Why Birdman’s Tabitha tells us more about actors than critics

THERE has been a lot of good stuff written about the fictional Tabitha Dickinson in the Alejandro Iñárittu movie Birdman. Played by an icy Lindsay Duncan, she is the New York Times critic who threatens to derail a fictional Broadway show. In a city where one newspaper counts above all others, everything depends on her opinion. This adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love stands to live or die on her say-so.

Theatre critics are naturally curious to see how their kind are regarded by others and have been paying close attention to Birdman. When the film was released in the USA, the Chicago Tribune’s Chris Jones argued that Tabitha was merely the latest in a long line of fictional critics who exist to serve two narrative purposes. One, he said, is “to render a verdict so the plot actually can end” and the other is:

to serve as a convenient antagonist. And that means that if the artist is to be a lovable if flawed soul, then the critic has to embody such qualities as imperviousness, dismissiveness, cruelty, defensiveness, callousness, conservatism, ignorance, and, in the case of Tabitha in “Birdman,” being as she has apparently decided on a lousy review in advance, evil incarnate.

Today, Matt Trueman has weighed in, pointing out in his inaugural column for What’s On Stage that the arguments made against Tabitha by the fictional lead actors, played by Michael Keaton and Edward Norton, don’t hold water. Just because a critic has less at stake than an actor, he argues, doesn’t mean there is no risk in writing a review:

Good criticism always costs the critic something – or at least, it should. It involves risk: not as much as making theatre, sure, but risk nonetheless.

This is all on the nail and, while we’re righting wrongs, I’d like to think Jones and Trueman will join with me in taking issue with Gustave Flaubert. He’s a big name, to be sure, but the French novelist, whom Norton’s character quotes in the film, surely got it wrong when he said “a man is a critic when he cannot be an artist, in the same way that a man becomes an informer when he cannot be a soldier.” 

This is one of those statements people are prone to making about critics that sounds persuasive until you think it through. What Flaubert says is possible, of course. Someone could become an informer having failed to be a soldier. But there’s no reason this should be true in all cases. Is every informer a failed soldier? Some might be, but why all of them? Maybe they had no interest in the military life and just wanted to give secrets to the other side. Maybe informing is what they always wanted to do. Is that so hard to imagine?

Likewise, there are many critics who have no interest in being artists. The thing they most wanted to be was a critic. Others still are happy to do both. Many switch between the roles of artist and critic throughout their lives. It’s not a competition – they’re just different jobs.

Michael Keaton in Birdman

This kind of idea about criticism persists, as do some peculiar notions about critics themselves. Tabitha is no exception. Some things about her are believable. It’s perfectly possible, for example, to imagine a theatre critic distrusting a movie star who tried to stage a Broadway show. You could also accept she felt personally responsible for protecting the art of the theatre. What is not credible is that this critic would carry such a degree of hatred of Michael Keaton’s Riggan Thomson that she would decide to pan his show even before she saw it. And even if that were the case, there is absolutely no way she would admit to it in public. To do so would be career suicide.

But we needn’t dwell on this. It’s an excellent film but it’s not without its unlikely moments. Like the press conference that takes place in a dressing room and the preview performance that’s treated like a rehearsal, Tabitha’s excessive animosity is a detail we accept because it serves the forward momentum of the plot.

Besides, it seems to me that Lindsay Duncan’s character is not in the movie to comment on critics. She’s there to reflect on the actors. Before we meet her, they tell us she is an “old bat” who looks “like she licked a homeless guy’s arse”. These opinions tell you more about the defensiveness of an insecure theatre profession (the major theme of the film) than they do about the critic. Tabitha is just a catalyst for what happens to them.

In their encounters with her, both of the actors come out looking ridiculous. It is true she remains glacial and aloof, but given she is accosted in a bar by two rather needy and aggressive men, she is actually pretty restrained. 

They, on the hand, are desperate for her approval. What they fear is not her, but her rejection. 

The film doesn’t take her side, but neither does it suggest she does badly by the skirmish. It’s not interested in that. What she’s there for is to show up the actors. Thus, when she finally chooses to write a rave review – “The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance” – it is to amplify the movie’s Chekhovian sense of pathos. Birdman doesn’t need Tabitha to be a complex or credible character; what it needs is for Riggan, like someone out of Uncle Vanya, to be unable to enjoy the moment of critical glory she gives him. As far as the film is concerned, she has done her job, even if it isn’t any kind of job I recognise.