Birdman was released in 2014 to much critical acclaim. The film was directed by Alejandro g. Iñárritua and won four Oscars, including Best Picture. It was a very odd film featuring extremely long single shots and following characters through the labyrinthine theatre and frequently mixing reality and fantasy. Whilst it has a number of great scenes, one scene, in particular, is praised.
What’s Going On?
The scene starts with Riggan (Michael Keaton) waking up on the street, looking a little worse for wear, with a gruff-voiced individual lambasting him. We learn that this individual is Birdman, the superhero character that launched Riggan to movie stardom. Riggan walks down the street with Birdman right behind him, continuing his criticism, insisting no one wants the artistic theatrical project he is currently working on, they want action, they want excitement, they want Birdman. Eventually, this seems to have some sort of effect on Riggan, who stops, snaps his fingers and the New York street erupts into superhero movie style action. There are exploding cars, SWAT teams firing at helicopters and eventually a giant robotic bird monster swooping down and laying waste to the street. Then it snaps back to something more like reality only to see Riggan give a birdlike squawk and slowly begin to float upwards with Birdman declaring that not even gravity has an effect on him.
Actor or Movie Star?
There is a lot happening in Birdman and this scene captures a lot of the spirit of the whole film. Riggan is grappling with his idea of being an actor and/or movie star. He is most famous for the superhero blockbuster Birdman movies but Riggan consciously stepped away from the role, eventually doing a play on Broadway in an attempt to be seen as a “proper” actor. Of course, Michael Keaton’s career has a somewhat similar story, stepping away from the role of Batman which did lead to a downturn in his career. Thankfully, after a few quiet years, Keaton came back to cement his position in Hollywood.
Whilst there are other actors in the scene they are very much just in the background. Keaton is playing Riggan and Birdman with the latter having essentially all the dialogue as Riggan’s only contribution is a birdlike squawk. Keaton does a good job of dealing with the oddness Riggan is going through and we are never sure whether Birdman is merely a device in his own mind telling him things and he is perfectly aware Birdman isn’t real, or that Riggan does think Birdman is real but it is a delusion, or if Birdman is indeed real. The film plays with reality throughout the story with Riggan often oblivious to the oddness around him. The scene starts with Riggan waking up and feeling rough but within a few seconds, he seems to be actively participating in the impossible things going on around him. As Riggan walks down the street and Birdman is berating him a strange determined calm takes over him and the uneasy man who woke up on the street has been replaced with someone entirely at ease.
The best moment in this bizarre scene is perhaps Riggan snapping his fingers and seemingly summoning this action scene extravaganza. The figure of Birdman is no longer in shot and it seems as if Riggan has decided that this is what he wants and he can sideline the “pretentious” play and be a cool action hero. As the fighting starts the point of view changes from the audience observing Riggan to presumably taking his point of view with Birdman directly talking to him.
Actor and Movie Star
When Keaton was making the Batman movies they were perceived very differently than today. Batman and Batman Returns are great films but it was felt by some that Jack Nicholson was lowering himself to play the Joker – despite giving an amazing performance. The choice that once actors may have felt that had to make – action star or serious actor – doesn’t really exist anymore. Riggan can do Broadway plays and Birdman 3. Hollywood legend Robert Redford can play the villain in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and it doesn’t automatically diminish his image. Keaton is masterful in this scene and shows just what a great actor he is whether he’s playing Batman, Riggan or anyone else.
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