Birdman is not a movie about a superhero, (despite the fact that there really is a Birdman superhero).
Its ethos is decidedly un-American. Comic Con geeks expecting a live action cartoon will be disappointed, if not discombobulated, by the paucity of computer generated special effects and the exigent engagement of thinking skills. This is not a movie for middle-aged adolescents.
Director/writer Alejandro González Iñárritu sees superheroes as such:
“… there’s nothing wrong with being fixated on superheroes when you are 7 years old, but I think there’s a disease in not growing up. The corporation (sic) and hedge funds have a hold on Hollywood and they all want to make money on anything that signifies cinema. Superheroes …just the word hero bothers me. …the way they apply violence to it, it’s absolutely right wing. If you observe the mentality of most of those films, it’s really about people who are rich, who have power, who will do the good, who will kill the bad.”
The story told in fantastical fashion is that of Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) who became a movie star two decades ago by playing a superhero, Birdman. That Keaton once played Batman is really inconsequential.
That’s because Michael Keaton is nothing like his character. Yes, he originated the movie role of Batman, but that role has not defined his career, and his personal life is conspicuously absent from the tabloids. Perhaps people are confusing Batmans (Val Kilmer).
Riggan’s fame has waned since that success. To reinvigorate his career, and it follows, his self-esteem, he uses his Birdman wealth to produce a play on Broadway in which he writes, directs and stars. This trifecta is designed to not only re-establish his preeminence as a star, but to prove to the industry -and public -that he can do more than fly.
The opening scene shows Riggan levitating and performing quotidian tasks with Birdman’s supernatural powers. This is not a sign Birdman is real, a point that has confused at least one critic. It means Riggan has believed his years of hype.
Riggan thinks he will regain stardom by doing “important work.” He has forgotten, or never realized, that the “Birdman” movie was not in that category.
Birdman is his inner voice, the one we all have. The question to ask after you’ve seen the movie is:
Does Birdman have Riggan’s best interests at heart?
Why do movie stars act in plays when it’s harder and pays much less?
Once upon a time, not so long ago, the stretch of Broadway between 42nd and 53rd streets was where one went to see the best stage actors. The thrill of being entertained was worth navigating the gamut of X-rated solicitors and storefronts encompassing this small canton in Times Square.
They were likely prompted by a favorable review by Frank Rich, the regnant New York Times theater critic or by the name at the top of the marquee.
This was a time when those marquee names mentored the supporting players as they honed their craft alongside playwrights refining their prose. It was an environment where missteps led to better work.
Even before Rudolph Guiliani allowed Times Square to become the Mall Of New York City, there were clues that pointed toward the future.
In 1982 Cats opened; it became the second-longest running show in Broadway history. Before the internet made cat videos available to the masses, this was the only way to see cats sing and dance. Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber is continuing his feline folly with an updated rap version. I’m not making this up.
Broadway plays began consciously casting recognizable movie and television actors in several acclaimed Broadway productions in the mid-1980s. Some examples: William Hurt, Ron Silver, Harvey Keitel, Jerry Stiller, and Sigourney Weaver in 1984’s Hurlyburly ; Jonathan Silverman and Linda Lavin in 1985’s Broadway Bound . Christopher Walken, Matthew Broderick and Alan Ruck were in Biloxi Blues in 1985; the latter two appeared together in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. These actors were not just famous, they were also trained.
As the decade progressed, the standards diminished. Perhaps this can be attributed to the ever-present specter of imminent death threatening us all, either from AIDS or President Reagan pressing the wrong button for jelly beans. Stars, in the loosest definition, were cast as leads.
Madonna was cast alongside Ron Silver and Joe Mantegna in the premiere of David Mamet’s Speed The Plow, a production I saw. She played Karen, a role in which ” …much of the heavy lifting in the script can be done with the crutch of a book to hand, from which lines are supposed to be read out.” Madonna had charisma, but no acting ability. Mamet’s go-to director Gregory Mosher tried in vain to justify her casting in this article from the LA Times in 1992. Peu importe, because of her, the play’s run sold out.
