BIRDMAN, OR (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE)
Between Fact And Fictionalized...
I think off the bat I should say Birdman is one of the oddest films of 2014, and I mean that in a good way. I imagine that many people watching Birdman will say "What IS this?" or say "Pretty much everyone is playing a variation of their real selves". Both would be pretty fair assessments, but Birdman and everyone involved with it at least knows that it skates pretty close to self-parody so one shouldn't worry too much whether it is in fact thinly veiled versions of reality.
Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is an actor at the edge of sanity and in deep career doldrums. Best known for playing a comic-book character named "Birdman", he appears pretty washed up. This is why his big 'comeback' in a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love is so important to him. Carver had passed a note to a young Thomson when the author saw him perform in a play, which was the impetus to Riggan going into acting. This is part tribute to Carver's early words of encouragement, but a way to show that Riggan is more than "Birdman". However, there are problems with the production. Riggan, who wrote and is directing the adaptation, is unhappy with one of the actors. A light hits the unfortunate actor (an accident which Riggan thinks he caused with his mind). Fortunately for him, Lesley (Naomi Watts), who is making her Broadway debut with What We Talk About... happens to know someone who could step in immediately, as the play is in final previews.
It is her boyfriend, Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), a highly respected Broadway actor known for his intense and realistic performances. He is a big draw in New York, so his appearance in What We Talk About... practically guarantees a full house. Mike, however, is a Method actor, and one who is rather intense about getting into character. Riggan has invested a great deal of money into the production, but in Mike's first preview the volatile thespian proves to be slightly less bonkers than the star. Mike is incensed that the whiskey was replaced with water, and breaks both character and the fourth wall to show his displeasure. Riggan wants Mike out, but his lawyer Jake (Zach Galifianakis) tells him Mike is the main reason they have sell-outs...and that the contract is binding.
Mike, for his part, has taken a shine to Sam (Emma Stone), Riggan's daughter/assistant just out of rehab. Mike is an odd duck: totally committed onstage, a bit adrift off. Sam doesn't think much of anything revolving the play, which makes more pressure on Riggan. Each preview has a moment of insanity: there was Mike breaking character, then Mike trying to have sex with Lindsey while onstage only to elicit laughter when his hard-on becomes visible in what is suppose to be an intensely dramatic moment, and then through a bizarre series of circumstances Riggan is forced to run down Times Square in his underwear and forced to perform the dramatic conclusion from the theater rather than the stage.
As nutty as the previews have been going, Riggan has shown he is hanging on to sanity himself, not an easy task given he can 'hear' Birdman constantly talking him down and Riggan looking on with barely concealed anger at how while other actors get respect for playing comic-book characters that he didn't. It doesn't help that Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan), the powerful New York Times theater critic who printed a lavish praise of Mike which included dismissive quotes from Shiner about Riggan, has told Riggan to his face that she will give What We Talk About... a negative review no matter what. A poison pen, Tabitha thinks Riggan is nothing more than a shallow, talentless interloper, a spoiled 'movie star' trying to regain legitimacy and relevance on the sacred Broadway stage. "You're no actor," she sneers. "You're a celebrity".
(For full disclosure, these are my thoughts on Channing Tatum and Sam Worthington myself, but I digress).
Riggan's mind finally appears to snap, as Birdman finally emerges fully formed and tells him to regain the world. Riggan appears to turn into his alter ego, but somehow ends up on opening night giving a bravura performance. He also shoots off his nose at the climatic moment when his character appears to commit suicide, shocking the world and making him a cause celebre in the theater. Birdman ends with what could be either Riggan's suicide by jumping out of a hospital room, or Sam witnessing her father take flight.
Yep, Birdman is rather bizarre, but at least director/co-writer Alejandro G. Inarritu (writing with Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, and Armando Bo) fully embrace the weird. We see that Riggan is teetering on the edges, where he attempts to keep Birdman's arrogance and anger at bay through meditation. We also see that Riggan is capable of functioning with others, but that the voice inside his head is playing with him.
It is extremely difficult not to see Birdman without thinking how it plays almost as biographical of Keaton's road from Batman to this being his own 'comeback'. Keaton, like Riggan, became famous (or at least a big name) for playing a comic book hero in a successful franchise only to be discarded when he no longer played said character. It is therefore tempting to think Birdman is Keaton playing a version of himself, but I would argue that Keaton is doing a really terrific feat of acting.
He is playing Riggan (which appears to be a thinly-veiled version of himself). However, he also has to play Riggan playing the main character in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, and watching him command the stage we can quickly forget that we are watching a film and not a Broadway performance. When he is playing the scenes on stage, Keaton is really acting. We also see in Riggan an anger and confusion as to how things are going so wildly wrong, how he has little control despite all his efforts, and how this deeply harried man is trying to keep things together.
A particularly noteworthy moment is when fans ask for his picture, and their child is confused as to who this guy is, only to be told, "He used to be Birdman". It's very quick, but you could see how hard it was for Riggan to go through this humiliation, and fortunately it isn't something the film dwells on. It's done quickly and efficiently, but it still stings.
I would argue that Birdman isn't just open to interpretation about how Keaton's life mirrors the film. I think it could also be a thinly veiled critique of Norton's reputation as "an ACTOR with a Capital A". Norton has always been a fantastic actor with a serious reputation (three Oscar nominations counting this one), but he also is someone who has been seen as 'difficult' due to his methods (unless there was there another reason why Norton, despite being in Marvel Canon, was not in The Avengers). Norton for his part, really shines as Mike Shiner, someone who is a great actor but a questionable human being (his asking for sex right onstage as a turn on being wildly creepy).
I was really impressed with Watts' ingénue, who showed the insecurity and vulnerability beneath her lifelong dream of being a bona-fide Broadway actress. I was more impressed with her than with Stone's slightly stoned out and bitter daughter, though her scenes with Keaton were extremely effective and moving.
There were things I disliked about Birdman, which made me reevaluate my original decision and downgrade it slightly. First, I disliked the camera work, where everything was made to look like it was done in one shot. It worked, mostly, but it also does what I really, really dislike: draw attention to itself. I disliked having a brief lesbian scene with Watts and Andrea Riseborough as her costar which was never brought up again and to me, plays like a cliché of straight men turned on by lesbians. Amy Ryan, playing Riggan's ex-wife, was I think underused.
Did I mention that single-shot style?
However, Birdman has a lot to recommend it. It has clever lines ("You confuse love for admiration", Riggan is told, and the dialogue between Norton and Keaton about popularity versus performance when it comes to acting and the theater). It has a wild story that makes sense in its world, and even genuine moments of laughter (Galifianakis telling Riggan that "Martin Score-Seas" is coming to see Riggan in the play as a lie to calm him down). Birdman also has a fascinating turn when we see the adaptation of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love that would make great theater should it ever produced.
I think Birdman is a little too bonkers for my tastes, and it is something I would be reluctant to revisit. However, when I see Michael Keaton in Birdman, I am reminded of Ronald Colman in A Double Life, where he played another actor who soon starts confusing fact and fantasy.
Colman won the Best Actor Oscar for his role. Dare we see a repeat?
2015 Best Picture: Spotlight