Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) clearly has a meta aspect to it, working as a commentary on the film world and the state of Hollywood (circa 2016) and movie audience tastes. It’s not a happy coincidence that Michael Keaton, the original Batman from the 1989 movie, plays an aged actor (Riggan Thomson) who was known as the superhero “Birdman” but hasn’t done anything relevant in 20-some years. That’s about as on the nose (no pun intended) to Michael Keaton’s career arc as you can get.
The meta stuff is important to Birdman, as the story operates on a symbolic level as much as it does a purely narrative level. The point of that symbolism was a little more obvious in the film’s original ending, which had nothing to do with a hospital room or jumping out a window.
Birdman‘s director, Alejandro Iñárritu, had said in interviews that the original ending was so bad he’d never tell what happened. But his co-writer, Alex Dinelaris, spilled the beans on The Film Stage podcast:
Then the camera prowled like it did the whole film, went back stage through the halls we’ve seen the whole time and we’d get to the dressing room where literally Johnny Depp would be sitting looking in the mirror and putting on his Riggan Thomson wig and then the poster of Pirates of the Caribbean 5 would be in the back. In Jack Sparrow’s voice, ‘What the f*ck are we doing here, mate?’ It was going to be the satire of the endless loop of that. We couldn’t get Johnny Depp or even the poster.Alex Dinelaris on The Film Stage podcast
That finale would have brought Birdman full-circle, as the opening scene is Riggan in the dressing room, with his Birdman inner-voice saying, “How did we end up here?”
Having Depp at the point in his career where he’s playing Riggan on stage or in a movie would signify an endless loop of actors who become part of franchises that are about money rather than enlightenment and, over time, drain the artistic spirit and force the actor into a tension between who you want to be and who others want you to be. Leading to a kind of “late-career crisis” where you’re desperate to not only prove yourself but redeem yourself.
But Alejandro González Iñárritu grew to hate that conclusion and re-wrote it in the middle of filming. The result was the hospital scene, the open window, and Emma Stone’s smile.
I think it’s safe to say from the original end that Inarritu had a point in mind. So the question becomes, does the new ending make a similar point?
The endless loop or (Did he fly at the end?)
Let’s look at the three main conversations Riggan’s daughter Sam Thomson (Emma Stone) has with her father.
The first happens early on, when Riggan is at his most stressed about putting together a Broadway play and he and Sam are the most at odds.
Riggan: You can’t do this to me!
Sam: To you?
R: Oh, shut up! You know what I’m talking about.
S: Oh yeah. You’re talking about you. What else is new?
R: Don’t do that thing—
S: That thing where I make it about me? I wouldn’t dream of it.
R: Look, I’m trying to do something that’s important…
S: This is not important.
R: It’s important to me! Okay? Maybe not to you, or your cynical friends whose only ambition is to go viral. But to me, this is, my God, this is my career. This is my chance to finally do some work that actually means something.
S: That means something to who? You had a career, dad, before the third comic book movie. Before people started to forget who was inside that bird costume. You’re doing a play based on a book that was written 60 years ago, for a thousand rich, old white people whose only real concern is gonna be where they go to have their cake and coffee when it’s over. No one gives a sh*t but you. And let’s face it, dad, you are not doing this for the sake of art. You are doing this because you want to feel relevant again. Well, guess what? There is an entire world out there where people fight to be relevant every single day. And you act like it doesn’t exist. Things are happening in a place that you ignore, a place, that by way, has already forgotten about you. I mean, who the f*ck are you? You hate bloggers. You mock 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, okay?! You’re not important! Get used to it!
The second involves the discussion of the marks Sam makes on sheets of toilet paper. Tone-wise, it’s softer than the first conversation. It seems father and daughter have bonded a little bit.
S: When I was in rehab, they made us do this.
R: Really, what is it?
S: It’s um…These dashes represent the six billion years that the Earth has been around. And so each dash represents a thousand years. And, um, this [tears off one sheet of toilet paper from the roll] is how long humans have been here—a hundred and fifty thousand years. I think they’re trying to remind us that’s all our ego and self-obsession are worth [a single sheet of toilet paper].
R: I was a sh*tty father, wasn’t I?
S: No, you were [hesitates]…You were fine…
R: [Sad] Yeah, that’s right. I was, I was just fine.
[Riggans wipes his mouth with the piece of toilet paper.]
R: What? Oh, shoot. Oh, I’m sorry.