Lindsay Lohan is at this moment playing the same role in London for the same reasons and managing worse reviews than Madonna.
Musicals became spectacles as Sir Andrew sought to top himself anew. Miss Saigon, which opened in New York in 1991, upped the ante by featuring a helicopter that descended on stage. Times Square was flooded with tourists who flew to New York on a plane to see a fake helicopter.
This audience has not only dumbed down the offerings on the Great White Way, their numbers have increased ticket prices. Times Square resident Fran Lebowitz bitterly bemoans the palliation of her neighborhood that has invited 8-billion horrendous tourists. Today, a play can’t open with a star who lacks international name recognition.
” ‘Theater has changed, and audiences like to go see people that they’ve never seen live before and that they are familiar with. And audiences can’t feel more familiar with a celebrity than seeing them in their homes every week on television,’ according to ‘theater insider‘ Irene Gandy.” (I have no idea what that job description means)
Birdman unfolds in what feels like one continuous shot of the mounting of a play. The handheld camera is intended to put “the audience in the shoes of the characters.” Iñárritu hopes this will make us less likely to make fun or judge these people if we feel we are one of them
Those who have worked in the theater will be struck by how accurate the environment has been captured. Theatergoers may be surprised by seeing the Potemkin Village behind the scenes for the first time, but it will not alienate them from the story.
This is exactly as intended. Iñárritu told Edward Norton that he “didn’t want this to be just about actors or even artists per se. He wanted it to be about something that anybody would relate to.” (from production notes)
The entertainment industry is an excellent device to heighten the issues that Iñárritu wanted to explore. The general public is aware of this business like no other, but the issues are universal to all of us. Specificity breeds familiarity. Exhibit: Comedy
No matter one’s station in life, we all want to be liked, successful, rewarded, and be viewed as special. Extreme narcissism is healthy for infants and supposed to diminish with age. Those who forgo this natural progression can be found in all walks of life, but the entertainment industry attracts more of these disaffected people than others.
Most other industries have linear career trajectories propelled by a meritocracy. Not so in Hollywood.
Despite their protestations to the contrary (a fraction I believe, depending on from whom), successful actors love the perks that come with fame. Even as the fame game is changing (more on that below), the best kind of fame is that of a movie star.
I’m generalizing when I say only cinephiles care about the Oscars awarded to those other than the actors, namely those for writing and directing. The technical awards that remain in the prime-time broadcast are likely only appreciated by those within the industry and those who understand the technical aspects of movie production.
The actors get the best frocks, are awarded the most time to speak …in short they get the most attention.
Fame is currency. Superstardom à la George Clooney is its highest denomination. Those on YouTube, bloggers, and online reviewers (myself included) are mining the bitcoins of this currency.
It’s risky to breathe the thin air, as Icarus learned. The altitude can provoke imposter syndrome; an arguably healthy response to rewards that are disproportionate to effort.
Many stars, in an attempt to convince themselves and their fans that their success is not the fluke they fear it is, take on projects that will establish their legitimacy as artists.
The risk that offers the most reward is to appear onstage. Performing live without the net of retakes is perceived as the key to legitimacy.
Chris Jones of the Chicago Tribune corroborates my contentions:
“…the live stage still occupies a pure, rarefied spot in the creative hierarchy. A stellar performance on the boards in New York … suggests a class act, underpinned by genuine artistry. It allows stars to reinvent themselves”
Many movie stars are inexperienced on the stage. Conspicuously so.
Shia LaBeouf can’t even manage being in the audience on Broadway.
George Clooney and Ben Affleck are both acclaimed actors who have won Oscars for non-acting work: writing, directing, and producing.
Take note that neither has attempted nor are likely to attempt a project for the stage. They are smart enough not to even try.
