cramped confines of Das Boot. But by mentioning Birdman, interestingly discursive though it may be, in the same breath as other towering talents of world cinema, I don’t want to give the false impression that it’s in their same league. Yet by inviting such comparison, it does tend to suggest in what sort of company the presumptuous director expected his film to be placed. Talk about overweening ego, but by all appearances the establishment has been more than willing to indulge him.
Iñárritu himself is a world class filmmaker, whose Amores Perros and Babel I think rank right up there among the finest films of the 21st century thus far and he brings a similarly strange, fatalistic foreign air to proceedings here so that Birdman doesn’t feel much like an American movie, any more than it feels like the commercial Hollywood ones it trashes. But while the movie was made in the English language and features a cast of familiar household names, the Mexican director imported many of the same artisans he’d collaborated with on his previous ventures so that Birdman’s crew is comprised almost entirely of outsourced talent, including cinematographer Lubezki, who’d never worked with his fellow Mexican filmmaker on a feature before. This behind the scenes input undoubtedly contributed to the bizarre rhythm, which doesn’t hit the familiar beats that help viewers immediately orient themselves to their surroundings. Despite the American setting and subject matter, which includes such indigenous themes and locals as Broadway, Times Square, Hollywood moviemaking, social media, the movie could pass itself off as an import given its alienating, unfamiliar ambiance. This unusual tone infuses Birdman with a strange distancing effect, making everything appear so weirdly outlandish we’d hardly recognize New York and the Great White Way if the movie didn’t tell us where we were. It might have been shot through the eyes of its delusional protagonist as much as in one continuous take. The self-consciously clever camera is so omnipresent it becomes absolutely oppressive in a suffocating way, making Birdman feel as if it had been taken in a fish bowl. Keeping the cast under constant scrutiny this way was intended to further blur the line between the actual actors and the parts they’re playing. Stating in the script that critical opinion doesn’t count is Iñárritu’s way of declaring that his film is not going to be artistically tethered by the hide-bound ‘rules’ of classical filmmaking, suggesting he’s trying something truly challenging, unique and wholly original, despite moviegoers having had two millennia now to accustom themselves to the same cinéma vérité approach Birdman is employing. The director forearms himself against detractors by demonstrating in what low regard he holds the opinion of others. In his terms, a ‘man becomes a critic when he can’t be an artist himself, same way an old man becomes traitor when he can no longer be a soldier,’ which is just a restatement of the age-old adage that ‘those who can’t do, teach.’ Iñárritu’s artist’s statement betrays a belief that negative opinion of his work couldn’t possibly be motivated by anything other than spite or jealousy, certainly not an honest response to the quality of his film aesthetics. As expressed by the director (who served as one of Birdman’s authors, along with Armando Bo, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. and Nicolás Giacobone), writing as a critical function doesn’t rank as an art form in its own right and shouldn’t be mentioned in the same breath as other mediums of expression. The way Birdman approaches the subject, with lead character Riggan branching out into writing (“You destroyed a genius book with that infantile adaptation, now you’re ruining your career.”), even a rank amateur can do it. Yet the layered script comprised for the movie, peppered with witty invective, choice bon motts and lines composed in the archly stylized stage speak of playwrights, still seems intended to remind one of the peculiarly theatrical pleasures of well-written dialogue, putting the lie to that feigned attitude of condescension.
Such an openly venal aversion to viper-tongued critics hasn’t been betrayed by the movies since the good old days of Waldo Lydecker and Addison DeWitt, who wielded their quills like scalpels, carving up their targets with a clinical precision. Birdman presents its own resident theatrical critic, Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan), as warily as if she were Burt Lancaster in Sweet Smell of Success and Iñárritu shows his own cavalier disregard for the breed by savaging her in the same spirit Vincent Price did her brethren in Theater of Blood. While stage actor Mike is sure she’s impartial enough to reward him with a bad review if he ever turns in a bad performance, she’s irrationally determined to destroy supplanted movie star Riggan’s play in print regardless of how good it may be. She considers herself a bulwark stopping the inexorable encroachment of philistine Hollywood upon what she considers her domain, the theatrical sanctity of the East Coast with its died in wool artistic traditions. She believes that by commercializing the theater, packing it for mass consumption the way Hollywood does movies, Broadway will be deprived of the last vestiges of integrity it has left after being slowly stripped by a century of film going. In her opinion, it’s been exploited and purloined by outside interests for far too long, like some great bird of prey feeding off the carrion.
