From loud chaotic drumbeats – evoking the anticipation of a major event – to rigorous and unglamorous backstage combating, staging a play on a Broadway stage is anything but for sissies. The play isn’t even the real deal of it all; the real spectacle is backstage, and it’s not a pretty show.
In fact, there is little known about the play that is being staged in the film, aside from it being an adaptation of something written decades ago – according to Riggan’s daughter (played by the wonderfully talented Emma Stone), the text is highly outdated. Everything is about Riggan starring, producing and directing his own play and nothing is as outdated as the man himself (who can’t tweet or operate facebook). The real play that we get to experience is Riggan Thomson (aka former Birdman) foolishly attempting a comeback. And who better for the role than Michael Keaton, the star of Batman and Batman Returns.
Deluded by Birdman’s deep, raspy and seductive voice haunting him in the present, Riggan is unable to detach himself from old success. Now, an old bum pacing around bare and naked on Times Square – in an attempt to make it in time for a scene in the preview of his show – the once invincible Birdman is now the lowest of the low (and the joke of the show).
The interplay between Birdman, a Hollywood blockbuster success, and Riggan is as heart wrenching as watching Krapp in Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape relive his past through a myriad of recollected tape recordings. The younger Krapp recalls memories from an even more distant past. Rewinding and forwarding, Krapp spends his life brooding over menial mistakes or caught up in a description of a particular relationship with a woman. In a similar way, Riggan is convinced by his current failure through Birdman’s million-dollar voice narrating over reality, and is caught up in the principles of “defying gravity” – he dreams of defying gravity, just like Elphaba belting it out in Broadway’s hit show Wicked (the only difference is that Elphaba lives in Oz). The interplay serves to highlight the difficulty in distinguishing the past from the present and reality from the fantasy world that Riggan Thomson has so comfortably developed.
The objective of the film is clear: it poses a critique and is highly satirical of Hollywood and the values of show business. It suggests that the play or film that we see on screen is only a fraction of the efforts that go into the making of the product. The rest will go unnoticed, unacknowledged; it is a harsh truth for some. The glamour that we see on screen is only possible at the cost of devastation and a series of dramatic events backstage. The film also tragically evokes that the self-harm (which is clearly a suicide attempt) performed in character by Riggan in the final scene of his play, is the only thing that lives on from it all; and it will go on to be noticed as a kind of heroic deed. The critics in the newspaper have labelled it as both innovating and revolutionary; he has given birth to the form “superrealism”, with real blood “spilling literally and metaphorically by artists and audiences alike.”
Birdman teaches its audience about the illusion of Hollywood, the so-called bearer of fame and everlasting success. It is no surprise then that many actors like the fictional Riggan Thomson contemplate harmful alternatives for a fraction of fame; a fame which sounds much better on paper than the reality of it. The final question that permeates from it all is: who is to blame?
Film director Alejandro González Iñárritu has given us a thoughtful and multifaceted insight into the realm of Hollywood without ever failing to be entertaining and comical.