He's a deadbeat dad who meditates in his undies. He's a talented actor who's more than a bit suicidal. He's an aspiring director who wants to be remembered.
And he's also, of course, Birdman himself.
Birdman makes the relationship between Riggan and the feathery, fictionalized version of his superstar past quite clear when he yells:
BIRDMAN: I'm you, asshole!
BIRDMAN: You're Birdman.
Call him whatever you like: a mental formation, a manifestation of Riggan's subconscious, a "Hollywood clown in a Lycra bird suit," but there's no denying that Birdman's an integral part of who Riggan is and how he changes throughout the film. That's why we haven't included a Birdman Character Analysis—there's no need. Birdman is Riggan and Riggan is Birdman.
But let's back up a bit. What else defines Riggan as Riggan?
To begin with: this guy is a hot mess. To say Riggan's "disheveled" would be the understatement of the century. Every time we hear the staccato beat of the drums that punctuates this film, we're reminded of the senseless, chaotic state of Riggan's life. And that's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the ways in which Riggan's daily life mirrors his inner state.
His dressing room/office looks like the dorm room of a grubby frat boy—and that's before Riggan goes haywire and completely destroys it. When we meet Riggan (in this selfsame dressing room), he's running late to his own rehearsal because he's been talking to Sam about flowers and levitating in his undergarments.
Even when Riggan ventures outside the chaos of the theater, his surroundings reflect his inner turmoil. The New York City that Riggan exists in isn't the charming city you see in rom-coms, or the classy-to-a-fault sitcom version. The city's portrayed as insane, grubby, and teeming with people looking to start a fight. In other words, it's the perfect externalization of Riggan's troubled mind.
New York's also a perfect representation of something else: Riggan's self-centeredness. New York City considers itself to be the center of the world…and Riggan considers himself to be the center of everything.
There are a million and a half examples of Riggan's self-centeredness—remember how he doesn't even take the time to remember that Daniel's name isn't Steve? —but his most painfully narcissistic moment comes during his conversation with Sylvia, when he just can't stop talking about himself.
All Sylvia wants is for him to be there for Sam, but Riggan goes on (and on, and on) about how he's going to end up being the next Farrah Fawcett when George Clooney's plane goes down. He even wants to refinance the Malibu house for money…which sounds like the exact opposite of looking after Sam.
And, in fact, that's really what producing "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" is all about. Riggan's not motivated by art or expression or any of that nonsense—he's motivated by himself. Tabitha even tells him,
TABITHA: You don't get to come in here and write, direct, and act in your own propaganda piece.
And she's right. This play is a propaganda piece—not propaganda for an ideal, but propaganda for a person. It's The Riggan Show.
Birdman does a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to portraying Riggan's massive ego. He glorifies what he once was and tells Riggan that he could easily have all of the best parts of his past back:
BIRDMAN: You were larger than life, man. You saved people from their boring, miserable lives. You make them jump, laugh, shit their pants.
Just like in the story of Icarus, we see Birdman flying high above the streets of New York with Birdman, his hubris, telling him:
BIRDMAN: This is where you belong, above them all.
But, if we know one basic rule of physics, it's that what goes up must come down. And it's the same thing when it comes to Riggan's ego. It goes through more ups-and-downs than a yo-yo.
Again, the grunt work of portraying this self-loathing falls on Birdman himself, who asks Riggan what he's doing in a grimy Broadway dressing room:
BIRDMAN: How did we end up here? This place is horrible…smells like balls.
Birdman's constantly poking at Riggan's already waning confidence and reinforcing the feelings of worthlessness and helplessness that have plagued Riggan since he quit acting and fell out of the spotlight. When Mike makes Riggan a laughingstock in his Times interview, Birdman tells him that:
BIRDMAN: [Mike] thinks you're a joke. Now two million people agree with him. Maybe that's what you are: a joke.
And as a manifestation of Riggan's insecurities, Birdman also has some harsh words that we can only interpret as Riggan's own thoughts about the state of himself and his career.
BIRDMAN: You're just a tiny, bitter cocksucker…what are you trying to prove? That you're an artist? Well, you're not.
RIGGAN: Fuck you!
BIRDMAN: No, fuck you, you coward! We grossed billions. What are you, ashamed of that? Billions!
RIGGAN: And billions of flies eat shit every day. So what. Does that make it good? I don't know if you noticed, but that was 1992.
BIRDMAN: You could jump right back into that suit if you wanted to. We're not dead.
RIGGAN: Look at me, look at this, look [opens his shirt and grabs his skin]. I look like a turkey with leukemia. I'm fucking disappearing. This is what's left. I'm the answer to a fucking Trivial Pursuit question.
