Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s film Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) remarks on one the biggest taboos in Hollywood: fame and the artist. Iñárritu’s film, which follows a group of actors as they prepare for a production of a Broadway show, explores how media fame and attention impacts the motivations and intentions of artists in this modern age. Iñárritu’s protagonist, Riggan Thomson, embodies the conflict between art and the media in today’s fame driven Hollywood.
Riggan is introduced to the audience as a washed-up movie star, attempting to regenerate his career by directing, adapting, and staring in Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Throughout the film, the audience witnesses Riggan’s struggle to reclaim respect as an actor. One of Riggan’s greatest struggle throughout the film is his unhealthy obsession with the media. Iñárritu uses Riggan’s arc to comment on how artists rely on the media’s opinion and how it skews an actor’s artistic intentions.
Shortly after the film opens, the audience is introduced to the relationship between Riggan and the media. A group of journalists interview Riggan about his play and reflect on his past claim-to-fame role, Birdman. The scene includes three different types of journalists: the off-beat intellectual, the gossip columnist, and the worldwide fanbase. These three journalists are used to illustrate Riggan’s motives regarding the media and his craft.
The scene opens, and the intellectual journalist is the first to verbally attack. He questions Riggan’s motives for producing this new production; he sneeringly questions why a Hollywood movie star would go from a blockbuster franchise to a serious stage adaptation. “As you’re probably aware, Barthes said, ‘the cultural work done in the past by Gods and epic sagas is now being done by laundry detergent commercials and comic strip characters. This is a big leap you’ve taken.” He is skeptical because Riggan was once a major movie star. He categorizes Riggan as a popular culture icon. He disregards Riggan as a real artist because he once lived in the realm of substanceless entertainment.
This journalist represents the segment of the media that Riggan is desperate to impress. Riggan embarked on this play to prove to the media that is a serious actor. He wants validation and respect from his critics. He wants to prove to the press that he has the talent to be a fine actor, and that he is more than a mediocre entertainer in a bird suit.
The scene progresses to the next journalist’s interrogation. The gossip columnist interrupts the first journalist’s question to lead with her own: “Now, is it true you’ve been injecting yourself with semen from baby pigs?” The tone of the scene changes from an intimidating intellectual conversation about philosophers to a comedic he-said, she-said back and forth. This moment shows the absurdity of the relationship between actors and the media.
This journalist represents the segment of the media that is purely based on entertainment. There is no truth in her statement; it is simply a catchy headline to increase viewership. This is the media that Riggan is trying to disassociate himself from: the absurdist publications of high profile movie stars and celebrities. Riggan doesn’t want the attention from the gossip columnists who mock him, but rather from the reputable critics. Riggan doesn’t want to be known as the guy who played Birdman; he wants to reestablish himself as a serious actor. Yet, despite his efforts, he is still followed by the celebrity gossip journalists asking if he uses pig semen for facial regeneration.
The scene progresses, and the two journalists begin talking on top of each other, creating an overwhelming atmosphere. The two conflicting media standards clash, leaving Riggan bombarded by both simultaneously. Riggan can’t defend himself. His reputation is left to be deconstructed by the journalists. Finally, the scene concludes when the fanbase journalist inaccurately interprets Riggan’s comments and proclaims that there will be a Birdman 4, trapping Riggan, yet again, in his celebrity persona.
Riggan cannot escape the celebrity image his career has made. He wants the world to forget his celebrity personality and only see him as a quality actor. In Riggan’s mind, he needs to prove he can be more than Birdman to gain respect from the media. He no longer wants to be the headline for gossip magazines, but the subject of a five star review. Yet, Riggan is not against the media entirely. He’s only against the pop-culture, entertainment hungry segment. He craves the attention of the reputable press.
As the film progresses, Iñárritu continuously introduces characters that challenge Riggan in his attempt for respect. Tabitha Dickinson, a stern, celebrity-hating theatre critic, represents the ultimate roadblock for Riggan’s journey to acclaim. Tabitha is first introduced to Riggan by Mike Shinner, Riggan’s co-star. The relationship between Riggan and Tabitha emphasizes Riggan’s obsession with the press and his desperate desire to be acclaimed as an artist. From the moment she is introduced to his opening night performance, Riggan agonizes about how he will be reviewed by her. He grounds all of his actions on receiving a favorable review.
The night before the opening of his play, Riggan confronts Tabitha and tries to convince her that he is a worthy actor. He uses flattery and sentiment to try to win her over, yet she is unflinching in her opinion of him.
I haven’t read a word of it [Riggan’s play] or even seen a preview, but after the opening tomorrow I’m going to turn in the worst review anybody has ever read, and I’m going to close your play. Would you like to know why? Because I hate you and everyone you represent. Entitled, selfish, spoiled children. Blissfully untrained, unversed, and unprepared to even attempt real art. Handing each other awards for cartoons and pornography. Measuring your worth in weekends? Well, this is the theater, and you don’t get to come in here and pretend you can write, direct and act in your own propaganda piece without coming through me first. […] You’re no actor. You’re a celebrity.
