Actor Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) has a lot resting on his latest job. He used to be a big star thanks to his leading roles in a franchise of superhero movies called Birdman, but that was back in the nineteen-nineties and seems a very long time ago now. By adapting and directing a play on Broadway based on Raymond Carver stories, it is his hope he will finally gain some critical acclaim and no longer simply be known as that guy who used to dress up in a bird suit to fight crime, but he remains anxious seeing as how there is so much at stake. For a start, he’s not sure how many people will turn up to see him being so serious, and to make matters worse in a key role is an actor who just isn’t up to the job…
Ah the struggles of the creative process, and for what? Pandering for plaudits from people you might not even respect, and there are a lot of those, can engender crushing self-loathing. The critics are no better, they have their own agendas and every barb they level at you is personal. You may strain to be serious, to truly move the audience, but they have no idea what you’re going through or what your goals were most of the time, they would applaud any old rubbish as long as they got a kick out of celebrity, and if they don’t they’ll get a kick out of slamming you on the internet without the slightest idea that this is an actual human being they’re talking about, a person with feelings, not some cartoon character who is there to dance for your amusement like some idiot puppet. What does it take to get respect that means something?
If those kind of issues sound like something you can relate to, you may well get something out of Birdman, and the Academy Awards certainly did, having struck a chord with their voters (assuming they’d bothered to watch it) it was voted the Best Picture of its year in 2015. This may have been a case of them having more experience of the trials and tribulations that the main character suffers, though one would hope it didn’t send them crackers like it does Riggan (have you ever met anyone called Riggan?), and thus they were sympathetic to the themes director Alejandro González Iñárritu was putting across, yet this attitude that much of what passed for entertainment, never mind something more intellectually stimulating, was pearls before swine in no uncertain terms was condescending to say the least.
It is possible to understand what an actor, director, writer or whatever was trying to convey and not necessarily like it, or maybe they would appreciate what they were doing but not like the end result, and also – shock! – it is possible to get a lot out of a blockbuster that has few thoughts other than to entertain you, and if you took away something more, so much the better. The casting of Keaton was superficially significant because he played Batman in one of the biggest movies of its time, but as he had never expressed any bitterness about his career peak in terms of the amount of people who saw his work, perhaps it was best not to read too much into that. As if in a smug tease to those who preferred spectacle for entertainment, there was a fantasy sequence which staged that sort of setpiece.
Again, this spoke to a mistrust of an audience increasingly regarded as hard to please, and never happier than when they were taking a cultural artefact down, but there’s also a character played by Lindsay Duncan who is apparently the world’s worst professional critic, not simply a theatre snob but also willing to make her reviews a personal vendetta since her readers enjoy her sniping, and it gives her a petty power over the true artists. If the cast really believed all this, and they included some very high profile stars, both current and those a little on the wane, then that was a very sad state of affairs, as putting out a film or play or book or television programme was akin to sending out your child into a war zone to get its head blown off according to the attitude on display here, at any rate. And if your work was widely enjoyed, there was still cause for complaint when the masses could never appreciate what you genuinely meant anyway. Although supposedly a comedy, Birdman was a suffocating, bleak take on twenty-first century media consumerism, with only fancy techniques to lift its gloom. Lots of drumming by Antonio Sanchez.
Dynamic Mexican director who made his debut in 2000 with the acclaimed multi-story thriller Amores Perros. Directed one segment of the anthology 11'09''01, and made his Hollywood debut in 2003 with the typically hard-hitting drama 21 Grams. He followed this with the similarly multi-stranded Babel, then the family drama Biutiful, but had the biggest success of his career with the Oscar-winning Birdman, a backstage melodrama.