Furthermore, they fortuitously achieved success before social media changed the fame game. Would Birdman have been a star-maker for Riggan today, when social media drives movie marketing?
In this new democratic landscape, successes and failures can be decided by anonymous, unpaid masses major studios and PR departments can’t control.
Riggan can’t handle this new truth; his daughter Sam (Emma Stone) berates him for his disdain of social media:
“You hate bloggers, you mock Twitter, you don’t even have a Facebook page. You don’t exist!”
Regrettably Sam’s tour de force moment is marred by Stone’s overly silibant s’s. #SpeechTraining #TrustMe #BeenThere
This was an issue Iñárritu intentionally addressed:
“The modern definition of accomplishment- people want to be famous immediately, not from a body of work developed over years. In one second, people have 800,000 likes or followers and for some that is an achievement in itself- but it is delusional. …in today’s world, where irony is kind, anybody who wants to be earnest or honest is crucified. It is an absurd, surreal world.” (production notes)
On Twitter many movie critics were upset by the unflattering character Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan), the New York Times theater critic. They couldn’t see beyond the movie’s savage critique of The Critic. Iñárritu showed that not even critics are invulnerable.
Tabitha threatens to use her power to close Thomson’s play without even seeing it because of the trend I outlined above. She rails against “entitled people awarding each other for cartoons and porn.” She finds it offensive that a movie star is taking up space in a theater for a vanity project that could be used for better work.
But he schools her. Riggan derides Tabitha for knowing nothing about how many years it takes, how much money, and the monumental effort it takes to produce a play or movie. He castigates her for judging actors’ performances with no understanding of acting techniques.
Their vituperations are arguably the finest moment in the movie. Tabitha is as drunk with her celebrity as Riggan is with his. She will destroy his play without even seeing it, without any ethical qualms. He will go onstage convinced he already knows his play will fail and therefore not perform for the audience who has paid to see him, also without any pangs of conscience.
They’re both wrong.
An actor’s technique is not the purview of a critic. Neither are the budget, production costs, onset drama, and all the other superfluous information disseminated through the televised and online tabloids of Entertainment Tonight and TMZ.
While I was an actor, I became very friendly with a gentleman I will call Mr. X (-my friends will know to whom I refer).
Nothing in his background suggested his becoming an actor or on air-talent. He had been awarded a full scholarship to a very competitive school and had worked several years in a prestigious, highly competitive field before deciding to go to law school. After his first year, he abandoned his studies and moved to Los Angeles to play the fame lottery.
It’s easy to understand why he believed the odds might be in his favor: he was attractive, brilliant, in the literal sense of the word, and had a charismatic presence.
When I suggested acting classes, he demurred. He insisted he didn’t need training; his money would be better spent on “classes” meeting casting directors. Yes, these unscrupulous “classes” exist. Casting directors used to go to plays to discover new talent. Now, they save time and have a secondary revenue stream. Incidentally, they have launched a few successful careers; it’s another lottery ticket.
He didn’t want to waste his time learning to act. In his, and I believe, many people’s view, all that is necessary is the ability to stand on a mark, speak well, and look good.
I can’t contravene that many actors have succeeded with Mr. X’s approach, likely bolstered with some acting coaching, which is not the same as training. Training provides one with a technique, a skill set, and the basis for a career with longevity. Training is what separates the wheat from the chaff.
Riggan was a lucky lottery winner. He’s trying to make up for luck by bluffing to mask his lack of training via adapting a work of literature for the stage. His choosing a work by the writer Raymond Carver, the alcoholic chronicler of the blue collared world, reveals his ignorance.
Iñárritu ‘s choice of Carver is astute. He chose this work “because it was actually a very bad idea. …Riggan …does not belong to ….” (production notes) “… the theater …only an ignorant man who does not belong to that world would attempt that. It was (sic) a suicidal attempt, pretentious and solemn.” He thinks he’s brandishing an exceptional knowledge of American literature. It’s also a good choice because Carver wrote short stories rather than novels -not as much to adapt.
