Editor’s note: Some spoilers below.
Every once in a while a movie reminds you of what makes life magical. “Birdman” does that.
“Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance),” a black comedy starring Michael Keaton, directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (“Babel”), and nominated for seven Golden Globes, took home two of the most coveted awards: Best Actor (Keaton) and Best Screenplay. While heavily favored for Best Motion Picture-Comedy, it was upset by Wes Anderson’s quirky “The Grand Budapest Hotel.”
The film tells the tale of a washed-up actor, Riggan Thomson (Keaton), who is famous for playing the superhero Birdman 20 years before. Now, he wants to be relevant again by writing, directing, and starring in a Broadway play. Throughout the film, Riggan is tortured by an inner voice that sounds like Birdman (the husky tones mimic Keaton when he played Batman years ago). Birdman constantly drives Riggan to doubt himself, telling him that he doesn’t belong on the stage where he has to overcome small budgets, intolerant critics, and his own inadequacies to succeed. He belongs in Hollywood, in the limelight, where he has already achieved success and the adoration of fans throughout the world.
“You know what would be fun?” Birdman says to Riggan as he sits in his small, cluttered dressing room. “Getting the f— out of here before we humiliate ourselves. That would be fun.” Birdman expresses Riggan’s fear of failure from the outset. That fear is a shadow that hangs over him as he wrestles with his own inner demons while trying to make the play a success.
But Birdman is relentless, telling him that he’s not made to be a Broadway actor, that the real Riggan is Birdman, complete with magical powers, including being able to fly and move objects with his mind. At one point, Birdman says to Riggan, “What are you trying to prove? Huh? That you’re an artist? You’re not!”
‘Birdman’ Explores Self-Doubt and Success
As we listen to Birdman taunt Riggan and tear down his desire to do something meaningful, we’re reminded of all the different ways we doubt ourselves. We want to be an artist, but that inner voice says we’re not good enough. We want to apply for a new job, but the whispers in our head tell us it’s easier to stay where we are. We want to ask out a beautiful girl, but we think she’d never like us because we read manga and play video games.
Riggan doesn’t want to listen to the inner voice. He’s not Birdman anymore except in his own mind. People remember him, he’s still famous, and he’s recognized when he goes out, but he’s really just a washed-up old actor who is divorced, emotionally estranged from his drug-addict daughter, and filled with self-doubts. He doesn’t even know himself. He feels like he doesn’t exist. He says to Birdman at one point, “Look at me!” He takes off his shirt, showing his aging body. “This is what’s left! I’m f—ing disappearing. I’m the answer to a f—ing trivia question.”
Riggan wants to be relevant again, but he is failing, and this is what you see throughout most of the film—Riggan failing or trying desperately not to fail. But this is the path he has to take. Birdman urges him to give up, to quit, but he refuses and presses forward, desperately. He needs to live again—not as a Hollywood blockbuster hero, but as a real artist, even if that means facing the possibility of failure.
To Be Real, You Must Risk Failure
The philosopher E.M. Cioran once made the observation that success will destroy you from within because it robs you of yourself. “There is something of the charlatan in anyone who triumphs in any realm whatever.” Riggan was a charlatan, and he knew it. Success had done that to him. As Birdman, he was a fake. To be real, he had to risk failure.
“This is how we recognize the man who has tendencies toward an inner quest,” Cioran wrote. “He will set failure above any success, he will even seek it out, unconsciously of course. This is because failure, always essential, reveals us to ourselves, permits us to see ourselves as God sees us, whereas success distances us from what is most inward in ourselves and indeed in everything.”
Riggan’s success as Birdman had robbed him of himself and his life as an artist. It had robbed him of love. Now, he has to go through the fires of failure to be reborn. And he does go through failure. One practice performance after another is a failure, pushing him and driving him toward an emotional breakdown, but Riggan pushes through. With every step, he moves closer to his goal.
We follow him on his quest as the director, Inarritu, brilliantly uses one continuous sequence throughout the whole film to pull us into Riggan’s frenetic, claustrophobic world—a world with a battle between real and fake, truth and lies. His costar in the play, Mike, brilliantly played by Edward Norton, is a Broadway success who is temperamental and a nightmare to work with. But he’s a talented actor. Mike has a problem, though; he can only be real on stage. In life, he is a fake, a phony. He wants to be real, but only on the stage can he express true emotions. Riggan learns from Mike how to be authentic as an actor, but he has nothing to offer on how Riggan can be authentic in life.
Birdman’s Struggle for Authenticity Is Our Own
Riggan’s daughter, Sam, who is his personal assistant in the theater but in constant conflict with her dad, tells him he isn’t significant or relevant unless he’s on social media. But that’s a world Riggan wants nothing to do with. Sam mocks him, saying if he’s not on Twitter and Facebook, then he doesn’t exist. He’s not important or relevant, and in his daughter’s mind, he never will be.
Riggan isn’t convinced that the answer is how popular you are. It isn’t power and notoriety he wants. He has fame already. He wants to “mean something.” He wants to be an authentic artist. He wants to really fly.
Throughout the film, Riggan imagines he can fly and has magical powers. He flies over New York. He levitates in his room. He moves objects with a thought. But these aren’t real. They’re Birdman’s powers. Without Birdman, he is nothing.
The only way Riggan can rid himself of Birdman is to succeed on the stage—as himself. Exposed and naked before a live audience. But the odds are against him. When an influential critic tells him his play is doomed before it even gets off the ground, that she is going to destroy him because his Hollywood fakery has no place on the stage where real artists perform, he falls to his lowest point. Birdman steps up, telling him to forget this “artsy-fartsy-philosophical” stuff and return to Hollywood where he can blow up cars with a flick of his finger and “glimmer on 3,000 screens, over five continents, in 47 countries.” Forget the stage, where you will fail, Birdman says. Be a success, even if it means losing yourself in the persona of a fake superhero forever.
“We can end this on our terms,” Birdman says. “With a grand gesture.”
An Accidental Outcome
And that’s exactly what Riggan does—he gives the performance of his life, exposing himself, his fears, his passions. He puts everything on the stage, everything real.
Riggan fulfills his quest to find himself again, as an artist. But, he finds more than that—he discovers what’s really important and what can happen when you’re authentic. As people around him celebrate his success on stage, he focuses on his daughter, who, for the first time in many years, shows her love for him. She’s proud of him because he’s no longer a fake; he’s her dad. That’s what’s important, and, now, he can truly fly.
Keaton himself seems to have been affected by the message of the film more than anyone. When accepting his award for Best Actor, he turned to his only son sitting in the audience: “My best friend is kind, intelligent, funny, talented, considerate, thoughtful. . . . Did I say kind? He also—he also happens to be my son, Sean,” Keaton said through tears. “I love you with all my heart, buddy.”
That is the magic of “Birdman”—that when we let ourselves be ourselves and not be defined by something else, especially success, then we find happiness, we find love, and we find our wings to fly.
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