To hear Tabitha tell it, one would think the unspoiled artistic Eden of the Great White Way hadn’t been siphoning Hollywood for years itself, with stage versions of Titanic, The Lion King, Kinky Boots and Spider-Man most recently. The symbiotic relationship between stage and screen is a two-way street. Still she professes to resent Riggan for what he’s supposed to represent – pampered, untrained, entitled Hollywood stars taking up space in auditoriums that might have been put to better use showcasing legitimate local talent in sore need of the exposure. To her way of thinking Riggan’s no actor, he’s merely a celebrity, which is precisely what Birdman star Michael Keaton is trying to disprove through the agency of this part. Making his Broadway debut here (more or less) this is probably the closest Keaton will ever want to get to the Great White Way again considering the shabby way he’s treated. It’s too easy for a critic to destroy a career with the swipe of a pen (“This is the theater. You can’t come in with your propaganda piece without going through me.”), and Birdman takes umbrage at the fact that words wield such an observable impact on the careers of artists. As Mike tells Tabitha, Riggan is going out on stage and risking everything while she sits hiding safely behind her pen and pad, indulging in a coward’s profession.
It’s the same idea Riggan himself will later reiterate when he says that her critical opinion doesn’t cost her anything, but the play could cost him everything. But what this movie, so committed to the concept of artistic integrity fails to take into consideration is that for a critic to give a glowing review motivated purely by philanthropic instincts would be a betrayal of their art as surely as an actor selling out his talent for cash by playing a Birdman. It’s much the same reason Joseph Cotton went through with that scathing review of Susan Alexander in Citizen Kane rather than truckling to the interests of his boss and best friend. But in what time capsule does Birdman exist where a print critic like this has any hope of making or breaking a Broadway show? When Tabitha threatens to kill the play, everyone recoils in terror as though she could really do it. But despite megalomaniacal Mike’s rub “What will my friend Tabitha do to you in the Times?” no one critic wields that kind of clout in our internet age anymore, in which blog reviews like this one come a dime a dozen. The explosion in social media which Birdman takes such satirical note of has given everyone the opportunity to weigh in equally with their own opinions on art. And despite the movie’s inferred disgust at Tabitha’s self-appointed status as arbiter of excellence, with this film Iñárritu is placing himself in her same elevated company, presuming to regulate the artistic tastes of others by criticizing the slick Hollywood product. He’s placing himself in the position of film critic.
Birdman’s been cast with actors who might be performing penance for their past commercial sins. Michael Keaton (Batman), Ed Norton (The Hulk) and Emma Stone (Spider-Man) are all seeking to redeem themselves through the benediction of high art here, though not all superhero movies, by their very nature, require such public apologia despite what Iñárritu believes. Certainly Tim Burton’s first two Batman movies, which served to cement Keaton’s superstardom in the ’90s didn’t. By the same token, the simple state of being a Hollywood movie star who’s grossed millions doesn’t warrant being dismissed out of hand as a talented artist, as Riggan rhetorically observes. Birdman however treats the concepts as mutually exclusive, financial success in one’s chosen profession as tantamount to turning traitor to one’s craft. According to the movie’s way of thinking, Riggan could only have kept his art pure by nobly starving while reciting Shakespeare in the park for spare change, proving that the film’s makers have never screened Keaton’s rendition of Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing. And one can’t help wondering if, despite its hardscrabble indie origins, Birdman’s popular success (Oscar crowned it the year’s best picture) likewise tarnishes, in the movie’s own terms, its claim to artistic integrity. But then one doesn’t cannily cast a film full of tony actors with name recognition like this when there’s any genuine intention of flying below the radar. Successful acting allows players to reveal the larger truths in the material they’re performing, and Birdman constantly toys with our notion of what’s real and what isn’t by immersing us in a theatrical world in which art imitates life to such an alarming degree its leading character can no longer distinguish fact from fiction. We’re afforded the spectacle of actors playing actors for whom method ‘acting’ has become a design for living. While in the real world Riggan’s rueful mistress Laura can’t have children, for instance, she’s been cast in a part that requires her to play pregnant on stage. Mike tells Riggan the simulated gun prop he threatens him with in their big scene together looks fake, making it impossible for him to react properly, adversely impacting the quality of his performance. When he’s required to simulate sex onstage with Lesley, he seriously tries to go all the way, arguing that slipping it in will make their feigned noises sound more credible.