S: You just wiped out the entire human race.
R: [Laughing] There it goes.
The third takes place in the hospital, after opening night and Riggan shooting off his nose. Which may or may not have been (but probably was) a botched suicide attempt. Sam brings flowers, calling back to the opening scene where she doesn’t care about the flowers her dad wants her to get.
S: Are you laughing? What’s so funny?
R: I can’t smell them.
R: What are you doing?
S: I’m posting a photo on your Twitter page.
R: I have a Twitter page?
S: Yeah, I set it up today.
R: Let me see.
S: No way. No. You look hideous.
R: Oh wow, thank you. Appreciate it.
S: I’m just kidding. No, I’m actually not, you do look hideous. You got 80,000 followers, in less than a day.
S: Yeah, I’mma scare the sh*t out of all of them.
R: Let me look at it.
S: Mm-mm. It’s done. Uh, I’m gonna get a vase for the flowers.
[They clasp hands. Sam lays her head on Riggan’s chest. He holds her.]
When you look at the first interaction, father and daughter are in direct conflict. Riggan is only thinking about himself, and Sam is sick of him only thinking about himself. In the second interaction, they’re neutral, both a little exhausted by the distance that’s existed between them, both trying harder to be patient with the other and to see and hear one another. In the third interaction, they’re on the same page. For the first time, it feels like a healthy, normal conversation (as normal as things get when your dad’s face is covered with bandages). The distance is gone. Physically and emotionally. Sam bringing flowers serves as a contrast to the beginning of Birdman and also brings us full circle.
So what does this mean about the ending?
In the original ending, Johnny Depp would be the “next in line” (so to speak) when it comes to dealing with what Riggan was dealing with. Relevancy, artistry, and meaning in the twilight years of what had been a successful career. That need to prove you not only still have value but your very existence.
In the new ending, Sam is the one who is “next in line.”
The difference being that the Depp ending focuses almost entirely on the Hollywood aspect of things. While the Sam version extends beyond Hollywood. She isn’t someone in the industry. She isn’t trying to be the next big star. She’s a daughter who couldn’t see the world the way her father did. And couldn’t understand why he did the things he did. For most of her life, he existed less as a person and more as a figment or broken promise in the shape of a person. Yet, over the course of Birdman, Sam learns more about him. Not just about his work or his actor world. But about how messed up he is. They’re more alike than Sam had ever realized.
Then Riggan jumps out the window, killing himself. Except, he didn’t think of it that way. In his delusional way of seeing things, it felt like flying. Like taking off. He wants to join the other birds he sees in the sky.
And Sam understands that now, this alter ego of his. Instead of seeing the reality of his body on the ground, she looks up and smiles, as if she can see Riggan soaring. The main question then is what does this mean for Sam? You could take it very literally as a sign she’s having a mental break, suffering an onset of the kind of hallucination-based illness that plagued her father. Or you could interpret it as nothing more than an indication Sam finally understands why her dad made the choices he made in his life, which is a very powerful thing for a child.
Regardless of what specific interpretation feels right to you, the foundation of the moment is Sam is seeing her dad as he saw himself. That she understands him. It’s a kind of tragic happy ending. And that, my friends, is…
What we talk about when we talk about love
Birdman keeps returning to one specific moment in Riggan’s adaptation of “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” That’s the motel scene where Ed, played by Riggan, confronts his ex-girlfriend in bed with her new lover. Fun fact, the motel scene doesn’t happen in Raymond Carver’s original story.
In the original Raymond Carver story, you have two couples sitting around, talking about love. One couple, Terri and Mel, takes turns telling long anecdotes that juxtapose one another. Terri explains her abusive relationship with this guy named Ed and frames his abuse and stalking and attempted suicide as love—a twisted version of love, but love all the same. While Mel tells of an elderly couple who were in a car crash and survived but were in bad shape. The elderly husband, stuck in a cast that wouldn’t let him turn his head, was distraught by the fact he couldn’t look over and see his wife, missing the very sight of her. Terri sees love in the dark and terrifying. While Mel sees it in the sappy romantic.
Carver ends the story with Terri and Mel in a fight and all four people lost in thought at the table. The last paragraph is: I could hear my heart beating. I could hear everyone’s heart. I could hear the human noise we sat there making, not one of us moving, not even when the room went dark.
