Monday, February 23, 2015

BIRDMAN - The Moral Premise and Arcs

EMMANUEL LUBEZKI (Cinematography)
EMMA STONE (Sam, Riggan's daughter)
EDWARD NORTON (Mike Shiner, Riggan's method acting antagonist/Mel, Nick's friend and Terri's husband )
NAOMI WATTS (Lesley, Riggan's protégée/Terri, Mel's wife)
ANDREA RISEBOROUGH (Laura, Riggan's girlfriend/Laura, Nick's wife)
ZACH GALIFIANAKIS (Jake, Riggan's co-producer)
LINDSAY DUNCAN (Tabitha, the critic that is going to "kill" Riggan's play)
AMY RYAN (Sylvia, Riggan's wife)

Rated R for language throughout, some sexual content and brief violence

4 Oscars (Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Director, Best Picture) Plus 157 other wins out of 158 nominations.


BIRDMAN explores this classic conflict: Achieving our greatest desires often requires that we overcome our greatest fears.

An actor standing before a crowd, an announcer sitting before a live radio microphone, an entrepreneur pitching an idea to investors, or a writer facing the blank page…all carry the excitement of opportunity and achievement…if we can access a confidence that is greater than our fear of failure.

That is the struggle between Freud's ID and EGO. Here the ego is not to be confused with narcissistic egotism. It is the ID that drives our dreams and passions, often unbridled and without constraint. It is the EGO that struggles to conform the ID's dreams and bring them to some form of reality. Wanting something badly enough requires that we face the reality and the difficulties that stand in the way of our dreams.


In BIRDMAN, our protagonist, Riggan, wants to prove to the world that he's not just a celebrity "actor" hiding behind a mask in a birdman suit through the magic of Hollywood's special effects and elaborate editing, which is what he is known for through a series of movies about the superhero Birdman. Riggan wants to get out from behind that mask of his former identity and prove that he's a real actor. That is, he wants to achieve acceptance by appearing on stage, in the raw, without the protection of costume, special effects, or the editor's cutting that maneuvers around bad performances. The movie questions are, therefore: Can Riggan's dream of being a respected New York actor (not just a Hollywood celebrity) be realized? Can his ego find a way for his id's passion to be realized? Can he produce, direct, star in and finance a Broadway show and achieve critical and financial acclaim?

Critical to all successful stories is a clear physical goal with elements of underdog irony. The answer to these movie questions, according to nearly everyone around him, is "No, he cannot. It's too big of a challenge for anyone."

At the same time this is the same answer that Alegandro Gonzálex Iñárritu received from many in the industry when he approached actors and financiers to make BIRDMAN. So, in many ways the emotional and moral obstacles Iñárritu confronted in the making of BIRDMAN, Riggan faces in making his play. The movie becomes, therefore, a metaphor for both the play, and the filmmaker's lives.

The story is universal because the question it proposes is one we all face multiple times during the day. BIRDMAN suggests that the juxtaposition of our wishes and fears is epitomized and metaphored in the life of an actor… someone like Riggan. (In a backdoor sort of way, BIRDMAN argues for compassion on actors and live performance creators.)


BIRDMAN takes those story questions, and applies ithem to the various subplots, which are not just interwoven horizontally like subplots normally are in a story, but vertically in overlapping realities. There are(1) the filmmakers (Iñárritu as director, Lubezki as cinematographer, Keaton, Norton et al as actors), (2) making a movie about a play's production (Riggan as director, and Riggan, Mike et al as actors), who (3) are staging a play adapted from a book (written by Carver, but starring Riggan as Nick, Mike as Mel, et al).

In Riggan's stage paly (with Nick, Mel, Terri and Laura), as well as in Riggan's life (with Sylvia, Mike, Sam, Laura, Lesley and Jake), and in the movie (with Keaton, Norton, Watts et al,) no one can hide behind cutaways and special effects…it’s pure acting. And this is probably the biggest reason the filmmakers won BEST PICTURE. (next paragraph, please)

To bring this fear and the reality of stage performances to the forefront of the movie's production, Iñárritu and Lubezki use long takes, 10-20 minutes in length with dozens of actors, props and locations in each. All of the traditional movie making pillars that actors and filmmakers hide behind to assuage their fear and give them a "faux" confidence, are gone. BIRDMAN, the movie, is like Riggan's life and Riggan's play. It's raw, it's exposed, it's like running down Broadway Ave. in your underwear to make a cue on stage. No one should criticize the scene of Keaton trying through the public in his underpants.  It is the ultimate metaphor for what actors must do every night on the stage...well, actually what actors do might be better metaphored if Keaton was naked.