There’s a reason most people are unfamiliar with Carver’s work. Reading the actual story,What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, reveals just how stupid his writing is. The protagonist flatters himself among his lowlife friends; the dialogue is B-movie quality at best.
Riggan, unhappy with the supporting male actor, is not upset that he is dispensed with, Spinal-Tap style. He is thrilled when the female lead Lesley (Naomi Watts) suggests her hot-shot-rising-star boyfriend Mike (Edward Norton). Mike’s talent brings in the box office. That same talent threatens to unmask Birdman.
Mike has been falsely identified in almost every review I’ve read as a “Method Actor.” Method Actors are annoying, but he isn’t one. Understanding this distinction is fundamental to understanding Birdman.
The term “method actor” does not refer to an actor using a or any technique. It refers to a specific technique developed by Lee Strasberg. Strasberg, along with Stella Adler, Sanford Meisner organized a troupe called the Group Theatre in 1931 inspired by the teachings of Russian actor/director Constantin Stanislavski.
The three I mention ultimately developed their own distinctive acting philosophies which they taught. To avoid debating the various techniques, let me say that there are many “Method Actors” whom I admire, and no actor follows any technique dogmatically.
Mike has studied the technique of Sanford Meisner which lacks a catchy nickname for good reason. Meisner’s philosophy is guided by the pursuit of what is real and truthful. I studied this technique as interpreted by David Mamet who termed it Practical Aesthetics. Here’s the textbook– note that it’s only 94 pages and doesn’t have updated volumes.
Method actors are trained to look within themselves and mine their personal experience to interpret a character. PA actors look not within themselves, but to the script.
It’s not surprising that Mamet, a Pulitzer-winning playwright believes the actor’s obligation is to serve the playwright. That’s doesn’t come from Mamet’s ego, though I understand why one might think so. Mamet started out as an actor, and that is what informs PA.
Focusing on the text takes one’s attention off oneself, a total contradiction to the Method. This (taking one’s attention off oneself ) frees one’s creativity, not just in acting, by the way. One’s attention is on the other actors in the scene in service of the script. What’s important is that what the audience sees is truthful, not that an actor could produce waterworks on command like a trained dog who’s likely thinking about their own deceased canine. You can read more about the differences here.
Mike is an egotistical hot-shot, but if you pay attention, you will observe that his histrionics and humiliation of Thomson are motivated by his having been trained to be truthful to the work. Riggan’s lack of training reveals itself when he shrugs off details like props and line readings. Riggan is not a Method Actor, but like them, his focus is on himself, not the work.
Birdman actually has a French cousin. JCVD (2008) whose title refers to its star, international action hero Jean-Claude Van Damme.
It is a meta-meditation of the consequences of fame, and honestly, a better movie than Birdman.
Like Birdman, it opens with a long-tracking shot:
He ducks, jumps, kicks and shoots his way through a battlefield for three-and-a-half minutes, before the artificial set literally comes crashing down. “It’s very difficult for me to do everything in one shot,” the Van Damme character complains to his director at the end of the failed take, “I’m 47-years-old.”
Van Damme is not the accomplished actor Keaton is. He is a movie star, performing the same impressive kickboxing splits in every movie. Like Riggan, his life has suffered from single-minded pursuit of fame; he has been married four times and struggled with substance abuse.
While American action stars like Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Bruce Willis mocked their bravado in The Expendables franchise, Van Damme took a hard look at himself and let the audience watch. His performance is touching and brave. An abstract of the movie can be read here.
Sadly, JCVD did not provide its star with the acclaim he deserved. Just this morning I saw these pictures showing him leaving a club Wednesday night in Istanbul drunk.
I recommend seeing Birdman, not because I believe it is a masterpiece, but because it will make you think long after the credits roll.