It's ultimately these thoughts that lead to Riggan losing control and tearing apart his room in a fit of despair and rage.
But, as we know, destroying his dressing room isn't the most self-destructive thing that Riggan does. He tries to commit suicide—at least once.
Before he fatefully shoots himself in the face onstage, Riggan becomes eerily calm and placid. Even Sylvia remarks on his mood:
SYLVIA: You seem abnormally calm.
RIGGAN: I am calm. I'm great, actually.
He then goes on to tell her about his love, his failures, his wish to be a better father and person, and even about hearing Birdman's voice in his head. Riggan keeps his serenity through the final scene of the film, when we see him lying in a hospital bed with a very Birdman-esque facial bandage. He seems to receive the news of his play's extreme success with grace, rather than with his usual manic bluster.
Then he exits through the window, leaving the audience to wonder whether he's attempted suicide a second time. Seeing Riggan in a Zen state is eerie.
But there's one aspect in the last scene that gives us hope that Riggan hasn't shuffled off his mortal coil quite yet…and it's not the fact that he daughter seems so happy in the last shot. It's because, rather that acting sweet and calm throughout the last scene, he has one final showdown with Birdman when he says:
RIGGAN: Bye-bye, and fuck you.
That's vintage Riggan, folks; that's the reason we have hope for him still being alive. Maybe, just maybe, Riggan's shaken himself from the talons of his feathery past.
Mike, like the open book he is, pretty much tells us the key to his identity:
MIKE: I don't pretend out there, I told you. I pretend just about everywhere else, but not out there.
This is Mike in a nutshell: a man who cares more about authenticity than he cares about anything else, but whose own authenticity ends where the stage ends. "Out there" (or "onstage") Mike is magic, and not in a Channing Tatum sort of way. Even brutal theater critics like Tabitha praise his every performance. And just look at the reaction Riggan and Jake have when they hear that the legendary Mike Shiner is about to grace their play with his performance.
Or can we even call it a performance? On stage Mike isn't acting, he's being.
The problem is he expects this kind of commitment—and weird approach to onstage vs. offstage reality—from everyone else. When the audience is videotaping the performance on their phones, he berates them for living their life through their screens and yells at them to "have a real experience."
He then proceeds to figuratively and literally rip apart the set, proclaiming it to be fake…like he's the prophet of truth and not just an actor who gets so into character that he gets drunk when the stage directions demand it.
Of course, the problem is that Mike can't replicate this kind of authenticity when he's not acting. He ends up being more of an actor in his day-to-day life than when he's performing. This is creepy at best. As Lesley puts it:
LESLEY: Maybe up here you're Mr. Truth, Mike, but in the real world, where it counts, you're a fraud. How's that for truth, you dick!
And this isn't just Lesley being emotional; we see this fraudulence over and over again in Mike's actions. When talking to Sam he tells her she's "kinda a great mess, it's like a candle burning on both ends, but it's beautiful." He also talks about how he wants to:
MIKE: […] pull the eyes out of your head and stick them in my skull, and then look out at this street and see it the way I saw it when I was your age.
This is some straight-out-of-a-play, overly analogous, hyperbolic, symbolic dialogue. (Sam even calls him out for it.)
And when The Times comes to give him an interview, he makes up all sorts of things about having had a drunk as a father, and about how hard it is to work with a dunce like Riggan, etc. Mike doesn't think twice about lying in this way…which is exactly the opposite of what he demands from his audience and fellow actors when he's on stage.
We never really get much closure on Mike's development, but when he's talking to Sam near the film's end, we sense he's beginning to have a change of heart. Sam's impressed by Mike's indifferent demeanor:
SAM: You really don't give a shit if people like you or not?
MIKE: Not really.
SAM: That's cool.
MIKE: Is it? I don't know.
This shred of self-doubt is super-important—Mike's beginning to rethink his whole "acting offstage and being realistic onstage" shtick.
And there's another moment that underlines the fact that hairline fractures have appeared in Mike's stony, performative exterior. When Sam's shocked that her father gave Mike a black eye he shrugs it off saying,
MIKE: No, no, I think maybe I deserved it.
Owning up to his flaws means Mike's come a long way from being obsessed with his own prestige as a theater actor, and starting to realize that "dealing with complex human emotion" can happen offstage as well as on.
Good job, Mike. You get a gold star.
Sam is the classic combo of tough-as-nails and deeply wounded. She's an ex-addict with a heart of gold, a damsel in distress with a "Go to hell" attitude.
And it's all her dad's fault.
Let's look at her diagnosis of her father/daughter relationship real quick:
MIKE: What did he do to you, anyway?
SAM: He was never around.
MIKE: So what? That was it?"
SAM: No, it was how he tried to make up for it by constantly trying to convince me that I was special.
