What Birdman Understands About the State of Theater and Criticism

A scene in the Michael Keaton-starring movie gets at a central conflict now facing Broadway.

Fox Searchlight

In the final act of Alejandro González Iñárritu's Birdman, New York Times theater critic Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan) reveals the particular axe she's going to grind against faded movie star Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton). She's mad he's taking up a theater space on Broadway with a pet project that she's sure is going to be a disaster. It's nothing personal; Riggan just represents everything she considers wrong with modern Broadway. And so she's going to destroy his show.

But Riggan has a grudge with Tabitha, too. Her reviews—like, he says, all critics' reviews—are full of "labels." There's no real analysis of the work, the technique, the execution. It's all adjectives and bitchery, signifying nothing. Riggan gets upset and shatters glass, but the scene ends in a stalemate. Tabitha doesn't tell Riggan he's wrong; she's just going to write her nasty takedown.

Several critics have read Tabitha as a pure villain in a movie that otherwise rejects black-and-white classifications—for example, Alison Willmore at Buzzfeed calls her the film's "only real sour note." But that's unfair to both the scene and to Duncan's performance. In fact, I'd flip that thought on its head entirely; Riggan and Tabitha's showdown is the best scene in the film, saying something significant about the current state of theater and criticism.

Tabitha's complaint is not a new one. It wasn't new when Idina Menzel championed new projects over revivals on The Late Show with David Letterman earlier this year. It wasn't new when Debra Messing's character in the Smash pilot bemoaned how no one wrote new musicals anymore, or when other characters recoiled at the idea that their production needed to be anchored by a movie star instead of by a longtime ensemble member.

Broadway producers are still looking primarily at movie adaptations and revivals because, simply put, they make money. Sure, some of the biggest hits currently on the Great White Way were original projects (The Book of Mormon) or heavily modified adaptations of books (Wicked). But much like how Hollywood prefers reboots and sequels to original material, Broadway knows that known properties will, on the whole, perform better at the box office. Menzel herself headlined the new musical If/Then this year ... but nearly every bit of the promotional focus has been on her as its star. Sales may not be able to stay strong after she leaves.

So when Riggan, a washed-up former superhero movie star, shows up at the historic St. James Theatre with a mediocre adaptation of Raymond Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, it's too much for Tabitha to bear. Not only is Riggan starring in it, but he's also the director and writer. He's got none of the credentials for this, but he's taking up space that in her mind should be used for "true" Broadway talent. The sad fact is that even if there was new work in that space, it would probably fail commercially. But Tabitha can't rage against a broken system. So she rages against Riggan instead.

Riggan's complaint isn't as common, but I think it's why critics were a bit touchy about this scene. He rejects the idea that sensationalism and hyperbole have any place in reviews. He wants to see critics talk about the actual work itself, and unfortunately for him, he's working in a time where the media world lives and dies by the extremes of smarm and snark (not that either trait has been exclusive to this era). Tabitha ripping his show apart will cause buzz in a way a mild dismissal never would. Snark alone might just kill the production: "I'm going to destroy your play," she says.

Tabitha might even agree with Riggan that this kind of criticism isn't worthwhile. But she has to throw some heady adjectives around to get people's attention. A reasoned meditation on the merits of a play doesn't sell well in 140 characters—and that fact would drive the Twitter-hating Riggan even more crazy. Even at the film's end (spoilers from here on out for Birdman's final act), after Riggan tries to kill himself on stage but just shoots off his nose, Tabitha's surprisingly positive review is breathless, even smarmy. She coins a sexy buzzword—"superrealism"—which is the kind of term that'll be in huge typeface on the play's advertisements. She's just trying to make her work stand out, and extreme language is an easy shortcut. It disgusts Riggan, and it might disgust her, too. But it's how she chooses to play the game.

Credit to the film: It doesn't choose a winner or loser in either case. A particular audience may favor one or the other, but the movie itself remains remarkably moderate. Riggan gets his chance to rant, but Tabitha leaves with her resolve strengthened. Sure, he gets his positive review, but even that doesn't work out to his advantage. He looks trapped now. And she trapped him.

The indecision reflects reality well: There's no good solution in either of these cases. They're ouroboros-like in their circular natures. The commercialism of Broadway and a media market torn between positive and negative extremes aren't easily solved problems. Birdman doesn't know how to answer the questions any better than you do. It's just here to ask them; it wants to keep us talking.