The new black comedy Birdman is filled with narcissists, emotionally fragile drama queens, and self-esteem disasters.
You know, actors.
It's a movie that gleefully digs into the neuroses of people who love the spotlight and pretending to be somebody else — the deep-seated need for acclaim, attention, and affirmation; the mood swings, delusions, and sometimes ridiculous bits of process. It includes characters who insist on tanning beds to achieve what they believe is the proper shade of sunburned for their role, who segue from girl talk to impulsive make-outs, and who destroy their dressing rooms in fits of pique. Birdman's hero, faded movie star Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), has sunk everything into a Broadway production intended to vindicate him as a serious talent.
But the movie also treats Riggan and his ilk, even the magnificently dickish theater actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), with understanding and affection. They may sometimes be ridiculous, but their struggles and yearnings are not — they want to be part of something great, in addition to their less noble desires for applause and adoration. And the characters who work with or love them are treated with more warmth, if less showiness. The only one left out of its empathetic embrace is Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan), the New York Times theater critic and one stone-cold bitch.
Described as looking like "she licked a homeless guy's ass," Tabitha perches like a gargoyle in the corner of the Midtown Manhattan bar out of which she works. She's a sour, unloved creature who's openly hostile toward the people whose work she's writing about. She tells Riggan that, before ever seeing it, she decided to destroy his play with a review so bilious that it would close the show. "I hate you and everything you represent," she says to the Hollywood actor making an incursion into theater, a world to which she's appointed herself guardian. He, in turn, calls what she does cowardly: "None of it costs you anything. You risk nothing."
Tabitha's a projection of every insecurity Riggan has about how his work will be evaluated, and on that level, it feels silly to criticize her as a character. But she's also a plot device, where everyone else is treated with at least a little compassion and roundness. No real thought is given to her perspective, and there's something that particularly vexes about the declaration that she's going to slam the play, sight unseen. No critic worth his or her salt, much less the most respected stage critic, would ever say something like that; it makes a mockery of the whole profession.
Critics may not look at themselves as being at war with directors, but the opposite isn't always true, especially when someone's been on the receiving end of bad reviews. Tabitha's a summation of every charge typically thrown at critics, by creators and by irate fans. She's snobby, closed off, joyless, she thinks too highly of herself, she doesn't understand the art she's critiquing, all she produces are opinions and those opinions are insincere — and even when she comes around, she refuses to give any credit to Riggan himself. She's the cheap shot in an otherwise generous movie.
But that's not a surprise.
Tabitha's part of a nearly 65-year tradition of on-screen portrayals of critics as awful or at least hopelessly stunted people. I'm not talking throwaway shots, like Leonard Maltin getting strangled mid-pan in 1990's Gremlins 2: The New Batch (above), or Michael Lerner and Lorry Goldman playing the portly "Mayor Ebert" and his aide "Gene" in 1998's Godzilla. No, I mean characters like Harry Farber, the film critic played by Bob Balaban in M. Night Shyamalan's woeful ode to the power of storytelling, 2006's Lady in the Water. There's no asking for perspective from a movie in which Shyamalan casts himself as a brilliant writer whose work will better humanity, but Farber's a smug know-it-all who wrongly applies his movie knowledge to the real world. He essentially fails to correctly interpret the film he's in, which Shyamalan would have you believe is much richer than the tropes Farber's relying on. "What kind of person would be so arrogant as to presume the intention of another human being?" one character wonders as Farber wanders off to a grim fate, trying to convince himself he's in the kind of story he might survive.
As the film critic protagonist of 1972's Play It Again, Sam, Woody Allen is more comfortable escaping into the movies than he is in his day-to-day life, where he imagines Humphrey Bogart appearing to offer him advice. The pompous music critic in Ingmar Bergman's 1964 film All These Women is just a thwarted composer at heart, trying to blackmail the famous cellist he's supposed to be writing a biography of into playing one of his pieces. Anton Ego (Peter O'Toole), the haughty restaurant critic in the 2007 animated movie Ratatouille whose vanity is evidenced right there in his name, is another self-appointed policer of good taste. He's willing to support artistry he likes, but until that point, he is portrayed as a figure of death imagery and destruction who ruins the life of at least one famous chef with a poisonous review. Real-life film critic Glenn Kenny played a repellent reviewer of escorts in Steven Soderbergh's 2009 film The Girlfriend Experience, using the promise of publicity and a place in his "junket" as leverage to get free sex.
Then there's Addison DeWitt (George Sanders), the delightfully slithery theater critic and columnist in 1950's All About Eve who narrates the film. Manipulative, quippy, and clever ("You're maudlin and full of self-pity. You're magnificent!") and with insights into people that others missed, Addison is in some ways a predecessor to Birdman's Tabitha — another character who feels like he can play god within the closed realm he writes about. (He, however, gets to have more fun because All About Eve actually shares his jaundiced view of Broadway.) Like other on-screen critics, Addison is as pathetic a figure as he is a formidable one — "I have no other world, no other life," he says of his career. While the paired characters retreated domestic happy-ish endings, Addison, coded as gay, is left with the heartlessly ambitious title character, as well as the theater that's all he's ever had.
Filmmakers are as likely to make sympathetic critic characters as my long complaint is to be taken seriously. But it's not the consistent miserableness of these figures that really rankles — it's how little genuine love for the material is ever shown. Screen critics are always harboring hidden agendas — they're failed creatives, they're power mad, they're looking to fill their otherwise empty lives — but they're rarely shown to be actually enthusiastic about the things they take in for a living. It isn't a job you'd fight your way into if you didn't love it, and if you didn't want, but filtered through the viewpoint of writers and directors, that fact often gets lost.
My favorite fictional portrayal of a film critic is the nuanced but not terribly complimentary one in graphic novelist Daniel Clowes' short story "Justin M. Damiano," which Shia LaBeouf plagiarized in making his film HowardCantour.com. But by far the most flattering is Lt. Archie Hicox, the dapper British officer in Inglourious Basterds. He's recruited for the operation because they need a German speaker as well as someone informed about the German film industry under the Third Reich. He fits with Quentin Tarantino's whole rewriting of history using cinema, in which cinephiles unite to help battle Hitler, but he's also just a handsome, polished specimen whose wealth of knowledge becomes a useful tool in the war (and he's played by Michael goddamn Fassbender). It's a rare, wonderfully indulgent fantasy — being a critic has never looked so good, and probably never will again.