Notice: the story does not end with the scene in the hotel room. The ex-boyfriend Ed has zero dialogue in Carver’s version of events. There’s no “I don’t exist” monologue. The Ed character is nothing more than a point of discussion for Carver’s main characters. But in Birdman, Ed gets elevated to an actual character. One played by Riggan himself. And one that has the big last speech that closes the performance. That’s not something Carver wrote. That’s all Riggan. He’s the one who chose to have Ed take over as the emotional center of “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” Riggan is the the one who added in that “I don’t exist” speech.
I said Riggan was the one who added all of that about Ed, but in reality it’s Iñárritu. Alejandro Iñárritu made the decision to change Carver’s story for Birdman. Why?
Because the changes are relevant to what Iñárritu, as writer and director, wants to say with Birdman. Because they’re relevant to Riggan’s character arc.
Look back at Sam’s big monologue about relevancy. Riggan says this is his chance to do “some work that actually means something,” and Sam says:
That means something to who? You had a career, dad, before the third comic book movie. Before people started to forget who was inside that bird costume. You’re doing a play based on a book that was written 60 years ago, for a thousand rich, old white people whose only real concern is gonna be where they go to have their cake and coffee when it’s over. No one gives a sh*t but you. And let’s face it, dad, you are not doing this for the sake of art. You are doing this because you want to feel relevant again. Well, guess what? There is an entire world out there where people fight to be relevant every single day. And you act like it doesn’t exist. Things are happening in a place that you ignore, a place, that by way, has already forgotten about you. I mean, who the f*ck are you? You hate bloggers. You mock 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, okay?! You’re not important! Get used to it!
Repeating it for emphasis: “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.”
Lo and behold, the line we keep hearing Riggan say as Ed is: “I don’t exist. I’m not even here.”
That’s not done on accident.
You may have noticed that Sam says Riggan mocks Twitter. And at the end of the movie, she talks about how she made him a Twitter page and he has 80,000 followers in a day. That may seem somewhat throwaway by itself, but when you think about it in the context of someone feeling like they don’t exist…it becomes a sign they’re recognized. They do exist. And for Sam, especially, it’s a sign that her dad’s work was meaningful. She had thought only a thousand rich white people would care, but it turns out tens of thousands of people, hundreds of thousands, probably even millions of people cared about him and what he was doing.
To me, this gets at legacy. Both public and personal. The public will keep alive the memory of Riggan Thomson the actor, but they didn’t know Riggan Thomson the man. Sam does, though. She’s the legacy of his personal life. The ending with Johnny Depp would have been a cynical one, looking at the hopelessness of the acting world. But by shifting focus to Sam, there’s beauty in the love father and daughter discover for one another. That beauty transcends the ugliness of hopelessness. It’s sad, yes. It’s very dark. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t beauty.
This brings us back to “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” Both the original story and the play within Birdman explore the idea that love is a complicated thing that can express itself in polarizing ways. It’s a beast with a million faces. Some lovely, others hideous. But it asks us to look for love in things large and small, to understand people express love in different ways. That your expression of love may not be someone else’s.
And that’s what I think is wonderful about Birdman‘s ending. There’s love in the way Sam brings lilacs to the hospital because she now cares about the fact her father likes flowers. There’s love in making a Twitter account for him and posting a picture of him, as it makes sure people think about him, see him, care about him, because she knows he cares about that. And, yes, there’s love in Sam seeing her father as he saw himself, soaring instead of fallen. That Sam can smile and laugh in that moment because she knows her dad would too.
Smiling and laughing isn’t how everyone would react. But that’s what we’re talking about when we talk about love.
Why did Riggan shoot himself?
The simple answer is: mental illness. The man was unwell. Hearing voices. Hallucinating. Not only did he have one previous suicide attempt, but during the course of the movie he went onto a roof and was ready to jump to his death. For a lot of Birdman we may think of Riggan’s mental illness as if it were merely a quirk. That the Birdman figment and voice are fun, cinematic ways of showing his inner struggle with being defined as “Birdman” and wanting to move beyond that identity. But there’s definitely a tipping point when it becomes clear what we’re seeing is actual unwellness rather than symbolism or metaphor.
That moment is probably when Riggan goes to the roof, drunk, feeling scared and overwhelmed, and seems moments away from “flying.” Except some kind stranger saves him. We then have the scene where he flies through New York City and you’re like “Wait, what’s happening?” But then we’re shown it was nothing more than another delusion. Riggan was in a taxi the whole time but didn’t interpret it that way so we didn’t see it that way. The same thing happens when he’s telekinetically destroying his dressing room. We’re seeing it how Riggan sees it, only for Jake (Zach Galifianakis) to open the door and our POV to shift to Jake’s. Instead of telekineses, Riggan’s just throwing stuff around. The magical becomes grounded and silly and sad.