In each of these dramatic vertical layers, the battle is between their id's passion to achieve at any cost and their ego's efforts to bring it off within the confines of their world's reality. Stated another way they are all battling their fear of failure vs. their confidence to succeed.


The greatest fear of an actor is that his character will be perceived as pretending. The greatest wish of an actor is that his character will be perceived as real. That is a paradox on the roof's ledge of contradiction, which we also have in a few scenes. 

Therefore, the long version of BIRDMAN's moral premise could be stated this way:

Hiding behind a mask of other's expectations, and avoiding vulnerability leads to fear (of self, of others, and of life) and if fate is favorable you'll become a celebrity with no talent. But, removing the mask of other's expectations, and embracing a raw vulnerability leads to a love (of self, of others and of life), and and if you work real hard you'll become a real actor with talent. 

or this shorter form:

Self-fear leads to fake performances and fake bananas, but
Self-confidence leads to real performances and bloody verisimilitude. 


Leading with Id lifts the lid (exposing you as fake) and puts you on page 12, but
Leading with Ego reveals the glow (establishing you as real) and puts you on page 1. 

or,  coming at this from a method acting  perspective, which is what Ed Norton's antagonist character demonstrates:

Pretending leads to rejection; but
Actualizing leads to acceptance. 


Riggan's protagonist has two antagonists that come from opposite directions and force him to transform from wishing to doing, from fearing to taking charge as if he is god of his play. The first antagonist is the fear of his alter ego (the Young Birdman) who tells Riggan he's washed up and amounts to nothing in his present endeavor. The Young Birdman wants to maintain Riggan's status quo and remain a masked celebrity. This, however, is what Riggan is trying to shake off; although it's easy to fall back into such motivations.

The second antagonist is the absence of fear of Mike Shiner, who is the epitome of the method actor's demand that everything should come from within, everything should be real, not fake. Mike doesn't need the script because he believes that a correctly written script will be in tune with his natural, inner soul and the next line will naturally come to him. (And mostly it does.)

The Young Birdman initially teases and harasses Riggan to stick with the status quo of celebrity ambiguity, but it’s Mike Shinner that forces Riggan to really change. Riggan has a great deal of fear at the beginning of the story. Mike has no fear. Mike strips naked for his fitting in front of Riggan’s daughter and others. Mike (as Mel) tries to actually make love to Lindsey (as Terri) on stage in front of a full house. Mike also eggs-on Riggan to use a real gun without the red stopper in the barrel... to make it believable. In exposition dialogue we learn that Mike has no fear of being fired nor does he fear ruining his reputation by quitting projects.  He's guilty of both. When he joins Riggan's project, Riggan is thrilled and nearly worships Mike’s availability. Why? Because Mike is a real actor, which Riggan is attempting to be. And indeed, Mike’s fearlessness ("I own this town") is what makes him a great actor and consequently he gets front page cover in the NYT Arts section, which may be the Moment of Grace for Riggan (Riggan's story in the NYT is pushed to page 12.) This occurs on page 65 of the 112 page script.

There's also a Moment of Grace for Mike, when he tells Riggan in a bar that he owns the town and suddenly a fan approaches Riggan for his autograph and ignores Mike. That also signals a change that the antagonist's pressure is changing the protagonist. (this occurs on page 44 of the 112 page script)


The essence of the story, then, is that being an actor, especially on stage, requires a confidence that is greater than the fear being an actor creates. Riggan must acquire a confidence that he is the omnipotent god of his play and of NY. He can make things happen. He imagines that he has telekinesis powers just as an actor chooses action verbs to telegraph his inner motivation to bring physical change to a scene and the other characters on stage he opposes.

This god-like, inner confidence and belief in oneself is equal to jumping out of a window and flying, yet WITHOUT the Birdman suit, which represents the fake and special effect side of acting.

Riggan learns that pretending to levitate in his underwear in his private dressing room where no one can see him, isn't enough. To have the confidence for his ego to acquire his id's dream he has to gain enough confidence to "literally" fly above 5th avenue fully dressed in public…or run through a crowd outside a theater in his underwear…a metaphor for his need to be totally vulnerable on stage. Successful acting requires extreme, emotional and physical vulnerability. You can have no fear of exposing yourself to ridicule and public criticism. The movie says that a Hollywood celebrity dresses behind a costume and externally becomes the character, but a real actor can go naked and internally becomes the actor. Only when Riggan acquires that inner motivation can he become the ACTOR he intends.

