Theatre in Film: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)

Written by Ashleigh Gardner

March 9, 2017

Welcome to Part VIII of Theatre in Film, our weekly feature on a film that depicts a life in the theatre. In Part VIII, we feature films where characters in the theatre must overcome a struggle in their personal lives while also managing the world of performance. This week, we take a look at the Academy Award-winning film about a washed-up superhero-actor-turned-Broadway-writer/director/performer in Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)

Director: Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Starring: Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Edward Norton, Zach Galifianakis, Naomi Watts, Amy Ryan, Lindsay Duncan, and Andrea Riseborough

What happens:

The film follows Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), a faded Hollywood actor who is best known for playing the superhero role of Birdman 20 years prior. Now, he’s trying to make a name for himself in his Broadway play What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, originally a short story by Raymond Carver. Riggan has adapted, directed, and cast himself in the show as an attempt to have nearly complete control over its outcome — which he hopes will reintroduce him to the acting world as a serious intellectual performer and director. While he’s attempting to reestablish himself, he’s also battling his inner Birdman persona who keeps making an appearance, mocking Riggan into a mental submission and making him feel either washed up or too good for the other people he’s working with.

Riggan’s vision for preview nights and opening night is dashed when a lighting instrument falls onto the head of another leading actor, Ralph, forcing Riggan and Jake (Zach Galifianakis) to look for another leading man. They find it in Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), a volatile method actor who takes situations to extremes. In the middle of this fiasco, Riggan’s recovering drug addict daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), helps out in the theatre and subsequently enters into a relationship with Mike after he assaults his girlfriend and co-star, Lesley (Naomi Watts), during a scene onstage.

To top things off, Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan), a notorious theatre critic, is scheduled to see the show on opening night, and when Riggan sees her in a bar after a long day at the theatre, he berates her for delivering heartless reviews. Through the final two days of previews, Riggan has effectively lost his mind, and on opening night, when he enters the stage for the final scene, he shoots himself in the head. When he wakes up, he’s in a hospital room with a new nose (he missed his head). Jake says that the review Tabitha gave them will have the show running forever — she’s called it “super-realism” and just the thing American theatre needed. Dissatisfied with the final outcome, Riggan steps onto the window ledge and vanishes. Sam arrives in the room, and seeing her father nowhere, looks out the window. She scans the ground for him, but then looks up, sees something, and smiles.

Why it matters:

This is one of my favorite theatre films hands down. It was automatically in my top 10 favorite films of all time, and when I walked out of the theatre, I turned to my friend (who’s also a writer/actor) and said, “I can’t believe what I just saw. That’s my life. That’s our life. That’s what it’s like to be in the theatre.”

Birman does something spectacular in its execution. Emmanuel Lubezki, the cinematographer who shot the film, won an Academy Award for his artistic method of making the film look like one continuous shot. Though it’s not really one shot (a lot of editing went into making the film look that way), it’s a visual effect that creates a sort of unstoppable momentum for all the characters, not just for Riggan. Lubezki’s shots blur first preview morning into first preview night into second preview morning into second preview night into opening morning into opening night. There’s a non-stop pacing that really captures the rollercoaster feeling of being in rehearsals and dealing with personal struggles simultaneously.

While some critics believe that Riggan actually does shoot himself and that the last scene of the movie is his mind post-death, I think there’s something to be said for the conversation Jake and Riggan have that details Dickinson’s review. She calls it “super-realism” and the thing the American theatre needs — two things that are so far from theatre to begin with that we really have to step back and wonder…are those good things? Does the American theatre really need a hyper-realistic performance? Especially one that causes the death of an actor? No. Theatre is based on a willing suspension of disbelief. Writers, directors, actors, and technicians depend on this practice to tell an effective story without harming performers or audience members involved.

This is where the fantasy and hyper-realism of superhero movies, like the Birdman franchise Riggan starred in, start to take over in modern culture. We see films and TV shows like Deadpool, The Avengers, Daredevil, Luke Cage, and war movies that depict graphic violence and sex, all the while making it look completely real. The screen is oversaturated with realism, and so Dickinson deems that American theatre should be, too. But should it?

This film is the first film in Part VIII. See below for the other films in Part VIII.

  • A Life in the Theatre (1993) (Coming soon.)
  • The Last Metro (1980) (Coming soon.)
  • Opening Night (2016) (Coming soon.)
  • The Tall Guy (1989) (Coming soon.)


Want to start with Part I? Begin with 42nd Street (1933).
Miss Part II? Check out The Band Wagon (1953).
Need a refresh for Part III? Start with our feature on All That Jazz (1979).
How about a recap from Part IV? Jump into A Chorus of Disapproval (1989).
Check out Part Vand start with An Awfully Big Adventure (1995).
Start reading Part VI with Camp (2003).

Ashleigh Gardner received her AA in Theatre/Drama/Dramatic Arts from Valencia College and her Bachelors Degree in English Literature and Masters Degree in Literary, Cultural, and Textual Studies from the University of Central Florida. She is a playwright, an actor, and’s Editor. 
Thumbnail image from Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). Copyright Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2014.