The critically acclaimed Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) tackles a lot of themes about one’s existence in the world, Hollywood vs. Broadway, the concept of being an artist and duality. These are just few of the issues that the film shines a light upon. There are, of course, spoilers ahead so be warned for those who still haven’t seen the film yet.
One’s Existence and Identity
The film tackles this theme through its protagonist, Riggan Thomson. Riggan was once famous for playing a superhero named Birdman in three movies, but ever since he turned down the fourth film, Riggan has become a washed up actor and he seeks to reinvigorate his career by writing, directing, and starring in a Broadway play based off Raymond Carver’s short story What We Talk About When Talk About Love. Riggan has made it clear that his intentions of doing this play is to save his career. His daughter, on the other hand, thinks that he is doing this play not for the sake of art but to feel relevant and important as he used to be.
The Film deals with Riggan’s struggle with his identity by showing that everyone only knows Riggan as Birdman. This is evident in the first review he receives via newspaper about his play saying “Riggan Thomson, better known as the face of the Birdman films, tries not to lay an egg on Broadway”. It is clear that whatever Riggan does, he will always be associated with his past career as Birdman. Because of this, Riggan is desperate to change his identity. He doesn’t want to be known as a Hollywood celebrity who got famous because he wore a bird costume, instead, he desperately wants to be known as an artistic actor. This desperation is represented by the play itself. Riggan has given up everything to fund the play, going so far as to refinancing his daughter’s soon-to-be house just to make sure he can pay for an actor’s contract.
Hollywood vs Broadway
Another theme that the film handles is the clash between Hollywood (represented by Riggan Thomson) and Broadway (represented by Mike Shiner.) Mike is a method actor who is famous in theater while Riggan is a Hollywood celebrity famous for his role in the Birdman films. The film shows the differences as well as the clash between these two worlds at an escalating factor. It starts out when Mike breaks character because Riggan replaces the bottle of gin with a bottle of water during the first preview. The two have an argument and Mike convinces Riggan to continue with the play despite what happened. Riggan later discovers that Mike had stolen the show via early press coverage in the newspaper and he explodes on Mike which leads to a very brief physical encounter.
Riggan and Mike represent two very different worlds, but at the same time they still share a few similarities between each other. The movie shows one of their differences through the caliber of fame that each actor has. In a scene where Riggan and Mike are in a bar, a family approaches Riggan and asks if they can take a picture with him. The woman gives the camera to Mike and asks him to take the picture, clearly not having any idea who Mike is. Then at the same scene, Mike approaches Tabitha Dickinson, an influential theater critic, and defends Riggan as an artist after Tabitha’s disapproval of Riggan, stating “He’s a Hollywood clown in a Lycra bird suit.” This scene shows that being a Hollywood celebrity might garner you more fame than being a Broadway actor but your credibility as an actor or artist is under dispute by a lot of critics. A later confrontation between Riggan and Tabitha would end with Tabitha stating “You’re no actor, you’re a celebrity. Let’s be clear on that” before walking away.
The Art of Being a True Actor
Mike Shiner is the film’s example of a dedicated actor. Mike is a well known method actor in the world of theater and all the critics and theater-goers love him for his exceptional skills in the craft. This is because according to Mike, he is only real on stage while he pretends in real life. This is evident in Mike’s breaking of character during the first preview of the play after Riggan replaces his bottle of gin with a bottle of water when he’s been informed that Mike was actually drunk. During the final scene of the play, where Mike and his co-actress/girlfriend, Lesley Truman, are to act as if they are having sex in a motel, Mike unexpectedly gets an erection and attempts to have actual sex with Lesley stating that “it will be so real” resulting in Lesley breaking up with Mike after the play.
When Riggan’s daughter, Samantha, asks Mike if he would fool around with her, he reveals to Samantha that he has erectile dysfunction. This would substantiate Mike’s claim that he only pretends in real life but everything he shows on stage is the truth. Riggan would later show his skill as a ‘true’ actor at the end of the film when he shoots himself with an actual gun instead of using a prop gun. This is after Riggan has made peace with himself and his family.
This theme centers around Riggan’s inner battle with himself; an inner battle that has spawned a voice inside him, the voice of Birdman. Birdman constantly criticizes and mocks Riggan with the new path that he has taken. Birdman was initially questioning, asking Riggan why he has chosen to do the play or why he hasn’t been making any more blockbuster movies. It soon escalates into mockery where Birdman insults Riggan about his poor acting skills and how his whole play would be a disaster. This continuous array of insults drives Riggan into a fit of rage, causing him to thrash and destroy everything inside his dressing room.
Birdman represents Riggan’s past and Hollywood side that was basically a very unlikable person making millions in a bird suit, but even though Riggan took his career into another direction he hasn’t fully let go of his past. Near the end of the film, Birdman’s appearance is finally shown and he tries to convince Riggan that he is going nowhere with his play. He tells Riggan that they should go back into the movie business and make a fourth Birdman film and only then would people remember him and he would soon receive the fame that and attention that had been lost. A later conversation with his ex-wife and an earlier dialogue with his daughter would show Riggan finally making peace with himself and his past. After Riggan delivers an amazing performance that awards him a standing ovation and a rave review from Tabitha Dickinson, the film shows Birdman quietly sitting on the toilet as if he had been defeated. Riggan has finally silenced the voice in his head that kept on telling him that he was no artist.