When Riggan confronts Tabitha (the critic) in the bar he tells her that she has no idea what it’s like to be an actor-director-producer-financier of a play, which is equivalent to being a god…you can kill actors with a sand bag, you can create a war on the streets of Manhattan, you can stare down fire breathing dragons, you can fly, and you can shoot yourself in the head and live again to do it again the next night. A critic (like Tabitha) can only use external labels which cost them nothing. Actors, on the other hand, risk everything to become their creation.

He says to Tabitha in reference to her use of labels to criticize his play:

None of this cost you fuckin’ anything? The Fuck! You risk nothing! Nothing! Nothing! Nothing! I’m a fucking actor! This play cost me everything.

That moment occurs on pages 92-93 which is a far cry and arc from what and where Sam says the same thing to Riggan on page 50.


Riggan’s arc is his transformation from being the young Birdman who can “fly" (with the help of a mask and special effects —not real acting…it’s all make believe) to his resurgence as a real actor running down Broadway in his underwear, drawing real blood on stage, and, telling the young Birdman to “Bye-bye. And fuck you." (Our last glimpse of the Young Birdman is that he's no longer hovering over Riggan, but sitting silently on a crapper having been finally put in his place.)  Riggan has learned to turn the characters on stage into real, life—the epitome of verisimilitude.

Riggan's need to arc is emphasized during a public preview (of the play), when Mike rants about how nothing on stage is real "It's all fake. The milk is fake, the butter if fake…Your performance is fake…" and he tears the set up (page 34). Mike is an example of the method actor, where the internal emotions drive the physical action and because the actor actually senses his environment as real. Mike is fearless on stage, where as Riggan (in his past) hid behind a mask and special effects (or in the play behind a mustache and long haired wig).

The question is, can Riggan be like Mike. Can he top Mike. (Indeed can Michael Keaton get out from behind the Batman mask and be a real actor without special effects and cutaways?) Can he move from page 12 to page 1 in the NYT Arts section. We ask ourselves once again, can Riggan become the character... a real actor?  Blowing off his nose with a real gun is his own proof…he can now fly.

At the end of Act 2 (Near Death), Tabitha accuses Riggan of being a Hollywood celebrity and that she's going to kill his play. But once Riggan pulls out the stops, at the very end, when he's recovering from blowing off his nose, Jake reads Tabitha's glowing review of Riggan's "super realism" and praises the play.

Moments later, when he's alone in his hospital room's bathroom, Riggan removes the mask of bandages in a reprise of what he has done earlier internally, at the beginning of Act 3 (removing the mask and willing to become a martyr for the cause.) That the bandages looks like the bird man costume assures us that Riggan in fact has come out from behind his mask of being a “celebrity” to being an “actor”

In this same scene we also see the culmination of Sam's arc. Earlier, Sam despises her father's attempts to make the play succeed, they have this exchange:

RIGGAN: Listen to me. I'm trying to do something important. 
SAM: This is not important. 
RIGGAN: It's important to me! Alright? Maybe not to you, or your cynical friends whose only ambition is to go viral. But to me... To me... this is - God. This is my career, this is my chance to do some work that actually means something. 
SAM: ….Well, there's a whole world out there where people fight to be relevant every day. And you act like it doesn't even exist! Things are happening in a place that you willfully ignore, a place that has already forgotten you. I mean who are you? You hate bloggers. You make fun of twitter. You don't even have a Facebook page. You're the one who doesn't exist. You're doing this because you're scared to death, like the rest of us, that you don't matter. And you know what? You're right. You don't. It's not important. You're not important. Get used to it.

But at the end of the movie, Sam has come around and we're shown it this way. After Riggan (momentarily) removes his bandages, he goes to the hospital window, looks down at the media frenzy that has gathered, looks up at the sky and birds "dancing" in the sky. Then he steps up and out the window wearing only his hospital gown, open in the back.

The camera moves from the window to the hospital room's door.

Sam returns from getting a flower vase, which she now does lovingly as opposed to the angry errand she ran for her Dad in the first scene. She looks for her dad who's nowhere in the room. The last paragraph in the script says this:

She spots the opened window and registers the sounds from outside. Tentatively she walks toward the window. She gets there, summons her courage and looks down. Nothing. Slowly, confused, she tilts her head up and looks up into the sky. A smile, filled with pride, begin to wash over her face.

1 comment:

Lady Writer said...

I saw this movie when it first came out, rode its waves, and loved it. (Of course I'm an actor too.)

The summary you've written here not only makes me relive the film, it helps me recognize the emotional impact it was having on me I when I was watching it.

Thanks for sharing.