As Riggan, Keaton is handed a magnetic speech about his abusive father simply to prove what a great way he has with words, priming the audience, playing their emotions as delicately as a Stradivarius, only to reveal at the end that he made the entire tale up out of whole cloth, same way he admits to his ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan) having made up the story about being stung by jellyfish just to test her, to see if she’d believe him. Telling him she stopped trusting what came out of his mouth a long time ago, Sylvia’s come to accept the unfortunate fact that she can’t even believe him when he says he loves her. This scene, which echoes an earlier one where Lesley berated Mike for claiming he loved her only hours after throwing a knife at her head, indicates that the profession of acting has turned these men into congenital liars onstage and off, making it impossible to believe anything they say. And Birdman never suggests that there’s any other possible path to great acting than to have it totally enfold one as a way of life, the way it obsessively does Mike and Riggan.
Like Keaton, Ed Norton has also been cast in a manner intended to play off the perception of him as a temperamental prickly pear who takes his art so seriously he’s become impossible to work with, not unlike Dustin Hoffman at the beginning of Tootsie. Whirling into proceedings like a dust devil, he throws everything off its even keel by trying to upstage all his co-stars, much as the actor playing him goes a ways toward stealing the film from Keaton. It’s an affront to Riggan’s already fragile ego when hotshot Mike starts feeding him lines and questioning his judgment, coaching him on acting and writing, presuming to know more about his craft than he does. While risk-taking Sam considers Norton’s Mike boring for always choosing truth over dare, he responds that truth is always interesting and views acting as the ultimate pursuit of honesty and naturalism, earning him such sarcastic accolades as “Mike, you’re so honest and truthful.” Just as the younger generation siphons reality through their cell phones, ‘Mr. Natural’ Mike can only feel fully alive and empowered when equally distanced from reality on stage, sporting a woody before hundreds of gawking spectators in a way he can’t in his impotent real life.
Lesley tells Mike that onstage he may represent truth but in the real world he’s a fraud, and during their dressing room altercation Riggan similarly tags him as a ‘fake.’ He’s more pretentious, egotistical and spoiled than the unfairly maligned Hollywood star he’s been cast opposite. When his constant delays cause Riggan to threaten firing him, Mike’s retort, “You want to replace me, get Ryan Gosling,” gives an inkling of his own inflated sense of self-importance. Yet for all the problems he causes one would think Mike would be regarded as a godsend, drumming up reams of free publicity the way he does before the play even opens by causing a public spectacle with his antics. Any publicity is good publicity in our internet age just as long as you’re keeping your name out there, so the play is bound to do turn away business. When Mike shatters the fourth wall on stage during a pre-opening tryout, breaking character in a drunken rant after insisting on imbibing real liquor for a scene, it’s almost as shocking as talking directly to those of us in the audience watching the movie onscreen.
It’s not surprising that Riggan is no longer able to distinguish fact from fantasy in a world where social media, reality TV and found footage films are increasingly blurring the line. People today filter their lives through the identities they construct for Twitter and Facebook the same way they used to live vicariously through TV and movies in decades past, and the latest threat to the supremacy of cinema by online video pirates and streaming rentals has become a choice target of onscreen tirades. The shallow youth of America are exhorted by Birdman to stop channeling reality through a cell phone and have an honest to goodness sensory experience for a change by reaching out in person and touching someone. The character that Riggan is playing on stage keeps delivering lines that offer insights into the actor Michael Keaton is playing in the film. Having become the answer to a trivial pursuit question, Riggan is considered all washed up. Even the family in the restaurant who request a selfie with him must first inform their kids of his past importance, telling them “he used to be Birdman” before their time, same as Michael Keaton used to be Batman. Like Norma Desmond, he used to be big but “This isn’t the ’90s anymore.” Replaced in his ex-wife’s bed, same as he’s been replaced in the public’s heart by a new Birdman, the character feels as though he’d been erased.
It’s as if “I don’t exist,” he bemoans, the assumption being that if a movie star’s mug isn’t constantly plastered across billboards, they’re not anybody in the opinion of the press anymore. This is much the same reason so many people spend their time advertising themselves using the social media Riggan scorns, in order to feel like they matter, to reassure themselves that they’re still there. Pictures posted on their wall give the anonymous tangible public presence. While Riggan professes to believe that popularity is ‘the slutty cousin of prestige’ in our reality TV age, and resolutely claims not to be attempting this comeback simply in order to seem relevant again, the narrative is shaped in such a way that this character who claims to hate bloggers, mocks Twitter, and doesn’t have a Facebook page, is forced into the new age of digital electronics almost in spite of himself, becoming tabloid TV fodder after being locked out of the theater during a costume change and chased down in his drawers by an iPhone brandishing mob. Despite Birdman’s apparent condemnation of our modern, technological society which measures success by whether one’s YouTube video goes viral, at movie’s end Riggan’s significance is still being defined solely in terms of this new world of social media. His daughter Sam’s triumphant announcment that she’s set up a Twitter account for him is seen as confirmation that he’s made it back into the big time. The days of a player strutting his hour on the stage and being heard from no more are long gone.