So when we stick to the simplest answer possible, we arrive at something like: Riggan held on for as long as possible, driven by the need to prove himself, to do something meaningful—and since he accomplished that, since he felt at peace with himself and his ex-wife and Sam, he let go. His work was done. And so he goes and joins the birds, so to speak.
While that is an answer. And probably the main answer. There is, of course, more to the situation.
Be careful what you wish for
When Riggan first wakes up in the hospital, his ex-wife, Sylvia (Amy Ryan), is there. They’ve had a bit of a re-kindling of their relationship. Cool. But for our purposes we need to look at Sylvia from more of the symbolic perspective.
In Birdman, Riggan is caught between his career and his life. And career makes up like 95% of what he’s doing. But there are a few moments with Sylvia and Sam where the career stuff falls away. And Riggan gets to be himself. He’s reminded of his humanity. He’s reminded there’s a world that goes beyond his work and career and being an actor. But that’s a world he’s never been particularly good at being a part of. Broken relationships abound.
It’s like when Riggan tells Lesley (Naomi Watts) that she’s important and lovely and that he needs her. He has no problem saying that to her in his role as director speaking to a member of the cast. But his girlfriend of 2 years, Laura (Andrea Riseborough), is standing right there. And after Riggan walks away Laura admits that he’s never once said anything like that to her. In fact, earlier in the movie Laura tells Riggan she’s pregnant and our guy completely freezes. He tries to make it through the moment, saying some okay things, but you can tell he’s not excited (much less happy) about this. It turns out Laura’s lying. But she does it because she wants Riggan to react. To show joy. Or commitment. Something. She’s looking for some reaction that shows he cares about her. That shows he loves her.
This is what we’re talking about when we talk about Riggan being more comfortable in work than life. He has no trouble being caring and emotionally present with an actor who needs a pep talk. But can’t find a single heartfelt thing to say to his girlfriend who tells him she’s pregnant. You can imagine how he was as a husband to Sylvia. Or a father to Sam.
Birdman is subtle in how it builds this dichotomy between worlds. Between Career Riggan and Human Riggan. It may not jump out on first viewing. Or even second viewing. But at some point, you pick up on the fact a big part of Birdman is the juxtaposition between actor life and real life. There’s something being said about how it’s easier to be in the microcosm of fiction than the macrocosm of reality. And how someone can be praised for who they pretend to be even though who they are is far from praise-worthy.
Just look at Mike Shiner (Edward Norton). He’s all about honesty this, honesty that when it comes to the stage. But off stage, he lies and politics and manipulates. Almost everyone in the movie hates him as a person. Even if they respect what he does as an actor. He comes to represent the spirit of acting more than any other character. Which makes his conversations with Sam very compelling on the symbolic level. As Sam represents someone outside the acting world, who doesn’t understand it, care about it, or appreciate it. Given that it’s the world her father has given his life to, what Sam’s doing in her conversations with Mike goes beyond mere superficial flirtation. It represents her trying to understand acting, theater, performance, etc. and getting closer to it.
So, to recap, characters in Birdman operate on a symbolic level. With several falling into symbols for the acting world and several falling into symbols for the real world. With Riggan bouncing back and forth between them.
With that in mind, let’s go back to the hospital.
It’s Sylvia in the room. She represents the personal world that cares about Riggan on a human level. That knows him for who he is and loves him for who he is, flaws and all. She’s concerned about his health, his wellbeing, both mentally and physically. And about his future.
Then Jake appears. Riggan’s best friend and producer. Jake brings the opposite energy from Sylvia. He isn’t concerned about how Riggan’s doing, only about Riggan’s career. Jake is pumped about the rave review from Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan). Jake is energized by the response to the play. Everything he says comes back to money and career and attention. There’s an obvious divide between where Sylvia’s thoughts are compared to Jake’s.
Jake: I have been reborn brother, and I can see the future. This play is gonna last forever. It’s gonna open in London. In Paris. And the studio’s gonna call again and we’ll get some book deals. You’ll see.
Sylvia: So you can see the future?
J: Yeah, I can see the future!
