Study Guide

Birdman Quotes

  • Respect and Reputation

    THEATER CRITIC PRESS GUY: Are you afraid at all that people will say you're doing this play to battle the impression that you're a washed-up superhero?

    RIGGAN: No. I'm not. And that's exactly why, twenty years ago, I refused to do Birdman 4.

    Despite Riggan's denial, the stuffy theater snob pretty much hits the nail on the head. Riggan wants to prove his worth as an actor and artist and human being, and he doesn't want to use the Birdman costume to do so.

    RIGGAN: The last time I flew here from LA, George Clooney was sitting two seats in front of me. With those cuff links and that fucking chin. We ended up flying through this really, really horrible storm. I mean, plane was like rattling, shaking, and all the people on board crying. I mean, crying, and praying, right. I just sat there—they're crying; I sit there. And I'm thinking, oh boy, the next morning when Sam looks at the paper it's going to be Clooney's face on the front page, not mine. You know? Boom…how do you… [A beat.] Did you know that Farrah Fawcett died the exact same day as Michael Jackson?

    This is right after Sylvia is trying to talk to him about Sam and their house and their marriage. All of these things are of little concern to Riggan, whose only worry is that he'll be remembered.

    MIKE: A lot. Exactly. Fuck you. Yes. This doesn't work out for you, you fuck off back to your studio pals and jump right back into that cultural genocide you guys are perpetrating. "There's a douchebag born every minute." That was P.T. Barnum's premise when he invented the circus. And you guys know nothing much has changed, and if you crank out any toxic piece of crap you make people will line up and pay to see it. But long after you're gone, I'll still be here, earning my living, baring my soul, wrestling with complex human emotions.

    Mike's monologue is at once both laughable and heartfelt. We could think of him as a silly actor who doesn't really know what complex human emotions are, but we definitely understand that this play means a lot to him, just like it means a lot to Riggan. Maybe they have more in common than they think.

    MIKE: […] this is my town and, to be honest, most people don't give a shit about you here.

    FAN LADY: You're Riggan Thomson, right? Would you mind having a picture with us here?

    RIGGAN: No, no, no, no.

    FAN LADY: Just, oh, thanks. [handing her phone to Mike] Would you mind? The button's on the bottom. [Mike takes the picture.] Oh, thank you. You're such a doll—so sweet…handsome [she kisses his cheek as her husband pulls her away].

    Sure, Mike says he doesn't care for popularity but he's wrong to imply that Riggan isn't popular. This scene tells us that Birdman is right, Riggan was living the good life, full of fame an adoring fans. Now instead of pleasing the people the only person he has to please is the woman writing the theater reviews.

    RIGGAN: Look, I'm trying to do something that's important.

    SAM: This is not important.

    RIGGAN: It's important to me, okay! Maybe not to you and your cynical friends whose only ambition is to go viral. But to me, my God, this is my career! This is my chance to finally do some work that means something!

    SAM: 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 are doing a play based on a book that was written sixty 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. Nobody gives a shit 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. 

    Riggan's only response to Sam is a downward glance. He has nothing to say because he knows she's right. The play has to be successful, not for the sake of the play itself, but for Riggan.

    LESLEY: Why don't I have any self-respect?

    LAURA: You're an actress, honey.

    Maybe it's constantly pretending to be someone you're not that draws actors to their profession. Their willingness to sell their true, authentic selves to play a character that doesn't exist off the screen. Or maybe this is a commentary on how many awful movies Nick Cage has done…either way.

  • Truth

    MIKE: Oh, come on, people, don't be so pathetic. Stop looking at the world through your cellphone screen. Have a real experience. Does anybody give a shit about truth other than me? I mean the set is fake; the bananas are fake; there is nothing in this milk carton; your performance is fake.

    Okay, Mike might be a little drunk, but this doesn't seem to out of character. This is what Mike is all about: truth and authenticity. If his character is supposed to be drunk then he'll be drunk, dangit.

    MIKE: (reading Riggan's napkin) Thank you for an honest performance. Ray Carver.

    RIGGAN: Yeah.

    MIKE: Yeah?

    RIGGAN: That's when I knew I was gonna be an actor, right there.

    MIKE: (chuckling) Oh…

    RIGGAN: What's so funny?

    MIKE: Nothing, it's just, it's on a cocktail napkin.

    RIGGAN: Yeah, so?

    MIKE: He was fucking drunk, man.

    1) Carver thanks a young Riggan for an "honest performance." It's truth that Carver sees and enjoys in his acting. 2) Mike's point is that a drunk Carver didn't know what he was saying, and there's no truth in a drunk man's words.

    Which of these two truths is, well, truthier?