The movie’s use of its actresses is generally execrable, rife with superficial male lesbian fantasies and the camera practically pawing their receding behinds. The script even recycles Mike’s comment about Sam’s shapely derrière from what Laura had said in passing about Lesley earlier, simply as a means of pairing off lovers. Emma Stone’s flinty, strung out Sam, looking like a less pronounced Amanda Seyfried, is a recovering addict with the sallow, scabby, heavily used appearance of a heroine model who’s shot up once too often. She’s found surveying Times Square perched on the theater roof like a bird, or a Batman, a gargoyle outcropping of the surrounding architecture. While her father is trying to put himself out there, Mike tells her she’s trying to recede, make herself seem invisible, which might very well be true, appearing as she has here in an offbeat indie so far out the mainstream. The appearance of this actress who starred in The Amazing Spider-Man reboot, which followed close on the heels of the Broadway show debacle, just adds another juicy dimension to the movie’s meditations on superhero franchises and the death of fine art in the entertainment industry. Like Keaton and Norton, Stone’s using this part as atonement, the cinematic equivalent of performing community service. But her character’s importance is only measured in relation to the men in her life. Her chance-taking Sam works miracles on poser Mike who says he pretends everywhere else but out there on stage, by drawing him back to life in the real world, making him feel the same way he does before the footlights. Hitting upon a compromise between his truth and her dare, they make love in the pseudo-public state he’d tried to before, only up in the rafters above the stage, out of the audience’s immediate line of vision, like bats in the belfry.
Trying to hold her own careening life together, personal assistant Sam is also the glue holding the more fragile egos of the male stars intact, ensuring they remain just this side of a mental breakdown. Trying to bring her pampered father out of his sustained fantasy by pulling him into the land of the living, Sam applies tough love, decrying his lack of humility, instilling in him the courage to accept the cold, hard fact that despite his delusions of grandeur, he’s nothing special, just an average Joe like the rest of us. Rather than stroking Birdman’s feathers by validating his view of himself as an immortal superman soaring above the mundane, which doesn’t happen until the enigmatic ending, she tells him “You’re not important. Get used to it. The world’s full of people struggling to be relevant every day.” And having scored a success most actors toiling in the shadows their entire lives could never dream of, he should be the last person to whine about the cruel hand fate’s dealt him. At least he’d once been famous, however fleetingly.
What grounds Birdman’s flighty ruminations on art and reality is the casting of Michael Keaton in the lead. His simple presence brilliantly allows the film to walk that tightrope where the two concepts of truth and illusion come closest to crisscrossing. This movie showcase is a tailor-made vanity piece that’s been built around him, and given such a flattering feather headdress, one would think the actor would be sauntering around with his chest puffed out like a pewter pigeon in this part. Raymond Carver, whose collection What We Talk About When we Talk About Love Riggan has adapted into the vehicle for his Broadway debut, once sent a congratulatory note after seeing him in an amateur play, thanking him ‘for an honest performance.’ Riggan feels the faith Carver professed in him so long ago was squandered by his embarrassing subsequent stint as Birdman on the big screen. Berating himself for having forsaken his artistic integrity by selling out rather than trying to fulfill his promise, Riggan is seeking to use the vehicle of his Carver play to find the truth in acting he’s lost sight of.