She hates what he represents: an “A-list” Hollywood movie star who has done nothing for the art form except turn it into a mockery. She calls him a “celebrity” as if it is a vicious slur. She disregards Riggan and his antics as being unworthy of respect. She treats this art form with dignity and respect, and she sees media celebrities as having no right to the art. She refuses to see beyond Riggan’s celebrity status or to even acknowledge any talent he might have.
Like the intellectual journalist, Tabitha manifests the faction of the press that Riggan is desperate to impress. Tabitha, in Riggan’s eyes, is the person who will ultimately determine his worth as an artist. She is the one person who actually matters. If he can get an excellent review from her, he believes he can finally regain his respect and dignity as an actor.
Riggan embarked on this play to prove to the critics and the press that he is a serious actor. He wants validation from the critics, like Tabitha, to prove to the world, and himself, that he can give a genuine performance. Riggan puts great emphasis on his relationship with the media, and he holds the critic’s opinion of his performance higher than anyone else’s. He won’t be satisfied with his role as an artist until he is accepted by the press.
Riggan believes that the only way to be respected and validated as an actor is to be acclaimed and adored by the critics. Yet, as Iñárritu shows with the dichotomy between Riggan and Mike, truthful artists don’t seek fame or acclaim. They do the job because they have a passion for the art. A good actor isn’t decided by the media, but by giving a truthful and soul baring performance. Mike knows that fame and popularity will not make you great, it will only make you mediocre.
MIKE: They [the public] don’t know you, your work, man— They know the guy from the bird suit who goes and tells coy, slightly vomitous stories on Letterman.
RIGGAN: Well, I’m sorry if I’m popular, Mike.
MIKE: Popular! I don’t give a shit! Popular? Popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige, my friend.
RIGGAN: Okay, well, I don’t even know what the fuck that mean, so…
MIKE: It- it means… It means my reputation is riding on this, and that’s worth a… a…
RIGGAN: A lot.
MIKE: A lot. Exactly. Fuck you, yes. If this [play] doesn’t work out for you, you fuck off back to your studio pals and dive back into that cultural genocide you guys are perpetrating. […] You guys know that if you crank out any toxic piece of crap, people will line up and pay to see it. But long after you’re gone, I’m gonna be on that stage, earning my living, baring my soul, wrestling with complex human emotions, ‘cause that’s what we do.
RIGGAN: Right. Oh, so that… Is that what tonight was about— you wrestling with complex emotions?
MIKE: No, tonight was just about seeing if it’s even alive, seeing if it can bleed. No, this isn’t a back lot, Riggan. This is New York City. This is how we do things.
This dialogue between Mike and Riggan gives a great indication to how Iñárritu feels about the media and Hollywood. Mike equates, like Tabitha, popularity and Hollywood stardom with empty and insipid “crap.” Many actors will choose a role because they want fame or attention, and in recent years, these roles come in the form of passionless Hollywood blockbusters. There is no true meaning or feeling behind the crowd-pleasing franchise movies that are produced in Hollywood. Actors throw away their respect for the art form just to star in movies with no substance, and that will only bring them fame and media popularity. Rather than choosing to star in a blockbuster picture, Riggan produces this play to bring him a different form of media attention: acclaim. Yet, he is just as inauthentic in his actions as those who choose popular movies. He can’t be “great” in this role because he doesn’t believe in the art of it. He only wants acclaim from the critics, which will ultimately only “rebrand” his celebrity persona.
The prospect of acclaim and validation from the media skews an artist’s view of his craft. Throughout his film, Iñárritu uses the press and the media as a catalyst for his characters’ actions, like Riggan’s constant obsession with being validated by a good review. Not only does Iñárritu comment on how his characters are affected by the media, but he also uses real life celebrity actors, who have starred in big blockbuster pictures and are adored by the media, to further establish his point. He includes actors like Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man franchise), Woody Harrelson (The Hunger Games franchise), Michael Fassbender (X-Men prequels), and Jeremy Renner (The Avengers franchise). He alludes to their celebrity personas and how it impacts their art. Even his three main actors— Michael Keaton (Batman), Edward Norton (The Incredible Hulk), and Emma Stone (The Amazing Spider-Man) are guilty of donning the superhero cape. There is no denying these actors have immense talent, yet they sacrifice their craft to star in blockbuster franchises that will only bring them popular fame.
Through his characterization of Riggan and his allusion to today’s Hollywood, Iñárritu leaves a strong message for today's actors: an artist shouldn’t be motivate to pick a project to enhance their media persona, whether that be popularity or acclaim. Iñárritu believes that the media is corrupting the motives of actors. That the allure of fame or power or acclaim is encouraging actors to choose projects that are inauthentic and lazy. Actor should chose roles because they believe in the art of it, not because of any media influence.
Mike tells Riggan that popularity will never be prestige. Popularity will always be a byproduct of media attention. Riggan, like many actors, will never be able to be authentic or genuine in a role because they will always be overshadowed by their celebrity personas. As Mike and Tabitha both conclude, Riggan will never be a true actor because he can’t remove himself from popularity and fame.
Iñárritu uses Birdman to look critically at the impact of the media and artists, in particular actors. His film unabashedly blames the media for corrupting the motives of actors in the industry. Iñárritu sees how the prospect of fame and getting a big Hollywood movie, changes the intentions of actors. They no longer care about the craft, but focus only on their self-image.