On the surface, that doesn't actually sound too bad. Dad's not around (because he's busy being a Hollywood bigshot) and then, when he is, he overdoes it with the fatherly love. But if we scratch the surface of this family dysfunction, we see how it affects almost everything Sam does.
One of the ways this hot and cold relationship with her dad may have affected Sam is that it made her fade into obscurity. She doesn't like being in the spotlight because, when it came to her dad's affection, the spotlight made her think of the neglect that came before it.
That's why she shies away from being too present, and why Mike is prompted to say things like:
MIKE: You make yourself invisible, hiding behind this fragile little fuckup routine.
And we might even be able to draw a line between the fact that Sam had a past as an addict and the fact that her father's interest in her yo-yo'ed. Drug addiction let her forget herself; she didn't have to wonder if she was either a) worthy of abandonment or b) worthy of lavish praise.
In fact, in her biggest monologue, Sam rails against her dear ol' dad and pretty much delivers a treatise on invisibility:
SAM: […] 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 the way, has already forgotten about you. I mean, who the fuck 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. You're not important, okay. You're not important. Get used to it.
Riggan might have written/directed/starred in a play because he's scared to death that he doesn't matter, but Sam seems to be "making [herself] invisible" for the exact same reason.
Of course, because Sam's a dynamic character, she is also the single most visible person in the movie…at least on social media. She understands how important these media are in the 21st century and how, without a presence on at least Facebook, you "don't exist."
And in some ways she's the person who brings Riggan back into relevance and existence, first by alerting him to the fact that the video of him running around Times Square in his undies is actually pretty powerful PR, and then by making him a Twitter account. She's realized just how scared her father is of fading into oblivion, and so she's made sure he can be visible to everyone…not just the kind of people who will read Tabitha's theater reviews.
But what do you think? Is this an actual act of kindness, or a kind of revenge against a guy who was "constantly trying to convince [her] that [she] was special"?
We'll never know.
Birdman doesn't go for the cheap shots when it comes to Lesley. Sure, she's an actress…and this film doesn't have a whole lot of nice things to say about people who make their living before an audience. But she's also the voice of reason; a sensible woman with her head on straight.
Just check out how she schools Mike on his priorities:
LESLEY: Maybe up here you're Mr. Truth, Mike, but in the real world, where it counts, you're a fraud. How's that for truth, you dick!
She also, um, doesn't exactly hold back. She introduces Mike by saying that the two of them "share a vagina." Dang.
It's not like Lesley's immune to self-doubt or bouts of self-loathing. She's a little depressed that, now she's "finally made it" on Broadway, she feels like nothing's changed. There was no magic feeling of accomplishment like she expected. But what she's coming to terms with is a pretty normal feeling—kind of like the feeling of deflation you feel after opening all the presents on your birthday.
And we know that Lesley doesn't let her ego run away with her. Just check out this exchange:
LESLEY: Why don't I have any self-respect?
LAURA: You're an actress, honey.
If Laura had said that to Riggan or Mike, she would have ended up with a black eye. Instead, Lesley and Laura share a smooch.
In the end, we never get to see Lesley's resolution. Does she come to terms with her aspirations and her success? We don't know that, but we do know that kicking Mike out of her life will probably make her feel a lot better.
Here's what we know about Laura:
Add those three things together and we get…a character who's more of an extension of Riggan than a whole character on her own. And that's fine: this movie's all about Riggan anyway.
What we can deduce from the three bullet points above is that Laura might have been a huge catalyst for Riggan mounting a production of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love in the first place. Not only do Laura and her onstage alter ego share the same name, but they both have babies on the brain.
This makes us think that Riggan's choice for adapting this particular story is more personal than he lets on—because he's navigating his own questions about l'amour (What Riggan Talks About When He Talks About Love?) with a woman named Laura and her ticking biological clock, he naturally turns to this Carver story.
Wheels within wheels, huh?
Jake's a casualty of the war Riggan wages against…well, pretty much everything: his old self, critics, Hollywood, his own dressing room.
As Riggan's lawyer and manager, Jake's tied up in the success of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love whether he wants to be or not. But that doesn't mean Jake has no stake in the success of the play. When Riggan's having difficulty keeping Mike under control (and keeping the play from going under before it even opens), Jake screams:
JAKE: This is about being respected and validated. That's what you told me; that's how you got me into this shit!
Because we get such an intense look at the mental and emotional stress burdening Riggan, we can forget that Jake's under similar pressure. The poor guy has to deal with the financial side and with the stark reality of the real world as represented by Ralph's lawsuit. (You don't just get beaned by a spotlight and not sue. Not on Broadway.)