In the ’80s and early ’90s, Keaton, who took his surname as tribute to the great Buster Keaton, proved a manic comic talent in movies like Night Shift, Mr. Mom, Beetlejuice, Dream Team but as a dramatic actor he always came off as a bit of a drip. With bug eyes and a pronounced overbite, his slapstick physical features were never meant to be taken seriously. Always at his finest in screwy farce, Birdman would appear perfectly suited to Keaton’s funny bone. But for surreal comedy, the movie seems strangely earthbound, stiff as a stuffed bird at times. It’s acerbic rather than out and out amusing, which means Keaton is playing at a lower register that never allows him to really cut loose and tap that silly streak of comic inventiveness which was always his forte. His character spends the entire film trying to remain conscientiously contained when the actor playing him is best at exploding. Here, Keaton almost seems (gulp!) above it, having bought into Birdman’s self-professed designation of him as a long lost legend. He uses this opportunity to fan out all his fine feathers like a peacock, pecking away at this absurdist part the way comedians generally gnaw the scenery of tragedy, to prove to the world what prodigious talent they’ve got. He takes himself far too seriously, clutching at the role with as much frantic urgency as the actor he’s playing onstage, both flop sweating profusely, locked as they are in their mirror bids to establish themselves as serious thespians. Looking tired, haggard, even angry, and so disoriented at times, it’s not clear if he was always aware himself where truth ended and reality began, Keaton takes to this role as if it were the last gasp of air for a drowning man. He plays Riggan with inappropriately straight, earnest desperation as a sad, frightened, delusional lost soul. ‘This is about being respected and validated,’ Riggan’s talent agent Jake (Zach Galifianakis) assures him, so it’s uncomfortable watching Keaton willing to go to such lengths to reclaim A-list celebrity status that he becomes the willing butt of Birdman’s joke, and the movie treats his resignation to being mocked and made a public laughingstock simply as evidence that he’s a game sport. When Lesley asks why she doesn’t have any self-respect, Laura tells her it’s because she’s an actress, and Keaton’s characterization goes a ways toward proving their point. Playing court jester and clown, this undignified role cruelly requires the aging actor to remove his toupee and use his balding dome like a badge of honesty, reveal a flabby body going to seed, and make an utter fool of himself both onscreen and off by forgetting to zip his fly or being locked out of the theater in his underwear immediately before a stage call.
Navigating Times Square to get back in through the front door, he’s even stopped by security who mistake him for a disoriented wino rather than the star of their show. But considering the degraded state he’s been reduced to, there’s nothing to suggest he belongs up on that stage by natural rights any longer. Keaton’s willingness to fully reveal himself physically and emotionally is treated as tantamount to being stripped to his bare soul here, but showing him being caught with his pants down by the paparazzi makes for a highly uncomfortable experience. Not just because it’s so callously exploitative of the star himself but because it expands on the quite common nightmare of being naked in public by transforming it into every actor’s worst fear of being completely unmasked and exposed to derision. Demeaning himself by begging for pity in this way, entering the theater after his stripping asking ‘why don’t people love him,’ lowers our estimation of Keaton himself. Full of such false notes, this is just the sort of artificial, showy role routinely acclaimed for its no holds barred, all nerves exposed ‘honesty.’
But just as the Riggan character asks “aren’t you scared?,” concerning the very likely possibility of being humiliated publicly, Hollywood takes to heart actors for playing such risky, self-referential parts, daring to really dig down and reveal uncomfortable truths about themselves, in the same excoriating manner Keaton has here. Playing a sad, mediocre actor grasping at the last vestiges of his career, this movie about reality and illusion seems intended to make the star himself seem as if he were a sad, mediocre actor grasping at the last vestiges of his career, which isn’t quite the case. But Keaton is to be commended for laying it on the line by putting himself out there, the same way Riggan does, rather than retracting into his shell. Insecure about his own talents and ability to pull off such a demanding part, an intimidated Riggan expresses reservations about whether the actor’s life is really for him, especially after others scorn “That stage has hosted a lot of great actors. You’re not one of them.” Birdman has been designed to showcase the type of taken for granted talent the movies typically squander but does so by implying that evidence of great acting remains the exclusive province of theater and live performance. By proving himself an actor on stage Keaton’s character feels he can pass muster as an actor anywhere. After a hundred years, the screen is still being looked down on as the bastard offspring of the legitimate theater, an odd stance for Birdman to take since this film, built around such a rewarding role for Keaton, singlehandedly proves that cinema is just as capable of drawing great performances from actors on screen as the theater is before the footlights. So much so that the star was nominated for an Academy Award.
