Identity Issues in Birdman and Other Movies About Artists

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Michael Keaton Birdman

Michael Keaton plays an actor with identity issues in Birdman. Copyright Image Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures, used with permission.

According to Sigmund Freud in Civilization and Its Discontents,

  1. The substitutive satisfactions, as offered by art, are illusions in contrast with reality, but they are none the less psychically effective, thanks to the role which phantasy has assumed in mental life.

Indeed one of many survival strategies for our inability to express our instincts is creating art. But what happens when these substitutive satisfactions – channeling aggressive and sexual desires through art – become more reality than illusion, and the artist gets lost in the fantasy of his or her artistic creation?

That’s exactly what happens in the new Alejandro G. Inarritu-directed film, Birdman (2014), and other similarly themed films about artists in recent years, where characters’ identities become hopelessly intertwined in the art they create.

Birdman as Alter Ego

In Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), Michael Keaton portrays Riggan Thomson, a former iconic superhero movie star whose career floundered when he refused to star in “Birdman 4.” Now funding, directing, adapting, and starring in a Broadway play, he faces professional and personal problems that threaten to shut down the show before it even opens.

Mounting costs, a nasty theater critic, visits from his guilt-inducing ex-wife, an angry daughter just out of drug rehab, and actor meltdowns are less of a problem than the hallucinations and tormenting voice in his head as the Birdman alter ego re-emerges from his psyche. Unable to cope with reality, Riggan finds comfort in an earlier fantasy that becomes his new reality. As Birdman, his character could fly, levitate, and use telekinesis to achieve his goals.

The film uses magical realism, which weaves magical elements into otherwise realistic work of art, to reveal the deteriorating mental state of the Riggan character. Magical realism, a genre popularized by Nobel-Prize-winning author Gabriel Garcia Marquez, works particularly well cinematically in movies such as Groundhog Day, Life of Pi, The Mask, and Donnie Darko because it symbolically externalizes inner struggles.

In the case of performing, visual, or literary artists in the movies, the added ability to express instincts through art and then magically slip between reality and illusion becomes the basis for fascinating films exploring identity, a sampling of which appears below.

Black Swan (2010)

Natalie Portman stars as an inhibited young ballet dancer in this Darren Aronofsky-directed thriller. Cast in the role of the white swan and black swan in “Swan Lake,” Nina struggles with her artistic director’s demands that she push herself beyond technical excellence to embrace her earthier, more sensual side. With a history of bulimia and self-mutilation, no doubt brought on by living with her emotionally abusive mother, Nina undergoes psychological deterioration as she struggles to embrace the darker role of the black swan.

Work, societal, parental, and self-induced pressures bring Nina to the brink of a psychological breakdown as she fantasizes and hallucinates, blurring the lines between reality and illusion. When a sexy rival (Mila Kunis) enters the dance company, Nina and she engage in a twisted friendship with sexual undertones. The audience is left feeling unsettled and unsure about how much of Nina’s perception is real and how much her devotion to art and/or her mental instability distorts. Having lived most of her life as a figurative white swan, Nina faces the possibility of losing herself completely in the darkness of the black swan.

Midnight in Paris (2011)

Owen Wilson stars as Gil, a struggling novelist, in this Woody Allen-directed film about a highly unusual visit to Paris. While on vacation with his fiancée (Rachel McAdams), Gil re-evaluates his life during late-night solitary walks through the city. Without any outside encouragement to explore his creativity, he feels trapped by his abrasive fiancée and unfulfilling screenwriting work, and yearns to write a historical novel if he can muster the inner strength.

During these walks, Gil transports back in time to the early 1900s where he enjoys parties, dinners, and conversations with famous authors and artists, including F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso, and Edgar Degas. Additional celebrities from that time period, including musicians and singers, join in the magical mix, and Gil finds himself preferring the creative inspiration of his fantastical evenings to his dreary daytime reality. Nearly losing himself in the history he longs to write, Gil must make important decisions about his personal life and career, if he chooses to return to the present.

Birdman Movie Photo

Michael Keaton and Edward Norton star in Birdman. Copyright Image Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures, used with permission.

Ruby Sparks (2012)

In this romantic comedy directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, a prodigy who wrote a great American novel early in his career, Calvin (Paul Dano), struggles with writer’s block while working on his next assignment. Lonely and depressed, he lives in the shadow of his former success, and longs for a woman to love him for himself with or without another literary masterpiece.

First, he writes of his ideal woman, Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan), then dreams of her, and before you know it, she (through liberal use of magical realism) appears in his home one day with pre-written memories and personality traits.

This whimsical romance fluctuates between reality and illusion, and may be just what the doctor ordered to relieve Calvin’s writer’s block. However, while his creative juices start flowing again, he risks losing himself and Ruby if he cannot separate his artistic creation from reality. There’s his reality, her reality, their reality, and his artistic creation. Like Riggan in Birdman and Gil in Midnight in Paris, Calvin must make a life-altering decision about his relationship to his art.

The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2006)

No magical realism is needed to depict the artist losing himself in his art in this extraordinary documentary by director Jeff Feuerzeig. The film tells the true story of singer-songwriter-musician-illustrator-artist, Daniel Johnston, who suffers from manic depression. The documentary explores his early years growing up in a fundamentalist Christian family through his later years as a psychotic singing storyteller obsessed with casting out the devil wherever he may appear and in whatever form.

The film reveals the artist’s many sides, from wild youth running off to join the carnival to family historian responsible for recording audiotapes of his childhood. His versatile artistic talent displays itself mostly through cartoon drawings and music, fueled by and occasionally derailed by his psychiatric problems. In this case, losing himself in his art – illustrations displayed in museums and galleries around the world and music that has a cult following including David Bowie, Matt Groening, Tom Waits, and Beck – helps Johnston find himself.

Birdman production still.

Edward Norton and Emma Stone in Birdman. Copyright Image Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures, used with permission.

Identity Issues and the Artist

Given the inability to express our instincts – due to disapproval from society, parents, lovers, or our own inner critics – one survival strategy for getting through life is the substitutive satisfaction of art, as Freud described.

“When an instinctual trend undergoes repression, its libidinous elements are turned into symptoms, and its aggressive  components into a sense of guilt,” he also wrote in Civilization and Its Discontents.

This temporary re-focusing of reality or escaping from reality can provide much-needed relief from daily pressures. Whether frustrated instincts are abated through actively creating art or passively enjoying its qualities, art has the ability to channel our less-socially acceptable desires.

Balancing our everyday literal reality with the exotic figurative reality of art is one way to treat our neurotic symptoms and relieve guilt. Though not everyone is capable of producing art on the level of those depicted in these films, nor enjoying it on the same level, most of us can use art as a release for repressed instincts.

Threatened with suffering from illness, old age, accidents, rage from the external world, and our disappointing relations with other people, the various illusions of art can provide a satisfying addition to life – as long as our ego’s escape into art is temporary.



  1. Os says

    Well, you forgot to mention a tiny little and insignificant detail about Gabriel Gacia-Marquez: He also won the 1982 Nobel price of literature (talking about ego and other demos).

  2. Vicky Nicks says

    Editorial Note: We’ve corrected the missing information regarding Gabriel Gacia-Marquez, and extend our thanks to the Decoded Arts community for pointing out the error!

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