Birdman: Popularity & Prestige in Hollywood
Posted on January 16, 2015
Last year I ran a series of posts dissecting the work of Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu in anticipation of his brand new film, Birdman (you can find all of those posts here). It’s now two weeks since Birdman arrived in UK cinemas and high time that I shared my review…
Is it possible to be both popular and prestigious in Hollywood? Can actors be artists as well as stars? And how should we measure their success? Ticket sales, public adoration, industry awards?
Birdman is almost certainly guaranteed the latter, already nabbing two Golden Globes and a whopping ten BAFTA nominations. This dark, introspective and ferocious comedy from Alejandro González Iñárritu explores the confused nature of the celebrity machine from the perspective of ageing and typecast comic-book movie star, Riggan (a stellar Michael Keaton). Casting himself in a Broadway play he both produces and directs, Riggan’s efforts to be taken seriously clash with his own internal doubts and desire for popularity, given voice by his former incarnation, Birdman.
It’s an unexpected change in tone from Iñárritu, known for his heavy-weight and sombre dramas 21 Grams and Biutiful. Yet it’s hard to think of a director who could do this self-analysing, industry-scrutinising film better. Iñárritu, whose earlier films were short lived at the multiplexes despite reaping widespread critical acclaim, peels back the layers of conflict between the artistic, the worthwhile and the popular. “People, they love blood. They love action. Not this talky, depressing, philosophical bullshit,” says Birdman in one of the many metaphorical conversations that happen inside Riggan’s head. These scenes play out in absurd, surrealist style feeding the piercing, relevant debate about cinema’s current obsession with comic book films. It could be Iñárritu himself talking, as Edward Norton has intimated about his own lines in the film.
“The casting of Michael Keaton plays a critical role in Iñárritu’s storytelling”
The casting of Michael Keaton here plays its own critical role in Iñárritu’s storytelling. Keaton’s former work as Batman in the late 1980s and early 1990s, before Marvel and DC Comics’ golden age, gives Birdman a heightened reality and a relevance that hammers home our misconceptions about celebrity and Hollywood. Is Riggan ‘Hollywood miserable’? Or does he deserve our sympathy? There’s no simple answer.
The dialogue is packed with savage commentary on the film industry. First Riggan is pitted against a talented but acutely vain theatre actor. Mike (Edward Norton), seeks critical acclaim, and has won it, acerbically reminding Riggan that “popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige”. Then there’s Riggan’s ex-wife who spares no time dissecting his character, blaming his unhappiness on his willingness to “confuse love with admiration”. Riggan is just one of many characters in Birdman who are seeking validation but his choice of stage debut, an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, is particularly indicative of his state of mind. “I don’t exist,” says Riggan in the play’s final soliloquy when its revealed no-one loves him. Ironically, Riggan’s daughter points out this play about “middle class white people” is completely irrelevant to modern society.
The most savage of all Birdman’s attacks on cinema, however, come from theatre critic Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan). Accusing the film industry of measuring its “worth in weekends” and “handing themselves awards for cartoons and pornography” she is truly scathing. But Dickinson’s determination to give Riggan a bad review reveals more than the evils of review click-bait. Dickinson’s problem with theatre closely resembles that which independent film lovers have with the studio system: it’s giving space to flimsy, commercially appealing work instead of championing quality. This is astute writing from Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo. On further inspection Dickinson is no simple villain and has more in common with Riggan than either of them realise.
In drawing attention to the pitfalls of bitchy of criticism, Birdman attempts to frame a debate about how we talk about cinema, but its representation of theatre critics does not accurately translate to those in cinema today. While a single spiteful review from Dickinson can break a Broadway show, no amount of negative writing is going to put Michael Bay out of business. Only audiences can do that. Perhaps Birdman will encourage more to do so.
“Birdman is thoroughly recognisable as an Iñárritu film, densely packed with intricate themes that precisely interlock”
Birdman might offer a style change for Iñárritu but the director hasn’t entirely abandoned his familiar motifs either. Birdman is thoroughly recognisable as an Iñárritu film, densely packed with intricate themes that precisely interlock. Iñárritu even revisits some of his familiar visual tropes including flocking birds that capture the gaze of his protagonist. Here their meaning differs from those in his previous work, encapsulating the hope and freedom that accompanies a different kind of demise, or even resurrection: Iñárritu continues to leave his work open to a wide variety of interpretations. The director’s brief references to suicide, however, are particularly interesting, especially when we consider his previous work which focussed heavily on the tragedy of sudden, premature death and the desperate struggle to live. Here survival, another familiar Iñárritu theme, is explored in terms of legacy, in particular Riggan’s desire to be remembered as a lauded actor and director.
What becomes more apparent to Riggan as the film progresses is that his daughter, recovering addict Sam (Emma Stone), is a different, valuable part of his legacy. Parenthood, particularly the experience of fatherhood, is a recurring theme in both of Iñárritu’s films Babel and Biutiful and plays a crucial role here in Birdman too. The relationship is intense and fractious, increasingly so as Riggan tries to build bridges. It’s a familiar tale in cinema perhaps, but Iñárritu explores it with originality. The director captures one of Sam’s furious verbal tirades in close up, continuing to hold the camera on Sam as Riggan silently reacts. Iñárritu effectively turns us into Riggan: his reaction becomes ours as we infer it from Sam, who is grappling, before our eyes, with the emotional consequences of her fiery outburst.
And so for all its emphasis on cinema’s dichotomy between the artistic and the popular, Birdman is not as pretentious as it sounds. Riggan’s perspective is Iñárritu’s ally here, and the director is sympathetic to the washed-up celebrity’s desire for validation. When Dickinson accuses him (and the film industry) of being entitled, we are able to make up our own minds. Riggan’s perspective is enhanced by the creative camera work from cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity) that makes the razor-edged comedy appear as if filmed in a single take – trickery which has the added advantages of giving Birdman a feeling of fluidity, a sense of contrasting chaos and calm, and a sense of space that emphasises the insular and suffocating nature of the creative world.
In Birdman’s technically brilliant camera work, brutal commentary, clashing egos and rapid verbal sparring (that rivals Sorkin at his best), Iñárritu finds that perfect balance Riggan cannot, creating both meaningful and fiercely entertaining cinema.
VERDICT: ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ 5/5
UK release date: 2 January 2015
Running time: 119 minutes
Images: © 2014 – Fox Searchlight