And in order to do this, Jake will do whatever it takes, even if that means lying to his best friend about whether or not Scorsese is going to be at the premiere (fun fact: you can actually catch a glimpse of the maestro himself when Riggan comes into the theater in his underwear) or yelling at Laura and Lesley when they catch him in that particular white lie.
Because Jake's not lying when he says,
JAKE: I'm the one keeping this afloat!
Jake may not have the calmest of demeanors, but he's responsible for holding the play together by the skin of its teeth. Happily, in the end, Jake finally gets what he's been after. When Sylvia reads Tabitha's review she asks him:
SYLVIA: Are you happy?
JAKE: Happy? I'm fucking euphoric…I've been reborn, brother, and I can see the future. This play is gonna last forever.
It's not that Jake's unable to see past Tabitha's meaningless labels, it's just that he's not after critical reception. Jake seeks financial success, and the long lifespan and commoditization of the play is the kind of respect and validation he craves most.
Riggan's ex-wife is one of the only normal people in the wacky world of Birdman. She's a center of stability…which, of course, Riggan pretty much ignores.
Maybe he ignores her because she's not particularly flashy or showy. She mainly just stands quietly by the sidelines, watching everything unfold and whispering in Riggan's ear like an angel on one shoulder (which definitely makes Birdman the devil on the other).
And what does Sylvia metaphorically whisper? That family's important.
Riggan's blinded by the play and his ego, so it's up to Sylvia to tell him to be there for their daughter and even console him about not being Farrah Fawcett (again, we thought that was obvious, but maybe if you do enough acting your own identity gets a little screwy).
And if you thought having the strength and the love to support a self-obsessed actor like Riggan is amazing, remember that Riggan cheated, or almost cheated, on his wife a) in their own bed b) at their anniversary party. Does it get much worse than that?
Actually, it does. When Riggan asks Sylvia why they broke up, she calmly responds:
SYLVIA: You threw a kitchen knife at me, and an hour later you were
telling me how much you loved me.
Wow. Knowing that backstory really amplifies Sylvia's saintly patience.
Tabitha's kind of like the velociraptors from Jurassic Park—long before we actually see her, we hear a lot about her. And we're scared.
Early on, Jake calls her "that old bat from the New York Times" which tells us right away that she probably isn't such a nice, cordial person (no offense to bats). Later, in the bar, Mike uses a very colorful expression to describe the way she looks, which we're going to paraphrase here as "looking like she's been sucking on lemons."
And when we finally meet her, we can't exactly disagree with these less-than-flattering assessments. She comes off just as self-obsessed as Riggan is, preoccupied with the pretentious reviews in which she flaunts her own knowledge of theater…and not at all concerned about the careers she ruins in doing so.
Riggan's critique of Tabitha—that her criticism is nothing more than "labeling" things— is a reaction to her stating very matter-of-factly that she'll kill his play. Riggan's confused at first; she hasn't even seen the play, how does she know she won't absolutely love it?
But it's not the play Tabitha has a problem with, it's Riggan himself and everything he stands for that she despises. She tells him that he "took up space in a theater which would have otherwise been used to put on something worthwhile"…ouch.
And she doesn't even stop there. She can't take the artless narcissism of Hollywood, and refuses to even give it a chance in her domain. She describes the big movie business as people:
TABITHA: […] giving each other awards for cartoons and pornography. Measuring your worth in weekends.
Okay, so maybe opening weekend gross earnings isn't the best way to assess the worth of a movie, and maybe Hollywood tends to play to our primal desires in order to sell movies to the masses. We as viewers don't hate Tabitha because she's wrong, we hate her because she won't even give Riggan a chance to break the mold and do something different and meaningful.
In the end, Tabitha comes around…sort of.
She gives Riggan's play a stunning review that makes the front page of The Times and is sure to send it off on a enduring career of reproductions and adaptations. But for all that, the review is still full of words that are big in size and small in substance.
For all of her witty connections between the performance and its tragic end, she may have missed the point.
This character only gets a couple minutes of screen time, but he sure takes the spotlight…right to the head.
Ralph is just a tragic actor who's in the way of Riggan's path of destruction, and he cannot be spared. Okay, so maybe Riggan didn't actually use his superpowers to make the light fixture to fall and knock Ralph unconscious but Riggan certainly tears up his acting ability:
RIGGAN: […] the blood coming out of his ear was the most honest thing he's done so far.
Ouch and ouch.
In some ways, Ralph represents the stark reality amidst the chaos and absurdity that everyone's hurtling around in during the week before the play. And his reappearance in during the final preview might seem strange and random, but only within the constraints of the movie. In the real world, you would expect that someone who got beaned with a spotlight to get a little lawsuit-happy. Just for a moment, Ralph lets us escape Riggan's self-absorption and think about someone else's problems.