    MIKE: Don't call me Mike; call me Mel, Mel. [They struggle as Mike tries to have sex with her and Lesley tries to keep him off. Riggan pounds on the door and enters with the scene continuing as normal…until the audience laughs at Mike's erection, visible through his pajama pants. When Mike delivers his "Don't do anything stupid" line, Riggan throws in an improvisational punch.]

    Mike is more real on stage than he is offstage. It's not that Mike needs his acting to be real; it simply is real. On the one hand you could say Mike ruined the scene by taking the audience out of the moment as they laugh at him…but on the other hand he also made it more authentic. There was more truth in Mike's erection and Riggan's anger-filled punch than the toy gun he was waving around.

    SAM: Truth or dare?

    MIKE: Truth.

    SAM: You're boring.

    MIKE: Truth is always interesting.

    If truth is interesting, why does Mike act? Why does he lie to the press and create a false impression of himself? What Mike seems to like to do is create his own version of truth.

    RIGGAN: 'Cause my father was. My father was a mean fucking drunk, you understand?

    MIKE: Okay.

    RIGGAN: He beat the shit out of us. That was okay though, you know, because at least when he was beating us he wasn't thinking about taking us—taking us out to his toolshed. Because when we got to the toolshed that son of a bitch would smile and say, "You wanna get down on your knees and unbuckle my belt, or do you want me to take it off and use it on you?" After a while I made myself numb so, you know, but my—my little sister…

    MIKE: Oh, okay, okay, okay. Hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, oh God, I didn't know, I'm—I'm sorry. I'm sorry that's—that's fucking horrible man.

    RIGGAN: Yeah, yeah, it's also not true. See, I can pretend to you little—

    Okay, Riggan's gone a little bit crazy, improvising an awful story so he can prove…what exactly? That he can look real when he's fake? That he can sound truthful when he's telling a lie? That's what acting is all about, deceiving an audience; making them feel for something that never happened to someone who's not there. Riggan might have gone off the deep end but he's got a point: if Mike is so concerned with truth, why tell all these lies to the press?

    BIRDMAN: You were a movie star, remember? Pretentious but happy.

    RIGGAN: I wasn't happy.

    BIRDMAN: Ignorant but charming. Now, you're just a tiny, bitter cocksucker.

    RIGGAN: I was fucking miserable. I was fucking miserable.

    BIRDMAN: Yeah, but fake miserable, Hollywood miserable.

    We know that Riggan must have got out of the blockbuster scene for a reason.

    On the one hand, we're sure that Riggan is being honest: he probably was miserable and it's wrong of Birdman to dismiss this real human emotion, even if that human is in an enviable position in society.

    On the other hand, we can't help but agree. Any sort of misery (such as feeling unfulfilled or whatever) is a joke compared to the real misery that some people have to suffer through, misery that entails more visceral pain than an existential mid-life crisis.

  • Life, Consciousness, and Existence

    RIGGAN: I have a lot riding on this fucking play.

    MIKE: Oh, is that right?

    RIGGAN: Yeah, people know who I am, and—

    MIKE: Fucking bullshit.

    RIGGAN: Mike—

    MIKE: Bullshit. They—they don't know you, your work, man. They know the guy in the bird suit who goes and tells coy, slightly vomitous stories on Letterman.

    Riggan keeps insisting he doesn't exist, and in some ways he's right. When people think Riggan Thomson they don't think about him as an individual, they think about the guy who sits behind the bird mask in the movies. This play is Riggan's attempt to create an identity for himself apart from his superhero alterego.

    MIKE: "A man becomes a critic when he cannot be a [sic] artist, in the same way that a man becomes an informer when he cannot be a soldier." Flaubert, right?

    TABITHA: He's a Hollywood clown in a Lycra bird suit.

    MIKE: Yes, he is. But tomorrow night, at eight o'clock, he's going out on that stage and risking everything.

    There's a lot of labeling going on here, as Riggan will later point out. Tabitha calls him a "Hollywood clown" in an ad hominem insult that comes from her disdain of mainstream cinema, but her critique is lacking substance. She hasn't even seen the play. As for Mike's Flaubert quote, we see him taking a similar shot at Tabitha, telling her she's a has-been or a never-was. But his insult is also without substance, he's just using someone else's words.

    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.

    What does it mean to exist? Both Sam and Riggan define existence based on the knowledge of other people. If people don't know you, you're nobody. Most people aren't this passionate about social media, but Sam has a point. These days, if you don't have some kind of online presence, in a way your existence is diminished; you exist less than other people who have a virtual identity.

    MEL, PLAYED BY MIKE: Okay, j-j-just put the gun down Ed. She just doesn't love you anymore.

    ED, PLAYED BY RIGGAN: You don't, do you?

    TERRI, PLAYED BY LESLEY: No.

    ED, PLAYED BY RIGGAN: And you never will?