The mordant humor of the movie lies in the depths to which such committed actors as this are willing to sink to reveal the ‘truth’ of their characters, to what extent they’re willing to suffer for their art. While Keaton proves eager enough to debase himself, his Riggan goes even further, cutting off his nose to spite his face. Actors get a kick out of watching other actors portray characters who go to extremes to prove their dedication to the craft, but none ever proved that commitment quite the way Keaton’s character does here. His search for ultimate truth in the telling gives birth to a new form of graphic realism that one would have to reach all the way back to the macabre films of Tod Browning to find a cinematic antecedent for. Though the character seems to have been written with Keaton in mind, a fact which he’s vehemently denied, the basic concept of Birdman is at least as old as the ’40s milieu in which it seems to be stuck. Ronald Colman won an Oscar for playing it in A Double Life, in which he was a Shakespearean actor incapable of distinguishing his stage role from the real world. The madness of method actors who live their parts, staying in character around the clock, couldn’t help but force some kind of psychological schism. Hovering in his room talking to himself, Riggan seems as loco as co-star Ed Norton was in Fight Club. This is the sort of lacerating, self-flagellating film that could’ve been directed by Darren Aronofsky, that master of paranoid screen schizophrenia; it contains clear elements of Black Swan.
Birdman, which uses the notion of super hero secret identities as a metaphor for actors stripping away successive layers of stage persona to get at the core of the character, allows Keaton his own dual role by playing Birdman as the dark manifestation of his own inner id, his bad conscience trying to seduce him into forsaking his artistic integrity by returning to the rubber suit (“So you’re not a great actor. Who cares? You tower over these other douche bags. You’re a movie star.”). Riggan’s Birdman panders to the superhero franchise mentality by telling him he has to end the movie on summer blockbuster terms, with fire, flame, sacrifice. This wee small voice in the back of his head becomes a guttural growl that gets louder and louder, filling his head with delusions of grandeur, the far, far better things which he believes himself somehow capable. He confides to his ex-wife that he has a voice that talks to him sometimes, tells him the ‘truth,’ while what his voice is actually telling him from what we can gather is that he’s a god worthy of ascending to the heights, sending his ego flying higher than a kite. Practically walking on air, we wait for this Icarus to come crashing back down to reality after having flown too close to the sun. Assuring Riggan that this is where he belongs, above them all, his internal monologue just confirms critic Tabitha’s lowest opinion of him and his Hollywood kin’s inflated private opinion of themselves.
In Birdy Matthew Modine played a traumatized war vet who believed himself capable of taking to flight, same as Jay Underwood did in The Boy Who Could Fly, but Birdman takes man’s oldest desire in a different direction entirely, searching out ludicrous new levels by treating it as metaphor for a soaring sense of omnipotent euphoria. Watching Riggan leap off a tall building in a single bound causes us to momentarily fear that he’s taken a flying leap before he catches an air current, and instead takes to the air like Bud Cort in Brewster McCloud. When a seemingly unscripted bystander asks if this is for real or if he’s shooting a film, his response earns him the bird along with a colorful assessment of the reel life, “You people are full of sh*t.” When Riggan orders the orchestra to cue the music, the strings playing in his mind swell at the command. The real movie here is the one going on in his head, leaving the moviegoers in the audience as unsure as the audience in the theater onscreen if what we’re witnessing is meant to be illusory or not. Iñárritu keeps us wondering the entire film long if Keaton’s superhero fantasies are delusions, but his noncommittal ending frustratingly asserts that neither interpretation really matters much. Birdman is the cinematic equivalent of a shaggy dog story, much like the ones its main character keeps making up. Riggan sets to wearing curly wigs and droopy walrus mustache which alter his ‘real’ looks to such a degree he’s virtually unrecognizable and actors love the kind of reveal Keaton’s been accorded at the end, which allows him to manipulate his appearance in an even more masterly way. When he removes that mummy wrapping for the shock effect of revealing his new beak, it’s a scene straight out of The Phantom of the Opera.
With the gauze bandages slapped on his face at the hospital giving him the appearance of a superhero mask concealing his secret origins, he proves to have believed in his inner superman so long the dream ends up enfolding not just him but everything around him, the strength of his self-delusions bending and warping the real world. Rather than dealing realistically with his schizophrenia, the ending validates the perception of the tortured artist as mad visionary, thinning that line between illusion and truth to the point where the two appear to have melded into one slightly distorted alternate reality occupying the same space. Having lived out his dream without laying an egg, and rejoined the social media swirl, Riggan no longer pays heed to that Birdman who’d been nagging at him the entire time and has finally flown the coop. At peace for the present, like Robert De Niro’s equally unstable Taxi Driver, he’s given a performance that will go down in the annals as the stuff of theatrical legend but how in heaven’s name is he planning on repeating it every night with a matinee on Sunday? Only time will tell if Birdman itself leads to any other roles worthy of its star’s talent, which like his character in the film, we can be thankful was at least recognized and fully appreciated once in his lifetime.