Vancouver Sun

Birdman flies in the face of the power of a critic


Hurtling to the top of everyone’s must-see lists, after receiving nearuniver­sal acclaim, Birdman — a darkly brilliant tragicomic film starring Michael Keaton as a fading Hollywood star desperate to reassert his actorly credential­s on Broadway — is about many things.

It looks at the shallownes­s of celebrity, at the supremacy of the blockbuste­r, the value of art. But another issue also leaps out: the power of the newspaper critic.

One of the most important characters in the film, despite her appearance in only a handful of scenes, is the ice-cold Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan), a theatre critic like the reallife Frank Rich, who wrote for the New York Times during the 1980s and early ’90s, with a reputation for being able to make or break a show with one nasty review. So devastatin­g could Rich’s hatchet jobs be that he was known as “The Butcher of Broadway.”

In a gripping, barroom showdown on the eve of opening night, Tabitha bluntly admits she’s already sharpening her knives: “I’m going to destroy your play,” she tells Keaton’s Riggan Thomson, whose fortunes have been made, and credibilit­y marred, by his lead role in three blockbuste­r films about a superhero known as Birdman.

To her mind, Thomson is clogging up the theatre district with a show that, for all its artsy trappings (it’s an adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story), is just a vanity project. Wounded in some primal way, as if given a violent sexual brush-off, Riggan retorts that her criticism is worthless, thereby apparently sealing his fate.

Some commenters have suggested this encounter is one of the few jarring scenes in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Oscar contender.

“Someone could have told Inarritu that critics, though often mean, are not pre-emptively so,” complained Anthony Lane in the New Yorker.

But although Tabitha may be unusual in voicing her opinions directly to the soon-to-be-injured party, those views clearly represent staunch conviction­s against celebrity-powered production­s.

There is an affinity between how Birdman’s ego-slaying queen of spleen and real critics would react to “interloper­s” such as Riggan. After all, Daniel Radcliffe, who took the lead role in Peter Shaffer’s play Equus in 2007, had a mountain to climb to convince reviewers after Harry Potter, while Star Trek’s Patrick Stewart openly fretted about his reception:

“I was very fearful of the ‘Whodoes-he-think-he-is?’ response,” he said. “‘After 17 years in Hollywood, he thinks he can swan back to the RSC and give a performanc­e equal to the work that’s been done all those years he’s been gone!’ ”

But the idea that one single review might close a show? There a huge gulf opens up. It’s true that a chorus of critical disapprova­l will drasticall­y diminish a show’s chances of surviving and thriving. An appeal to fans to ignore the naysayers couldn’t turn the tide of negativity that engulfed Viva Forever!, the Spice Girls musical, in 2012 and saw that it sank within eight months. The Lord of the Rings musical — the most expensive in the history of London stage — was another high-profile victim of a critical mauling in 2007 (“a thumping great flop,” said the Telegraph’s Charles Spencer). Sometimes, as with Les Miserables, a set of mixed reviews fails to dent public curiosity (“a witless and synthetic entertainm­ent,” said the Observer) and with hindsight looks ill-judged.

Sometimes, very rarely, as with We Will Rock You (“Prolefeed at its worst,” the Telegraph railed, in common with other papers), the show’s target audience is so large it’s critic-proof.

The advent of the Internet and social media has helped shows bypass the “legit” reviews more than ever: The marketing campaign for The Book of Mormon flaunted Twitter “vox-pops” from happy punters, and ignored oldstyle review quotes. But in London, producers still eye the press pack with a mixture of neediness and wariness. It has never been the case, however, that one voice alone could bring a show to a premature close.

In the Big Apple, it’s still held that the New York Times is the bible to which all good theatregoe­rs refer for the commandmen­t to book or not.

Frank Rich disliked his epithet “Butcher of Broadway,” which he suggested became official in 1986 — after Rowan Atkinson held him responsibl­e for the demise of a revue he had brought to New York — and David Hare weighed in too with an open letter about Rich’s savaging of The Secret Rapture.

But in his collected criticism, Rich maintains: “The power of the job was not so vast as the Butcher of Broadway gags would have it. … While I would not dispute some areas of the Times’ influence — especially its critics’ ability to encourage extended runs (or commercial transfers) of plays in offBroadwa­y or out of town venues — the power to control the fate of that most endangered species, the drama on Broadway, is close to nil.”

Does that kill off Birdman’s credibilit­y?

Not really. We want to believe otherwise, Rich argues. So we will: “Why should I even bother to argue my case?” he writes: “The myth will never die.” Thanks to this film, it has even been given a new set of wings.

 ?? ATSUSHI NISHIJIMA/FOX SEARCHLIGH­T ?? One of the most important characters in Birdman, starring Michael Keaton, is the ice-cold Tabitha Dickinson, a theatre critic played by Lindsay Duncan.
ATSUSHI NISHIJIMA/FOX SEARCHLIGH­T One of the most important characters in Birdman, starring Michael Keaton, is the ice-cold Tabitha Dickinson, a theatre critic played by Lindsay Duncan.

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