    TERRI, PLAYED BY LESLEY: I'm sorry. ED,

    ED, PLAYED BY RIGGAN: I don't exist. I'm not even here. None of this even matters. I don't exist. I don't exist. [Slowly he lifts the gun to his head and, against the protests of Terri and Mel, he shoots himself].

    This time it's not just Riggan who's struggling with an existential crisis, it's his character, Ed. We can, of course, compare the two, but it's more interesting to note the differences. What causes Ed to doubt his existence is, like Riggan's, his worth as a human being. But, whereas Riggan's worth is determined by respect and reputation, Ed's worth is determined by love.

    SAM: If you weren't afraid, what would you want to do to me?

    MIKE: I'd pull your eyes outta your head.

    SAM: That's sweet.

    MIKE: I'd put 'em in my own skull, and I'd look around so I could see the street the way I used to when I was your age.

    This is Mike expressing his desire to redefine his perception, his identity. Normally we think of Riggan as the one dealing with mortality, growing old and losing his relevance. But Mike feels the aging too, and wants to regain the kind of youth that Sam has (while at the same time mocking her for wanting to play a game like a child).

    RIGGAN: Stop saying we, there is no we. I'm Riggan fucking Thomson.

    BIRDMAN: No; you're Birdman. Because without me, all that's left is you: a sad, selfish, mediocre actor, grasping at the last vestiges of his career.

    Despite what he wants us to believe, Birdman is most definitely a mental formation. He's the part of Riggan's ego telling him that he's not good enough. That he has lost all former glory and success and somehow ended up in a place that "smells like balls." Riggan's need for success outside of the bird costume is manifested in the berating words of Birdman.

    SAM: These dashes represent the six billion years that the earth has been around, and so each dash represents a thousand years. And this [breaking off and handing Riggan a square perforated square of toilet paper] is how long humans have been around: 150,000 thousand years. I think they're trying to remind us that that's all our ego and self-obsession are worth. [In a moment, Riggan will forget about the significance of the toilet paper and use it to wipe his face.]

    It doesn't get much more straightforward that this. Sam's exercise reminds her of the insignificance of all of humanity, and thus her own insignificance. It's an exercise meant for rehab patients to center their focus on something other than themselves. What to make of Riggan's dismissal of it is more ambiguous. Does he further the exercise by corroborating the insignificance of the human race? Or is this just another example of how selfish he is as he uses all of humanity to clean his face?

  • Love

    As the letters of the Raymond Carver poem, "Late Fragment," disappear alphabetically, four letters remain. From left to right and top to bottom they read A-M-O-R.

    Amor is the Spanish word for love. These letters seem to be the leftover, haphazard fragments of a fragment; a hidden love that materializes out of the chaos, just as Riggan's love for his family finally finds the surface of his entropic life in the final act…or maybe Iñárritu just wanted to subliminally tell us to love his movie, you never know.

    SYLVIA: You know, just because I didn't like that ridiculous comedy you did with Goldie Hawn did not mean that I did not love you. That's what you always do: you confuse love for admiration.

    This goes back to Riggan's need to be respected. He doesn't understand the difference between someone respecting his work and someone loving who he is outside of it. The lines between his reality and the fictions he lives in have become blurred (e.g. Birdman) so that Sylvia's dislike of his movie makes him feel unloved.

    LAURA, PLAYED BY LAURA: I didn't want that baby. Not because I didn't love Nick, and not because I didn't love the idea of it, but just because I wasn't ready to love myself.

    The real Laura want's a baby, even if she doubts her parenting skills, but we can't say the same for Riggan. He doesn't manage to cover his ambiguous baby feelings with fake excitement, and we think that he's a bit too focused on himself and his reputation to care for, or to want to care for, a baby. It's a lack of self-acceptance that both play-Laura and Riggan struggle with.

    ED, PLAYED BY RIGGAN: What's the matter with me? Why do I always end up having to beg people to love me?

    TERRI, PLAYED BY LESLEY: Eddie, please, give me the gun. Look at me, I was drowning. I'm just not capable of—you, you deserve to be loved, Eddie. You do.

    ED, PLAYED BY RIGGAN: I just wanted to be what you wanted. Now I spend every fucking minute praying to be somebody else, somebody I'm not. Anybody.

    MEL, PLAYED BY MIKE: Okay, j-j-just put the gun down Ed. She just doesn't love you anymore.

    ED, PLAYED BY RIGGAN: You don't, do you?

    TERRI, PLAYED BY LESLEY: No.

    ED, PLAYED BY RIGGAN: And you never will?

    TERRI, PLAYED BY LESLEY: I'm sorry.

    Those "me's" in the first line are italicized to show Ed's emphasis. We can see that this desperate act of violence, first against Lesley and Mel and then against himself, is selfishly motivated. It's people loving him that he's concerned about, not him loving Lesley.