Birdman: or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance explores the lives of a messy cast of characters who are all struggling to put on an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk about Love. But they’re also struggling to live genuinely, a task that, for each of them, presents unique challenges. I want to focus, specifically, on Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), an esteemed stage actor who has the exceptional ability to memorize lines without effort and to embody his characters in a way that immediately elevates the quality of every scene he’s in. However, this incredible ability to be genuine does not extend to his off-stage life. This is immediately interesting, because the stage is where one would be expected to be less genuine and true to themselves since, of course, they are literally not being themselves. One way this lack of off-stage genuineness is characterized is through his recurring erectile dysfunction. Even his sex life is only “real” when he’s onstage.
Also worth examining is his relationship to Riggan Thompson’s daughter, Sam (Emma Stone). They have two noteworthy scenes that occur on the roof of the theatre, which is significant, because almost all of the action of the movie occurs within the theatre’s walls. Therefore, that they were outside of this setting--which potentially represents acting and inauthenticity--is significant. During the first of these scenes, Sam, clearly interested in Mike, suggests a game of truth or dare, trying to get him to suggest, through daring her, or answering one of her truths, that he wants her. Mike doesn’t comply and rejects her advances. His walls are up, and he’s being defensive, either uninterested, or unwilling to express any kind of attraction.
However, things are decidedly different during their second rooftop encounter. Between these two rooftop scenes, Mike has been worn down by Lesley (Naomi Watts) and Sam. Lesley, hurt and angered by the fact that Mike wanted to have sex on stage, rejected him, making it clear that he can’t do whatever he wants without consequence. And, of course, his previous encounter with Sam made an impact because of the way she so doggedly encouraged him to seize his freedom. Mike wants both to be more responsible towards Sam after having hurt Lesley in the way that he did, but also feels drawn to engage in freedom off-stage. He’s realized the consequences of fully exercising his freedom, and is learning how to balance that freedom with a newfound sense of responsibility. Through these encounters, he is able to better understand himself as de Beauvoir’s genuine person--that is, someone who realizes the necessary balance between freedom and responsibility. Because of this, this time on the rooftop, Mike becomes vulnerable with Sam, expressing to her that she’s important to him. It’s not perfect and eloquent, it’s messy and a little campy, but that’s what makes it genuine. He tells her: “You’re hanging around here trying to make yourself invisible behind that fragile little f*ck up routine. But you can’t. You’re anything but invisible. You’re big. And you’re sort of this really great mess, a candle burning at both ends.” These probably aren’t the words a girl fantasizes about hearing, but it’s a true representation of his feelings for her. His offstage clever asshole persona has disappeared. There’s an implied sex scene between the two, and it’s suggested that Mike doesn’t experience his usually troubles with these kinds of scenarios, which is representative of his having found the ability to act genuinely off-stage. In the words of de Beauvoir, “[J]ust as the physicist finds it profitable to reflect on the conditions of scientific invention and the artist on those of artistic creation without expecting any ready-made solutions to come from these reflections, it is useful for the man of action to find out under what conditions his undertakings are valid. We are going to see that on this basis new perspectives are disclosed” (145). Mike is in the process of discovering how to translate the kind of artistic knowledge that he has mastered into his actual life, and understand himself in true relationship to others.