It’s all about acting, here and elsewhere, in many ways, full to the brim, devil-may-care, and please-help-I-am-going-down. Riggan Thomson hears a voice, and sometimes that voice has a body, and it’s that of his biggest role, an action superhero called Birdman, and his voice sounds just like that of Christian Bale in the Batman movies. You know why that is, don’t you?
Riggan’s nerves are frayed because he is going to star in his own stage adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. He’s right to be nervous because other people have done very good things with Carver’s writing. You know about that, too, don’t you?
Acting is about agony as well as ecstasy, with considerably more of the former. Riggan’s nightmare becomes worse when he has to hire Mike Shiner, famous and difficult, but he can act, and he will sell tickets. Shiner, who can only perform on stage, is Lesley’s boyfriend, and Lesley is also in the play, and when Lesley is kissed by Laura, we remember how Lesley once kissed someone else, also called Laura.
For everyone involved, theatre is a nightmare, addictive but entertaining, like an infinite jest, but look how it can also accommodate all kinds of people. Riggan has a daughter, Sam, just out of rehab, who takes care of his flowers and his make-up stuff and of the lonely concession stand. The rest of the time, she is up on the roof, thinking about thinking about jumping, and thinking about falling for a prick like Mike Shiner. Sometimes she prefers kissing, sometimes jumping seems like the better idea.
There is also a megalomaniacal side to Riggan. He can move objects and people by sheer willpower, and he thinks he can make Tabitha write a favourable review. Since Tabitha gives him a look that reminds him of Lindsay Duncan, he is powerless. That look would make the Hulk shrink. Sometimes, theatre is about shouting and crying and deception and utter despair, sometimes it is about love and snogging, and about sharing a vagina.
There are cameos that refer to other things: Spiderman, Ironman, Superman. Chekhov’s gun. Scorsese’s feverish ambition. Macbeth‘s darkness. It will all make sense, in the end. So when you put yourself in Sam’s place in the last scene, who do you see hovering outside the window – Riggan Thomson or Birdman?
Lovely piece, as always. And probably one of the very few movies on which we do not agree, although you’ve at least convinced me of a rewatch. To me (and sorry to be cryptic, it’s to avoid spoilers) I felt like I was watching “Synecdoche New York”, turn into “Bullets over Broadway”, and neither as fascinating as the former* nor as funny as the latter, by far. Readers who despise being spoiled at all: kindly stop reading from here, as I will have to explain myself, at least thematically.
*To the spoilerphobic: stop. Here.*
So. Rather less about (acting and) identity, tough it seemed to be headed that way as first, but in the end rather more about Art: the High and the Low, and the inevitable outcome of that particular dilemma. It felt like a cheap shot, especially with all the delicious promise and complexity of what went before.
That said Keaton owns this. He manages to keep the uncomfortable balance between (self) mockery and a grating honesty going throughout the film. In the end I felt the rather pompous message didn’t do justice to the performances or the performers. And *that* would have been tremendously clever and hilarious, had it actually been self-referential. And it is precisely that which the film in all its thematic self-aggrandizement ultimately doesn’t have the guts to allow:** it cannot manage (as Keaton can and does) to laugh at itself.
*Granted: bloated, over-complicated and over-ambitious with a tendency to take itself too seriously. But fascinating none the less, particularly because of the devastating performance by PSH.
** I have read there was an alternate ending, which made it even more unapologetic. Have a google, you’ll see what I mean.