[Sylvia slaps Jake]
J: Why aren’t you saying anything? This is what you wanted wasn’t it?Riggan, this is what you wanted?
Riggan: [Sad as can be] Yeah. Yeah, this is what I wanted.
Career-wise, Riggan absolutely achieved what he had hoped for. He’s become legend. He’s created a work that means something. He’s proven he exists. Jake is right, this is what Riggan wanted.
But Riggan isn’t happy. Success hasn’t magically cured him of the existential strife he feels. Of his depression. Of a desire to end his life. Fame isn’t a panacea. But, on the other hand, neither is love. Riggan has both, but still can’t not go to that window. Open it. And jump.
Specific interpretations will, of course, vary. But I think we’re supposed to read Riggan’s mental health issues as a byproduct of being in that Hollywood world for so long. The “voice in his head” is Birdman’s. His delusions keep coming back to Birdman powers and Birdman scripts. So, yeah, the easy answer to Riggan ending his life is “he’s mentally ill.” But that mental illness derives from a career in Hollywood and its pressures and sufferings and warping of your worldview.
One success, no matter how much of a hero you feel like in the moment, won’t change a lifetime of damage. Especially when that success means being further steeped in that Hollywood world. Something Jake is overjoyed at the prospect of. But Riggan can see how the success will become just another burden. Commodified by the Hollywood machine.
That, to me, is why we have the transition scene between the gunshot and the hospital. It’s a fever dream that goes from crowd applause to a comet streaking through the sky to a marching band on the theater stage to the motel room set where Riggan shot himself to Spider-Man appearing on stage to the comet to more superheroes on stage, a Transformer fights a superhero, to a beach full of jellyfish (recalling Riggan’s story of trying to drown himself in the ocean but getting stung by jellyfish) to the hospital ceiling and Riggan waking up.
The theater, which Mike and Riggan treat with such respect, that Birdman has glorified over and over, is shown, for a moment, to be a playground for the “superhero” stuff that Mike and Riggan and others look at with such disdain.
It’s a surreal moment, but I think it captures the fact that the stage may be sacred to many but it isn’t safe. It isn’t outside the reach of money and commodification. And that’s the exact energy Jake brings to the hospital. Riggan’s play has transcended art and become an event. A “must-see.” And it would chain Riggan to another franchise-type role, where people stop seeing him as a person and only see him for the character and the moment. He would, very quickly, cease to exist (again).
And I think that brings us back to the original Johnny Depp ending. Johnny Depp would have been playing Riggan Thomson in a play about Riggan’s life. The connection there is that Riggan’s very life would have been commercialized.
It’s awesome how Iñárritu took the purpose of the original ending and did more with it via the hospital scene and this battle for Riggan to maintain his humanity and bringing in all the symbolic elements via Sylvia, Jake, and Sam. It reminds me of Shutter Island, the final quote from Teddy. “Which would be worse? To live as a monster? Or to die as a good man?” Very different movies with very different stories. But both feature mentally unwell characters trying to decide their own fate rather than leaving it in the hands of others. I think this gets at the meaning of the film’s subtitle: the unexpected virtue of ignorance.
I think this is the message Iñárritu wants to say about being a director in this modern age. You can give into the system and become a part of it and lose yourself. Or you can continue to make original work that speaks to people and means something, box office be damned. And Birdman is very much a live-wire of a movie, a risk that could have blown up in everyone’s face. Instead, and maybe this is ironic, it won the Oscar for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography, and Best Sound Editing, and is one of the most lauded movies of the 21st century. Go figure.
Bonus: Did Riggan really have telekinesis
If you’ve read this far, hopefully you already know the answer is no. The use of telekinesis is there to demonstrate the divide between Riggan’s perception of himself and the reality of himself. His time in Hollywood, specifically as the famed Birdman, has left him with this twisted self-perception where he imagines his fits of rage as being more than what they are. Infused with this heroic powers. It’s this sense that he’s special and he can see it, why can’t everyone else.
And the truth is: he isn’t special. He is like everyone else. It’s a painful thing to understand, something he struggles with again and again. Do you accept that core truth? Or continue to live in blissful ignorance? Riggan, of course, makes his choice, and “flies” out the window. But this is why Iñárritu gives us glimpses of what’s real. The one telekinetic outburst by Riggan cuts to him physically slamming things. His soaring through the city turns out to just be him in the backseat of a cab. It’s all twisted perception rather than magic.