Recommended for those who enjoy discussions of pop culture and theatre
Birdman (2014) is a dark dramedy written and directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, starring Michael Keaton as the titular character. One of the eight Academy Award nominations for Best Picture this year, the plot circles around themes of ego, culture, and the price of fame, ultimately settling on the question, “What do we really want from life?” In fact, the film opens with a quote from American author Raymond Carver: “And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so?”
Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is a has-been action blockbuster star who dreams of making a comeback in the form of his new play–his adaptation of a Raymond Carver work that he’s directing and starring in. The first act of the film gives us tension in a last-minute actor switch, which allows Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) to shake things up with his unpredictable temperament and method acting. As the last minute rehearsals and preview nights lead up to big opening, Thomson is plagued by thoughts of self doubt, tension with his daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), and a desire to prove that he is “more” than his stint as the fictional film superhero “Birdman.”
Birdman treats its protagonist with the same bitter realism that we see in every Access Hollywood segment on the downward spiral of a washed-up star. Fame is fickle, the film tells us, and it makes us wonder if the nature of the cinematic blockbuster prevents filmgoers from seeing an actor through the CGI’d explosions. Can the actor ever leave the superhero behind (and should they?) Riggan Thomson’s Birdman shadows him through the film, and i can’t help but wonder who amongst the current generation of actors will be known for anything other than caped crusaders? “You confuse love for admiration,” Riggan’s ex-wife (Amy Ryan) tells him, and such is the price of fame.
Riggan’s internal conflict shines through in the technical structures of the film. The seemingly discordant and out-of-place percussion soundtrack, and the jarring POV camera angles make us as ill-at-ease as the characters. When Riggan does the impossible–moving objects with his mind, flying across the city–it borders the absurd, yet this all seems normal in comparison to the events of the final act, which really bring the clash of “high brow” culture and “low brow” culture to the forefront. Riggan is the embodiment of this clash, as the low-browed pop culture follows him around in a bird suit. On the other end, we have Mike Shiner, the dedicated method actor, who embodies the epitome of the theatre-driven/literary salon “high” culture. “Popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige,” Mike tells Riggan. For most of the film, Riggan believes him, taking his direction, and aspiring to achieve the prestige of being a real and accepted actor in the eyes of critics. It is the disintegration of Mike’s appeal, combined with a disagreement with the film critic, that causes Riggan to reevaluate what it is he wants.
We see Riggan soar above the city as Birdman, and then give the performance of his career later that night. It is in this final sequence that the film takes a cue from other performance dramas before it (such as Black Swan); the creation of Riggan’s “super realism” allows him to achieve the critical validation he so desperately craves, but only after he proves the lengths he’ll go for his art. Media ploy or not? Much like the flowers that his daughter brings him in the final scenes–which he cannot smell–his art brings him success that he cannot enjoy.
The reappearance of the Birdman alter ego in the last minutes of the film offer Riggan–and us–what he really wants: to fly free.
Want to read about the other Best Picture noms? You can read our other reviews here.